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Using Structured Decision Making to support reunification

The SDM system helps to expedite permanency by making sure that from day 1 of a child coming into care, everyone is working towards reunification as soon as possible. SDM tools are also designed to identify when reunification is unlikely, so concurrent case planning can progress and timely decisions about alternative permanency arrangements can be made. Along with effective engagement strategies, knowledge from research and professional judgement, the SDM tools support a holistic approach to all aspects of the child protection system (NCCD, 2018). Importantly, the values and principles of the Framework for Practice and the five elements of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Protection Principle are also embedded into the decision making tools. Share the tools with parents in a way that helps to create a common understanding of the identified child protection concerns and what influences decisions around reunification.

Intuitive and analytic thinking

SDM tools help to apply both intuitive and analytical thinking. Intuitive thinking often happens quickly and child protection practitioners rely heavily on this in a fast-paced environment. Analytic thinking requires a more deliberate approach to complex decisions and problem solving (NCCD, 2018). This is necessary, but sometimes takes time that practitioners may not feel they have. Both ways of thinking are essential to make considered decisions about reunification. In the sequence of key decision making points when assessing the safety of a child, the graphic below illustrates how both dimensions of thinking can be used – intuitive thinking at the top, analytic thinking below - and where the decision about reunification sits:

Family Reunification Assessment

The Family Reunification Assessment (FRA) tool is used to guide practitioners when making decisions about whether to return a child to their parent and to assist in reaching a permanency recommendation. The logic of this assessment tool focuses on three main factors: 

In assessing risk, the initial risk level is recorded which provides a baseline when considering if any progress has been made by the family to reduce the risk to the children over the next 12 to 24 months.  The FRA prompts practitioners to:

  • assess a family’s progress with the case plan – a clear and detailed case plan supports this
  • consider whether the parent’s behaviour indicates they have taken action and made progress towards achieving case plan goals which reduces the level of risk
  • think about if the likelihood of repeat maltreatment is high, moderate or low
  • identify if any new child protection concerns have been recorded as a notification and the investigation and assessment resulted in a substantiated outcome.

When thinking about contact or family connection time, take into account not only whether it has occurred, but what the quality of this time is. Is the parent focused on the child and do they respond appropriately to the child’s physical and emotional needs? Check the definitions matrix around contact (page 130 of the SDM Manual) and use the outcome to inform decisions around progress towards reunification. If a parent still requires Child Safety to be present to support the safety and wellbeing of the child, the contact can only be assessed as fair, which is not where it needs to be for reunification.

To determine if a household is safe or conditionally safe, consider if any immediate harm indicators exist. Reunification is unsafe if these indicators are present and not addressed. Also think about if the child’s carers and the family’s network can show enough acts of protection to respond to the potential for the immediate harm. If so, the household might be assessed as conditionally safe.

Work through the tool at least every six months when a case plan review is being completed and use this to inform your decision making about progress toward reunification or the need to cease working toward reunification and progress long-term care and guardianship arrangements.

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