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When a child is unsafe

Assessing immediate harm either at the investigation and assessment phase or when ongoing intervention is occurring will not always result in an immediate safety plan. 

There will be times when an immediate safety plan will not sufficiently mitigate or reduce the risk to the child. When the outcome of the SDM safety assessment is ‘unsafe’, it means the child cannot remain in the home. See the SDM Policy and procedures manual for placement intervention options. 

Key messages to tell parents

The decision made today does not mean their child will never come back home. Let them know you will be there to support them in getting the services and supports they need; however, it will be up to them to make the step towards treatment and recovery.

It is important that children hear the right messages about the parent’s alcohol and other drugs use. Talk to parents about how they would like their child to be told and explain to parents what their child will be told. Let parents know when they can see their child next. Speak with them about ways they can stay connected. Talk with them about family options and who may be able to care for the child or help in other ways.

Parents will probably need you to repeat information many times and in different ways. Have patience. Never assume parents have understood everything you have said or that is going on. Your explanations can help them take the steps they need in order to change.

Parents may need someone with them for support to help understand what has happened and needs to happen. You should revisit this conversation with parents regularly, because how they see and feel things is likely to be up and down. Parents will also need your help on how to talk with their child and answer their questions about alcohol and other drugs use.

Explaining the outcome

Finding the words to tell a parent that their child is unsafe is one of the most difficult parts of your role and it never gets easier. There is no easy way to tell a parent the words they do not want to hear. This is one conversation you need to practice.

Being able to emotionally support a parent while being the one who is causing their distress is difficult. Being able to explain to parents the outcome of your safety assessment relies on you having already explained the purpose of your safety assessment, why you are there and the decision that needed to be made.

Explaining this well up-front can help you later. Let them know that this is not the end, and you are going to work with them to have their child returned to them.

Be respectful and show empathy for parents. Here are some conversation examples:

  • Acknowledge any difference in perspective but find a common goal about child safety.
    I know you have said that your alcohol and other drugs use is not a problem for you or [child’s name], and I get that there are lots of things that could get in the way of us seeing things the same way. But the most important thing right now is that [child’s name] is safe and looked after while we sort through what needs to happen. I know you love [child’s name] and want what’s best for them too.
  • Name the specific way alcohol and other drugs use is making the child unsafe:
    • Right now I can see you have used something and it means that you can’t look after [child’s name] and we can't have the conversations we need to make sure they are safe.
    • Right now I'm worried you are using every day, you’re not able to plan when you use and there is no one to care for [child’s name] when you use and they cannot care for themselves.
    • Right now I'm worried that you are leaving [child’s name] with other people that use drugs and they are not being supervised by safe people.
    • Right now I'm worried about [child’s name] when other people are in your home using drugs. [Child’s name] has said they don’t like it and don't like [name of visitor] coming into their room. I know you said it's nothing to worry, about but I am worried about it.
  • Highlight the seriousness of the worries, but maintain hope:
    Right now our worries about your alcohol and other drugs use mean that [child’s name] is not safe right now. I know that is not what you want to hear. This doesn't mean we don't want to work with you or we don't think they can be safe again and come back home soon. What it means is that they can’t stay with you right now but we are going to work with you to help make it safe enough for them to come home.

How parents might respond

If a child is separated from their parent, a parent might:

  • increase their alcohol and other drugs use to cope—This does not mean they cannot change. Talk with parents about what supports and services they can get to cope in positive ways
  • feel even more ashamed, judged and stigmatised—These feelings are real and can stop parents from talking with you or getting the help they need. Acknowledge their feelings and do not judge them.
    Talk about the concrete things you are worried about. Instil hope by letting them know that you believe change is possible and that you are there to help them make this change
  • ask for alcohol and other drugs testing to prove it is not a problem—A parent may want to prove to you they are not using and ask for alcohol and other drugs testing or ask their doctor to do urine screens. Let them know that talking to their local drug and alcohol counselling services might be a better next step
  • ask what they need to do to get their child back—They may say they are willing to stop right now and do whatever you need them to do. It is important that parents understand that it is not just their alcohol and other drugsuse that needs to be addressed; it is understanding the reasons why they use, other complicating factors and the best ways to address these (alongside their alcohol and other drugs use).

Strengths-based questions for parents

When working with parents, use strengths-based questions to understand their problematic substance use, the safety of their children, and their capacity for change.

The following table provides examples of questions that may allow you and the parent to identify and build on strengths.

Topic Conversation ideas

Exception questions

You said earlier that you don't drink every day. Tell me more about the days when you don't drink.

Coping questions

How do you manage each day and not let yourself start using drugs completely?

Expanding questions

You were able not to drink alcohol yesterday so you could attend your child's sports day.

  • How did you do that?
  • What did you do that was different?
  • How did that make a difference?
  • How do you think that was different for your child?
  • How important to you is it that you do these things for your child?

Scaling questions

  • On a scale from 0 to 10, where 0 means that there is no hope of you keeping your child safe from the risks of your drinking and 10 means that you are sure you can put plans in place to keep the child safe, where are you now?
  • What needs to happen for you to move up the scale and feel more confident that you can keep the child safe from the risks of your drinking?

Ambivalence questions

Ambivalence (having mixed feelings) is normal and it is the key to change ('I want to, but …' 

  • Tell me about using (drug). For example, tell me about using amphetamines. What do you like about it?
    What else? (Keep asking to fully understand their appreciation of the drug.)
  • And what's not so good about using (drug)?
    What else? (Keep asking to fully understand the problems with the drug.)
  • What are the difficulties or hassles with using (drug)?
  • What are your concerns about this? (Raise concerns about the child to trigger discussion and thought about the child.)
  • Why does this concern you?
  • What do you think will happen if you don't change anything?
  • What would be the good things about changing your use of (drug)?
  • What changes would you need to make to keep your child safe?
  • How might things be better for you?
  • How might things be better for your child?

Future hope questions

These questions are very relevant to our work with parents. They help parents to consider their drug use and how it affects their child now and in the future.

  • What are you hoping for, in your future?
  • How would you like your life to be, five years from now?
  • What do you want for your child?
  • How do you picture your child's life in the future? (Raise the point and discuss with the parent that research shows children whose parents abuse drugs are more likely to abuse drugs themselves. Drug abuse problems can affect families from generation to generation.)

Unpack with the parent their childhood and experiences growing up:

  • Did your parents, carers, family, sibling(s) abuse drugs and alcohol?
  • How do you recall your childhood?
  • How did you feel when your parents used drugs?
  • Did you picture things differently for your child?
  • What do you want different for your child?

What hopes do they have for their child?

  • If you could change things about your child's life now, what would you change?
  • How does (drug) impact on your hopes and wishes for your child?
  • How do you want your relationship with your partner to be?
  • How would you like things to be different from how they are now?

Ideal self-questions

  • How would you (or your friends or family) describe the best things about you?
  • How would your child describe the best things about you? (If the child is too young to talk—how would they like their child to describe them?)
  • And how would you describe yourself at the moment?
  • How would you describe yourself as a parent? Is this different to how you hoped to parent?


  • What obstacles do you foresee, and how might you deal with them?
  • If that obstacle were removed, then how might you go about making this change?
  • What encourages you that you can change if you want to?
  • When else in your life have you made a significant change? How did you do it?
  • What personal strengths do you have that will help you succeed?
  • Who could offer you helpful support in making this change?
  • What do you think would work for you, if you decided to change?


  • What are you thinking about your use of (drug) at this point?
  • What are you thinking at this point about your child's risk of harm because of your drug use?
  • Never mind 'how' for now—what do you want to have happen?
  • How important is this for you? How much do you want this?


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