Signs of Safety

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The Signs of Safety is an innovative, strengths-based, safety-organised approach to child protection casework that was created in Western Australia by Andrew Turnell and Steve Edwards. The Signs of Safety model is an approach created and refined by practitioners, based on what they know works well with difficult cases. The approach has attracted considerable international attention and is being used in jurisdictions in North America, Europe and Australasia. It continues to evolve based on its application in agencies across the globe.

The Signs of Safety Approach to Child Protection Casework

Steve Edwards and Andrew Turnell
Steve Edwards and Andrew Turnell

The Signs of Safety approach to child protection casework was developed throughout the 1990s in Western Australia. The approach was created by Andrew Turnell and Steve Edwards in collaboration with over 150 West Australian child protection workers (CPWs).

The approach focuses on the question “How can the worker actually build partnerships with parents and children in situations of suspected or substantiated child abuse and still deal rigorously with the maltreatment issues?” This strengths-based and safety-organised approach to child protection work is grounded in partnership and collaboration. It expands the investigation of risk to encompass strengths and Signs of Safety that can be built upon to stabilise and strengthen the child’s and family’s situation.

A format for undertaking comprehensive risk assessment – assessing for both danger and strengths/safety – is incorporated within the one-page Signs of Safety assessment protocol. (This form is the only formal protocol used in the approach.) The approach is designed to be used from commencement through to case closure and to assist professionals at all stages of the child protection process, whether they be in statutory, hospital, residential or treatment settings.

The impetus to create the Signs of Safety approach arose from Steve’s experience of 16 years as a frontline child protection practitioner, eight of those working primarily with Aboriginal communities. Steve was dissatisfied with most of the models and theory regarding child protection practice that he encountered. Despite 16 years of frontline practice, Steve felt that most of the policy, guidance and books he read – and most of what he learnt at university and in training situations (the theory) – was distant from his experience of actual child protection work (undertaking investigations, deciding when and how to remove children, dealing with angry parents etc.). Because of this, throughout his child protection career, Steve always sought out new ideas that might better describe his experience of practice.

In 1989 Steve and Andrew began collaborating after Steve became interested in the brief therapy work Andrew was doing with families experiencing problems with their teenagers. Each week over the next three years, Steve would observe the brief therapy work from behind a one-way mirror and then began to apply brief therapy ideas and techniques into his practice as a child protection worker. The result of this collaboration between 1989 and 1993 was the beginning of the Signs of Safety approach.

In 1993, Steve and Andrew began working with other child protection practitioners and training them in what they had learned from the previous three years of collaboration. Between 1994 and 2000, Steve and Andrew undertook eight six-month projects with over 150 West Australians, from which the Signs of Safety approach to child protection practice evolved and was refined.

During the first month of each project, Andrew and Steve would train the CPWs (usually groups of about 15 to 20 workers) for five days in the Signs of Safety approach, as they understood it at the time. This training was always grounded in practice and would always involve other workers, who had used the approach, describing their experiences to the trainees. Following this, Steve and Andrew spent at least one day a month with the workers, focusing on where the workers had been using the approach and what had been useful for them, as well as exploring situations where they were stuck. By focusing on where workers were using the approach and making progress, Andrew and Steve learned directly from the CPWs about where, when and how the practitioners were actually able to use the Signs of Safety approach.

Steve had always said that only the ideas, skills and guidance that the workers actually used would be included as part of the Signs of Safety model. This collaborative learning process used in all follow-up sessions formed the action research/appreciative inquiry method that created and evolved the Signs of Safety approach. (For more information about action research and appreciative inquiry, see Cooperrider and Srivastva, 1987; Watkins, J.M. and Mohr, 2001.)

The Signs of Safety approach should not be regarded as a fixed product like, say, a box of cornflakes. Rather, it continues to evolve. The same collaborative inquiry process that generated the approach in Australia is being used in ongoing Signs of Safety projects around the world. (e.g., Olmsted and Carver Counties in Minnesota, USA; Gateshead, England; Nagoya, Japan; Drenthe, The Netherlands; Stockholm and Trollhatten, Sweden; and Western Australia.) Thus the model continues to develop based on what practitioners using the approach actually do.

This action research/appreciative inquiry method closes the usual practice gap in child protection theory and is a very different way of theorising child protection practice. By drawing upon practitioners’ experience and wisdom of what works, a second three-column Signs of Safety assessment framework evolved (covering “What are we worried about?”, “What’s working well?” and “What needs to happen?”). This parallels the Three Houses and Wizard/Fairy tools that were developed for working with children in New Zealand and Western Australia respectively.

The Olmsted County, Minnesota, implementation has focused on using conferencing with all high-risk cases and thereby brought the Signs of Safety framework into collaborative conferencing processes. The Gateshead, England, and Carver County, Minnesota, implementations have refined and deepened ideas for using the Signs of Safety at the initial investigation. These are some of the ways the Signs of Safety approach has continued to evolve.

Susie Essex
Susie Essex

Andrew’s and Steve’s development of the Signs of Safety approach during the 1990s was heavily influenced by the Resolutions approach (to working with ‘denied’ child abuse) of Bristol’s Susie Essex, John Gumbleton and Colin Luger. The Resolutions model provided the Signs of Safety approach with inspiration and rigour in detailed safety planning and ideas for involving and informing children by using Essex’s ‘Words and Pictures’ process.

In August 2005, 2008, 2010 and 2011, practitioners who use the Signs of Safety model in their child protection work gathered from Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand and Japan to present their experiences. International professional gatherings and conferences rarely directly focus on, or involve, front-line practitioners. Therefore, this energising and unique experience built direct connections and a sense of community among practitioners and organisations utilising the approach.

This direct sharing of practice experiences contributed to the evolution of the approach. Similarly, this has been the case in Western Australia where the State’s statutory child protection authority, the Department for Child Protection, along with Resolutions Consultancy, hosted a Signs of Safety Gathering in 2011 and a second in November 2012.

Child protection workers know that usually they are told by various experts how they should do their work. They also know that they usually receive attention only when their work is seen to be flawed or that they got it wrong. (Child death inquiries epitomise this activity.) The first instinct of almost anyone talking about child protection services, whether talking in parliament or in a pub, is to relate their version of a horror story and describe poor, mistake-ridden and oppressive practice by child protection workers and their organisations. The regular retelling of these sorts of stories at all levels of our communities constantly problematises statutory child protection practice, escalating the defensiveness of frontline workers and thereby contributing to a professional context where vulnerable children are made less, rather than more, safe.

By contrast, Signs of Safety was developed by Steve and Andrew approaching CPWs from a spirit of appreciative inquiry, asking them to describe self-defined and successful use of the Signs of Safety in difficult cases or situations. They believe that worker-defined good practice with ‘difficult’ cases (whether using the Signs of Safety approach or not) is an invaluable and almost entirely overlooked resource for improving child protection services. The local knowledge of worker-defined good practice is a potent strategy for creating organisational change that is guided by the service-deliverer — something particularly radical in times of rampant managerialism. One of the things Steve and Andrew feel proudest of in writing about the Signs of Safety approach is that written descriptions are full of many examples of CPWs doing good work with difficult cases (see Turnell and Edwards, 1997 and 1999). Andrew has taken the good practice, collaborative inquiry process further in recent years and now makes a habit of writing up case examples jointly with the practitioner and then, wherever possible, taking the written story to the parents and children to make the descriptions richer and deepen their authenticity. (This process and various documented case examples are described more fully in Teoh et.al., 2003; Turnell, 2004; and two further papers which are in press, one written by Andrew alone, the other with Sharon Elliot and Viv Hogg from Gateshead, England, as listed below.)

The heart of the Signs of Safety process is a risk assessment and case planning format that is meaningful for professionals as well as the parents and children. One of the greatest problems to bedevil child protection practice is that assessment and planning processes privilege the professional voice and erase the perspectives of children, parents and other family members. The Signs of Safety risk assessment process integrates professional knowledge with local family and cultural knowledge, and balances a rigorous exploration of danger/harm alongside indicators of strengths and safety. The Signs of Safety offers a simple yet rigorous assessment format that the practitioner can use to elicit, in common language, the professional’s and family members’ views regarding concerns or dangers, existing strengths, safety and envisioned safety. The Signs of Safety framework integrates risk assessment with case planning and risk management by incorporating a future focus within the assessment. This format deepens and balances the usual problem saturation of most risk assessment. Subsequently, the Signs of Safety framework has been utilised as a template to integrate a strengths and safety focus within two Australian statutory risk assessment frameworks (Department of Community Development, 1999; Department of Human Services, 2001). The Department for Child Protection (DCP) in Western Australia adopted Signs of Safety as its child protection practice framework in mid-2008 with a five-year implementation plan.

UK Gathering Leicester, UK
Practitioners at the 10th International Signs of Safety Gathering held in Leicester, UK in 2014.

This is a potted introduction to the Signs of Safety, but it provides a flavour of the approach and how it was created. As already mentioned, the Signs of Safety approach continues to evolve. The model began because of the questions Steve and Andrew asked each other, namely, “Is there a better way of describing how to do child protection casework?” and “How could the ideas and thinking of brief therapy apply to child protection case work?” We have learned that there are no final answers to these questions. There is no single prescribed right way to apply the approach. Each time a child protection worker uses the Signs of Safety model in the field and then describes his/her endeavours, the approach continues to evolve.

Signs of Safety Briefing Paper cover image

For a more complete explanation of the approach we would encourage you to refer to the Signs of Safety Comprehensive Briefing Paper, now in its 4th edition, which is available to purchase from signsofsafety.net.