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February 2021Vol. 22, No. 2Using Data to Strengthen Protective Capacities

Written by the Capacity Building Center for States

Child welfare agencies can use data exploration—coupled with family engagement—to better understand protective capacities among families they serve and identify areas where more supports are needed.

Protective capacities are characteristics of a parent or other caregiver that help ensure the safety of his or her child (Capacity Building Center for States, 2016a). Caregiver protective capacities can be divided into three categories (Action for Child Protection, 2000; Capacity Building Center for States, 2016a):

  • Cognitive: Knowledge and understanding of a child's needs and recognition of threats
  • Emotional: Feelings, attitudes, and attachments that protect against danger
  • Behavioral: Actions that keep the child safe from harm

Assessment of protective capacities at the case level informs child protection safety plans, placement decisions, and case plan services. At the system level, analysis of protective capacities may provide insight into the ways parents keep their children safe and the areas where additional services are needed.

The approach outlined below can help agency teams—including child welfare agency leaders, program managers, management information system (MIS) and data staff, and family representatives—explore protective capacities at the system level as a foundation for planning.

Define Terms and Identify Measures

A critical early step in examining protective capacities at a systems level is to develop a common understanding across all program, MIS, and data staff about how information on protective capacities is assessed and captured. For example, does the agency use a specific assessment tool, scale, parent survey, or other instrument to identify and capture information about protective capacities? Is this information captured in data fields that can be pulled into reports or does it appear in assessments that may be examined in a case review?

If protective capacities are not currently assessed or captured in a consistent way, teams will need to clearly define terms and identify how they can be measured. This work may draw language from safety or family assessments. Program, data, and research staff can work together to identify indicators that suggest the presence of the desired characteristics and how they are documented. For instance, this could mean specifying what will show that parents have appropriate expectations for their children (a cognitive capacity) or can demonstrate impulse control (a behavioral capacity).

Identify Research Questions

With the foundational pieces in place, teams can turn to identifying research questions. To better understand protective capacities among populations served, agencies may ask questions like the following:

  • Which protective capacities are most common among families in contact with our child welfare system? Which are least common?
  • Are there differences in protective capacities among different population subgroups (e.g., by race/ethnicity, by age, by location)?
  • What services are in place to build protective capacities?
  • When families receive services to strengthen protective capacities, does maltreatment recurrence decline?
  • What barriers exist to strengthening protective capacities?

Collect and Analyze Data

To answer their questions, agencies may explore both quantitative (numerical) and qualitative (narrative) data sources. These can include MIS data capturing safety, risk, and family assessments; case plan and case plan reviews; and services data. In addition, surveys, focus groups, or interviews may help provide a more comprehensive picture.

Disaggregating data—or breaking it down—is an approach that allows teams to dig deeper into whether different groups have different experiences. For example, a state may disaggregate data to explore which groups of children experience repeat maltreatment at the highest rates. Additional case review or interview data may offer insights into the reasons why and help target resources to build protective capacities where they may have the biggest impact.

Gather Stakeholder Perspectives

Gathering stakeholder perspectives is a critical part of collecting and interpreting child protection data and information (World Vision International, 2011). Family members can help shape research questions, refine survey questions in culturally sensitive ways, and share views on the findings and the nuanced reasons behind them. In addition, child welfare staff and community service providers can help identify data sources, participate in surveys or interviews, and discuss data findings.

Make Connections to Prevention-Oriented Efforts

Agencies can align their efforts to promote protective capacities at the individual level with prevention-oriented initiatives that build protective factors at the individual, family, and community levels (Capacity Building Center for States, 2016b). For example, a parent support program can increase caregiver protective capacities and strengthen community protective factors. By gaining a deeper understanding of the data and then reinforcing prevention-protection connections across the prevention continuum, agencies can work together with families and communities to promote family well-being and ensure child safety.


Action for Child Protection. (2000). Safety assessment and family evaluation: A safety intervention model by Action for Child Protection.

Capacity Building Center for States. (2016a). "Protective capacities and protective factors: Common ground for protecting children and strengthening families." [Infographic] 

Capacity Building Center for States. (2016b). "Protective capacities and protective factors: Common ground for protecting children and strengthening families." [Webinar] 

World Vision International. (2011). Analysis, design, and planning tool (ADAPT) for child protection