Nearly half of all children referred to Michigan's Family Independence Agency (FIA) before 1996 remained in temporary care for more than fifteen months. Many more were referred back to the agency as second-time victims of abuse or neglect. Such undesirable outcomes seemed inevitable in the difficult world of child protection—until Michigan's Structured Decision Making system helped place more children in safe, permanent homes.
Child welfare cases are usually handled by social workers, who use their experience and clinical training to decide which children go where and what services should be provided to at-risk families. Michigan's FIA sought to make this decision-making process more concrete while still using the expertise of its social workers.
The Structured Decision Making (SDM) case assessment model provided an ideal solution. It identifies several decision points important to any case, and provides concrete criteria to guide workers as they make each specific decision. Previous practice relied on a worker's clinical judgment alone to address all decision points with a single assessment process.
Other states had created procedures based on the consensus of experienced social workers. Michigan FIA sought to do more than codify existing practices. SDM procedures are based on innovative research, empirically valid for all racial and ethnic groups, that accurately estimates the likelihood of future abuse or neglect and the level and type of intervention than can best prevent it. Social workers can take these standards and apply their professional judgment in a more informed way.
SDM includes procedures to delegate resources at all levels of child protection. Guidelines help social workers establish how quickly they should respond to a report, how to determine whether a child is in immediate risk, and how severe risk might be over the long term. If risk exists, SDM contains guidelines for getting services to both children and their families. Finally, it provides criteria for determining whether the child should be returned to the home.
With the help of SDM, workers were able to significantly improve child safety in the state of Michigan. In the 1994 pilot year for the program, counties that used SDM provided support services to 60 percent more families than other counties. The number of children who suffered abuse or neglect a second time fell by half, and 50 percent fewer children were left in homes that later proved to be unsafe. Further, the concrete procedures in SDM allowed executives to ensure that policies were being properly enforced and that case decisions were consistent and equitable. Social workers were also able to use the data produced by SDM to make more accurate presentations in court, improving child services in all stages of the process.
The empirically based SDM is easy to replicate, and is already in use in ten states.