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April 2020Vol. 21, No. 3Start With What's Going Right: Supporting Families With Protective Factors

Written by the Capacity Building Center for States

When a state agency team began reworking its child safety assessment, it found that two pages of questions were dedicated to risk factors, while only two questions focused on protective factors. The team realized this was a problem—they were asking families about everything that was going wrong and almost nothing about what they were doing well, potentially skewing caseworkers' perceptions of the families they were working to support. To address the issue, the team worked on revising and reframing the assessment questions to focus more on protective factors.

Protective factors—such as strong social connections and parental resilience—are conditions of individuals, families, communities, and the larger society that reduce or eliminate risk and promote healthy development and well-being of children and families (Capacity Building Center for States, 2016; Development Services Group, Inc. & Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2015). When considering effective ways to keep families and children safe, enhancing protective factors plays as important a role as reducing risk factors. Not only can protective factors help ensure that children, youth, and families thrive, they may also act as safeguards against abuse by equipping parents with the tools they need to parent effectively under stress (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children's Bureau, Child Welfare Information Gateway, & FRIENDS National Center for Community-Based Child Abuse Prevention, 2019).

At the first meeting with the family, it may seem like a good idea to start with a discussion of the risk factors—conditions the family may be experiencing that are linked with child maltreatment. However, leading with the risk factors may leave caseworkers with a negative impression of the family. These negative impressions may also be recorded in the case notes and can follow the family throughout the life of a case, making the family feel pigeonholed.

Initiating a discussion of protective factors when beginning to work with a family can help to do the following:

  • Reduce the initial defensiveness family members might feel when interacting with the caseworker or other child welfare agency staff
  • Develop positive relationships and trust between family members and the caseworker
  • Identify a positive foundation on which the family and caseworker can build going forward

Managers and supervisors can help caseworkers by setting the expectation that discussions will start with protective factors and then reinforcing that expectation in follow-up discussions and coaching sessions. Agency leaders can also encourage staff to focus on protective factors first. This can begin shifting child welfare culture toward a strengths-based approach to working with families that provides a strong platform for child welfare agencies to establish collaborative relationships with community providers who support children and families.

When a caseworker opens the meeting with a discussion of protective factors, the conversation can help identify where a family is already strong, build trust for further cooperation, and lay the groundwork for collaborative case planning. For example, after talking with the family about their use of kin networks and community resources to provide enriching activities for their children, a caseworker might shift the conversation to how these and other resources can help families spend more quality time with their children or offer a parenting class to help them more productively interact with their teenagers.

Engaging families using protective factors can help child welfare agency staff positively interact with families and youth and better understand their needs. This, in turn, can help agencies provide services that may positively impact family safety, permanency, and well-being.


Capacity Building Center for States. (2016). Protective capacities and protective factors: Common ground for protecting children and strengthening families. (232 KB).

Development Services Group, Inc. & Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2015). Promoting protective factors for victims of child abuse and neglect: A guide for practitioners. (235 KB).

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children' Bureau, Child Welfare Information Gateway, & FRIENDS National Center for Community-Based Child Abuse Prevention. (2019). 2019/2020 Prevention resource guide. (2,719 KB).