DSS Launches Family Assessment Response Program to Handle Child Maltreatment and Neglect

MEXICO – Thanks to a new method of handling reports of child maltreatment and neglect, families are taking a more active role in solving problems in the home environment, and caseworkers at the Oswego County Department of Social Services have more options to help strengthen families.

The Family Assessment Response, or FAR program, provides an alternative to traditional investigations of child protective reports.

“Family Assessment Response focuses on the child’s safety, but relies on the family members working with the caseworker to identify the family’s strengths and needs,” said Gregg Heffner, commissioner of the County Department of Social Services. “Family members commit to taking an active role in identifying and receiving community-based services. FAR is based on the belief that parents love their children and want them to be safe. Sometimes parents need help to make that happen.”

The County Department of Social Services received approval to develop a Family Assessment Response program late last year.

The first unit began accepting cases in March and a second team was launched in June.

Federal, state and local laws require that child protective services take action on each report of abuse, neglect or maltreatment that the agency receives. Historically, the investigation would focus on fact-finding and identification of the victim and a perpetrator.

“When Oswego County child protective workers are notified about concerns regarding a child’s safety, we first do an initial safety assessment,” said Rachael Pelow, family assessment response supervisor. “The criteria for referral to the FAR unit are based on state law. Certain reports, such as sexual misconduct, assault against a child or abandonment of a child, are not eligible for a FAR assessment.”

“When a case is referred to FAR, we immediately schedule an appointment with the family. In partnership with the families, we focus on the safety of children and family strengths to address concerns,” Pelow continued. “We do not focus on the details of a specific incident to prove or disprove that maltreatment or neglect occurred. We also discuss the family’s needs and offer to help the families meet their needs. We connect families with resources in their communities or through their informal support systems. The staff shares a strong commitment to the principles and practices of FAR.”

Research from other states has shown that children are found to be safer, that family engagement is improved, and that services to families and children increased using the Family Assessment Response approach.

Families and caseworkers alike are noticing a difference in Oswego County.

“The number one takeaway from the family meetings is that the parents didn’t realize the impact their actions had on their child,” said a child protective worker in the FAR unit. “The process is focused on the safety of the child and engaging the family in lasting change. Families don’t feel they have to hide something from caseworkers because there is no investigation. It surprised me how much better this works.”

The Oswego County Child Protection Advisory Council has been a strong advocate of Family Assessment Response as an alternative to child protection investigations. FAR staff recently updated the Child Protection Advisory Council on the progress of the program.

“The Child Protection Advisory Council wholeheartedly supports the department’s efforts to implement FAR,” said council chair Karrie Damm, director of the Oswego County Child Advocacy Center. “The Family Assessment Response model is invaluable in engaging and partnering with families, to help them achieve stability and increase safety for children in our community. Research has shown that families enrolled in the FAR program saw fewer incident reports and placements of children, and that family engagement was improved. Child protection staff members have embraced the practice, and I commend them for the extensive training and effort that they are putting into the program to make it succeed.”

For more information about Family Assessment Response, contact Oswego County Children and Family Services weekdays at 315-963-5388.