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July/August 2011Vol. 12, No. 6Using Comprehensive Family Assessments to Improve Child Welfare Outcomes

A comprehensive family assessment (CFA) can improve child welfare outcomes by identifying and addressing the needs and strengths of all family members over time, rather than focusing only on the incident that brought the family to the attention of the child welfare agency. In 2007, the Children's Bureau sought to further research on the use of CFAs by awarding grants to five jurisdictions that would use the Children's Bureau's CFA Guidelines for Child Welfare to develop, implement, and institutionalize their own assessment protocols and interagency processes.

Comprehensive Family Assessment

  • Recognizes patterns of parental behavior over time
  • Examines the family strengths and protective factors to identify resources that can support the family's ability to meet its needs and better protect the children
  • Addresses the overall needs of the child and family that affect the safety, permanency, and well-being of the child
  • Considers contributing factors such as domestic violence, substance abuse, mental health, chronic health problems, and poverty
  • Incorporates information gathered through other assessments and focuses on the development of a service plan or plan for intervention with the family that addresses the major factors that affect safety, permanency, and child well-being over time


Since 2007, the grantees have developed, implemented, and evaluated protocols and processes that assess multiple domains for families, children, and youth in a strengths-based and culturally responsive manner. Effective working partnerships with families and between child welfare agencies and community partners have played key roles to guide grantees' decision-making and case service planning. The resulting broad set of practices includes enhanced assessment tools, motivational interviewing, clinical screeners, coaching and mentoring, meaningful family/father engagement, early and better identification of services, high quality documentation, data collection, and process measurement. Dissemination efforts at the local, State, and national levels provide information directly to service agencies, stakeholders, and researchers through conference and workshop presentations.

Brief descriptions of the five grantees follow.

  • The Alabama Department of Human Resources (ADHR) is working in three pilot counties, implementing a comprehensive assessment process that includes four components:
    • Intake assessment
    • Family functioning–safety assessment (FFA)
    • Protective capacity family assessment–individual service plan
    • Protective capacity progress assessment
  • The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services is using its Integrated Assessment Program (IAP), adapting the CFA Guidelines for use with intact family services cases. The IL model uses a dual-professional family engagement approach. A specially trained Integrated Assessment (IA) screener conducts structured interviews to establish a baseline level of child and family functioning. The permanency worker, who accompanies the IA on the structured interview, is able to apply these clinical findings and recommendations in day-to-day casework practice. 
  • The Ramsey County (MN) project is based on the belief that safety, permanency, stability, and well-being are achieved through effective child welfare services that act constructively and respectfully on behalf of families. Caseworkers are learning how family functioning factors contribute to children being unsafe or at risk and how to design a case plan that is most likely to change behaviors. Cultural consultants are engaged to guide and assist in this process. Two specific evidence-based practices are critical to the implementation of this project: strengths-focused practice and critical thinking and analysis.
  • Alamance County (NC) Department of Social Services (ACDSS) is partnering with The Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University to develop, implement, and evaluate an evidence-based model for conducting comprehensive family assessments, based on the CFA Guidelines. This project has developed CFA family engagement and caseworker visit policies, protocols, and procedures that are being implemented with a pilot team and a randomly selected intervention team. ACDSS staff are being trained and coached in motivational interviewing to develop partnerships and engage with families in the assessment and case planning process.
  • Contra Costa County (CA) is implementing a Comprehensive Assessments for Positive Family Outcomes for all families in the east, west, and central Regions of the county. Using enhanced assessment tools and CFA principles, the agency is developing and implementing practices that include motivational interviewing, parent partners, team decision-making, individual strengths-based family-centered case plans, and father engagement.

Later issues of Children's Bureau Express will carry articles about visits to these sites, and their final reports will be archived in the Children's Bureau Discretionary Grants Library at

For additional information about these projects, please contact the Federal Project Officer, Cathy Overbagh, at