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When I was at the Dublin Gathering watching incredible presentations highlighting the power of the Signs of Safety approach, I was simultaneously realizing that we don’t yet have high quality quantitative data to prove that Signs of Safety makes a measurable difference over time in outcomes for children and families. I can only think it’s because no agency anywhere is yet doing what we’ve learned to do well, with every family, every day. What does an agency need to do to make this happen?

3-Column Mapping:

What are we worried about? 

 What do we have going for us?

What do we need to do?


There’s always something to learn by watching a person lead a mapping with a social worker or family. Yet, we learn best by practicing, so even actively following mappings and the questions that are asked may not be the best use of our time. What if we disciplined ourselves to put a three-or-four-minute case overview into writing, and when possible, organize it into the 3 columns, and bring it along to every case consult or mapping we do? Then we can show everyone what we wrote, share our feelings about it, and when it’s helpful, have someone lead questions to sharpen it up. 

To be clear, I do still think there is incredible value in a well led group mapping when the purpose is to draw out the expertise of the group, team, or family network collectively. 

Analysis of our Maps:

We can grow our analytic skills in group supervision by each drafting harm and danger statements and sharing them with the professional working with the family. However, I think I write better statements when I’m alone at my desk and not feeling pressured. What if we asked one person to draft harm and danger statements, safety goals, safety scales and a trajectory each time someone brought a 3-column map? The person who brought the map could then edit and use their colleagues’ ideas. We’d still learn from each other. As long as we put the map in front of the family, ask for the strengths and worries we missed, and use the family’s expertise to sharpen up the harm and danger statements, safety goals, safety scales and trajectory, we’re pretty much guaranteed to have a map that’s good enough to get the job done. 

Would it be possible, by consistently bringing forward the information we’ve gathered and organized, and having one person draft an analysis, for everyone on the team to get a clear new map for one of their families in about the amount of time it would have taken for the same team to work together on a single map? If so, wouldn’t most agencies be able to have a good enough map in play with every family within a matter of a few months?

Words and Pictures Stories:

We usually start thinking of these stories as a thing we do for the children. Then we recognize the value for the children’s safety network. I think the greatest value though, is for the worker. When workers can quickly draft titled stories based on the map, describing a time when things were going well, the worries, who’s worried, and who’s doing what to keep the children safe, using words that are respectful to the parents and understandable to the children, they get crystal clear about the work they need to do with the family. Susie Essex taught us to be extremely firm and hugely kind and didn’t think to tell us that writing these stories is what most helps us get to the place we need to be to work this way. 

Safety Networks:

I think the biggest factor in getting a network is believing children deserve them. We know from more than 30 years of research on resilience that children do best when they have at least one stable and caring adult to count on. Children only get involved with the child welfare system when someone is questioning if parents are keeping a child safe enough or meeting his or her needs well enough. When we’re not sure about parents, don’t we owe it to the children to make sure they have other adults they can count on? Even when parents are scared to death at first to tell others about what’s been happening in their family, their doing so often turns out to be as helpful and healing for them as for the children. 

Building the network can be part of everything we do. We can ask reporters who else shares their worries, who they see being protective or helpful, and who’s eyes they see lighting up when they see the children. If we call parents to set up a meeting, we can invite them to have people they trust at the meeting supporting them. When we first meet families, we can ask who they want to invite to be part of their children’s safety network. If we think children are in imminent danger, we can ask parents if they’re willing to call people they know to help them create immediate safety, or if it would be easier on them if their children go to foster care. We can use the family safety circle or family finding matrix or other family finding tools. We can clearly define the need for the network in the safety goal and trajectory. When we get started on the safety plan we can ask if there’s enough people to make the plan work. If there are challenges with the plan or network, we can ask again. If all else fails, we can ask parents if it would be better for them if we used our statutory authority or got a court order to do a relative search.  

Safety Goals with Trajectories:

I’ve struggled with getting a vision for creating and using a trajectory effectively since the day Andrew pointed out Susie’s trajectory on page 24 and 25 of their Working With ‘Denied Child Abuse’book. Then I saw how Andrew was increasingly putting more of the trajectory into the safety goal. The thinking around what we need to see to safely close the case, and which Signs of Safety tools are needed in our work with this family, fit well together. I can delete the steps that aren’t needed from the basic template below and even add in other things required by the agency and court to describe a clear path from where things are now to case closing. 

The agency will be ready to close the case when:

  1. all involved professionals are prepared for us to do this work this way, and
  2. parents have supported the worker in doing My Three Houses with the children, and
  3. parents have reviewed the map and given the worker honest feedback about what they like and don’t like, and the worker has improved the map as a result, and 
  4. parents and worker have written the Words and Pictures story together and the worker has read it to the children with the network present, and
  5. the parents and network have come up with a beginning safety plan, and
  6. The plan has been practiced, and the parents and network have used a family safety journal or found another way to show the worker the rules of the plan are being followed and the plan is working, and/or a parent or network member has brought the network back together to improve and sharpen the safety plan, and
  7. The safety network is successfully holding the parents accountable so that good things are happening consistently (the basic safety goal) that are the inverse of the harm and danger statement, and 
  8. The parents and network have added the rules of the safety plan to the Words and Pictures story to tell the children who is doing what to keep them safe and meet their needs, and the updated story has been read to the children with the network present, and 
  9. The agency can see by everyone’s numbers on the safety scale(s) below and all the strengths and existing safety that’s been added to the map that the case can be safely closed. 

I like how completed steps can be deleted as the map is updated so what still needs to be done is always clear, and especially how safety goals written this way help to show the value of the safety scale. 

Safety Scales:

If we map, asking what else is good until every last good thing is written down, then create a scale that summarizes the biggest worries as 0 and best hopes as 10, get everyone’s number on the scale, and then ask what makes everyone’s number as high as it is, we’ll get a whole new set of good things. These good things will relate more directly to the worries in the map. We can build a lot of safety around danger simply by doing more of what’s already working. 

Family specific safety scales, where are our harm and danger statements are 0 and our corresponding basic safety goals are 10, are like the nuclear fusion of Signs of Safety, and when we go looking for how often and how well we use them, we might think we’re worried they’re radioactive. What would happen if we had them in play within a day or two of starting work with every family, if we used our safety scales every time we met with the family and the network, and if we added all the strengths and existing safety this process uncovers to the map?

Wilson County North Carolina’s team structure:

The following statement is copied word for word from North Carolina’s policy manual:

Agencies in North Carolina are requiredto hold a Child and Family Team (CFT) meeting no later than 30 days after an assessment case decision requires involuntary services. These meetings bring family members and their community supports together to create a plan for the child that builds on the family’s strengths, desires, and dreams, and addresses the needs identified during the CPS assessment. Subsequent team meetings must be held at the following points during the life of the case: 

  • Quarterly while the case remains open for CPS In-Home Services (or as often as needed to update the service agreement).
  • At critical decision points in the case (e.g., removal of a child from the home or a change in placement).
  • Any time a significant change in the In-Home Services Agreement is needed to ensure the safety of the child.
  • Prior to any petition or court action.
  • To address the unique characteristics, and possible resolutions, for “stuck cases.”
  • At case closure (when requested by the family or a service provider).

Wilson County has used this structure to anchor the agency’s Signs of Safety practice and to support their social workers with harm and danger statements, safety goals, safety networks, safety plans, and safety plan improvements. It has enabled them to maintain a fantastic record of keeping children safe while significantly reducing the number of children in foster care. 

Transparency and Feedback:

If we want to do our best work every day with every family, we need a way to measure what works. To start, we need a way to keep track of all of the Maps, My Three Houses, Words and Pictures stories, Safety Plans, and other Signs of Safety tools we create. If everyone in the agency has access to the completed tools, social workers can easily find good examples of existing work to help them with their current work. If something comes up with a family, anyone can find the latest map and other Signs of Safety tools and seamlessly pick up on the last person’s best work. Supervisors can identify really good work, show it to the whole team, and build social worker energy and skill through appreciative inquiry interviews. If a social worker’s completed Signs of Safety tools aren’t to be found, the supervisor can inquire and offer help as needed. 

Signs of Safety is now embedded in Servelec’s Corelogic Mosaic case management solution and Liquidlogic’s Children's Social Care System in England. These are complete information systems set up to actually help social workers do Signs of Safety. They both would seem to make it quite difficult for social workers to avoid doing Signs of Safety and for agencies to quit doing Signs of Safety. Both of these companies also have versions for agencies that aren’t yet doing Signs of Safety and thus are poised to eventually provide quantitative data about differences in outcomes. 

For agencies that don’t have a complete Signs of Safety information system, I’m working on a simple web based system to simplify collecting and analyzing user feedback from parents, youth, children, network members, allied professionals, social workers, and supervisors where all of the different perspectives are connected through the system without storing any information about any family, other than what gets typed into text boxes by users. This system will only allow access through links and QR codes to enable seamless survey completion on smartphones and tablets. It includes Signs of Safety’s collaborative case audit tools that social workers and agency management can use together to study the quality of the work they’ve done with a given family, offers Signs of Safety dashboards for each family, and is designed to be a resource for agencies who need a place to store and access their Signs of Safety tools.

Continuous Learning:

If it works, it’s in the Signs of Safety. If it doesn’t, it’s in the trash. Over time this has come to be about far more than just the Signs of Safety framework. It includes the training tools that have worked the best over time, and countless other tools for planning, implementing, and evaluating implementations. These tools and resources are all available in Signs of Safety’s Knowledge Bankalong with the newest innovations, Gathering presentations, training curriculums, and case examples. A few are freely available to everyone. The rest are available to subscribing agencies. The cost for an annual subscription is $14 AUD, $11 USD, for each of the agency’s child protection staff including leadership, management, policy, training, supervisory and field staff. It’s hard for me to imagine trying to lead an implementation without this resource, provided the agency also sets up a structured process to make sure it regularly identifies and uses Knowledge Bank resources to help the agency grow its skills and capacities.

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