The Signs of Safety is an innovative strengths-based, safety-organised approach to child protection casework. The model of its approach was created in Western Australia by Andrew Turnell and Steve Edwards, who worked with over 150 front-line statutory practitioners and based it on what those practitioners know works well with difficult cases. The Signs of Safety approach has attracted international attention and is being used in jurisdictions in North America, Europe and Australasia.
The Signs of Safety Approach to Child Protection Casework
The Signs of Safety approach to child protection casework was developed through the 1990s in Western Australia. It was created by Andrew Turnell and Steve Edwards, in collaboration with over 150 West Australian child protection workers (CPWs), and is now utilised in jurisdictions in the USA, Canada, the UK, Sweden, The Netherlands, New Zealand and Japan. The approach focuses on the question “How can the worker 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-focused 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 a child’s and family’s situation. A format for undertaking comprehensive risk assessment — assessing 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 model). The approach is designed to be used from commencement through to case closure in order 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 16 years of experience as a front-line child protection practitioner, eight of those working primarily with Aboriginal communities. Steve was very dissatisfied with most of the models and theory regarding child protection practice that he encountered. Despite 16 years of front-line practice, Steve felt that most of the policy, guidance and books he read – and most of what he learned at university and in training situations (the theory) – was very 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 3 years, Steve observed 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, training them in what they had learned from the previous three years of collaboration. Between 1994 and 2000, Steve and Andrew undertook eight 6-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 always involved 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 those 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 in 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, Holland; Stockholm and Trollhatten, Sweden.) 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 3-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.
Andrew’s and Steve’s development of the Signs of Safety approach during the 1990s was influenced strongly 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, and again in August 2008, practitioners using the Signs of Safety model in their child protection work gathered from Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand and Japan and presented their experiences. International professional gatherings and conferences rarely focus directly 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.
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 front-line 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 filled with 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 in the references).
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 format 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 assessments. 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).
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.
Full Signs of Safety Reference List
The following is a complete current list of all the written publications about, or directly related to, or drawing extensively upon, the Signs of Safety approach:
Chapman, M., and Field, J. (2007). Strengthening our engagement with families and increasing practice depth. Social Work Now, 38, December: 21–28.
Christianson, B. and Maloney, S. (2006) One family’s journey: a case study utilising complementary conferencing processes, Protecting Children, 21: 31–37
Gardeström, A. (2006). Signs of Safety på svenska: goda exempel i utredningsarbete. In M. Söderquist. & A. Suskin-Holmqvist, A. (Eds.), Delaktighet – Lösningsfokuserat förhållningssätt i utredningsarbete. Stockholm: Mareld.
Healy, K. (2005). Social work theories in context; creating frameworks for practice, London: Palgrave.
Hogg, V. and Wheeler, J. (2004) Miracles R them: solution-focused practice in a social services duty team. Practice, 16(4): 299–314.
Inoue, N., Inoue, K., Fujisawa, Y., Hishida, O., Hirai, T., Naruse, H,. & Yamada, M. (2006a) The 5 spaces model helps professionals cooperate with families and collaborate with other professionals in the child protection field. Journal of Nihon Fukushi University Clinical Psychological Research Center, 1, 43–49.
Inoue, N., Inoue, K. & Shionoya, M. (2006b) Training effects of case management skills working with child abuse and neglect: utilizing Signs of Safety approach. Japanese Journal of Child Abuse and Neglect, 8(2), 268–279.
Inoue, N., and Inoue, K. (2008). Family-based child protection practice: a guide to the signs of safety approach. Tokyo: Akashi Shoten.
Jack, R. (2005). Strengths-based practice in statutory care and protection work. In Mary Nash, Robyn Munford and Kieran O’Donoghue (eds.) Social work theories in action. London: Jessica Kingsley.
Lohrbach, S., & Sawyer, R. (2003). Family Group Decision Making: a process reflecting partnership-based practice, Protecting Children, 19(2): 12–15.
Lohrbach, S., & Sawyer, R. (2004). Creating a constructive practice: family and professional partnership in high-risk child protection case conferences, Protecting Children, 19(2): 26–35.
Lohrbach, S., Sawyer, R., Saugen, J., Astolfi, C., Worden, P. & Xaaji, M. (2005). Ways of working in child welfare practice: a perspective on practice, Protecting Children, 20(1): 26–35.
Koziolek, D. (2007). Implementing Signs of Safety in Carver County, Child Welfare News, Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare, University of Minnesota, Fall 2007: 1–8.
Myers S. (2005). A Signs of Safety approach to assessing children with sexually concerning or harmful behaviour. Child Abuse Review 14: 97–112.
Parton, N., & O’Byrne, P. (2000). Constructive social work: towards a new practice. London: MacMillan
Shennan, G. (2007). ‘Doing it in child protection’ Solution News 2(3): 15–19.
Turnell, A. and Edwards, S. (1997). Aspiring to partnership: the Signs of Safety approach to child protection. Child Abuse Review, 6: 179–190.
Turnell, A. and Edwards, S. (1999). Signs of Safety: A safety and solution oriented approach to child protection casework, New York: WW Norton.
Turnell A. and Essex S. (2006). Working ‘denied’ child abuse: the resolutions approach. Buckingham: Open University Press.
Turnell, A., Elliott, S. and Hogg, V. (2007). Compassionate, safe and rigorous child protection practice with parents of adopted children. Child Abuse Review, 16(2): 108–119.
Turnell A., Lohrbach, S. and Curran, S. (2008). Working with the ‘involuntary client’ in child protection: lessons from successful practice, pp. 104–115. In M. Calder (Ed.) The carrot or the stick? Towards effective practice with involuntary clients, London: Russell House Publishing.
Turnell, A. (2004). Relationship-grounded, safety-organised child protection practice: dreamtime or real-time option for child welfare? Protecting Children, 19(2): 14–25.
Turnell, A. (2005). Introduction to the Signs of Safety (DVD), Resolutions Consultancy, Perth. Available at: https://www.signsofsafety.net/store/
Turnell, A. (2006). Constructive Child Protection Practice: An oxymoron or news of difference? Journal of Systemic Therapies, 25(2): 3–12.
Turnell, A. (2006). Tecken på säkerhet – Signs of Safety på svenska. In M. Söderquist. & A. Suskin-Holmqvist, A. (Eds.), Delaktighet – Lösningsfokuserat förhållningssätt i utredningsarbete. Stockholm: Mareld.
Turnell, A. (2007). Enacting the interpretive turn: narrative means toward transformational practice in child protection social work, PhD Thesis, Perth: Curtin University.
Turnell A. (2007). Solution-focused brief therapy: thinking and practicing beyond the therapy room. In F. Thomas and T. Nelson (Eds.), Clinical Applications of Solution-focused Brief Therapy, Bimmington: Haworth Press USA.
Turnell, A. (2007). Words and pictures: informing and involving children in child abuse cases (DVD), Resolutions Consultancy, Perth. Available at: https://www.signsofsafety.net/store/
Weld, N. (2008). The three houses tool: building safety and positive change. In M. Calder (Ed.) Contemporary risk assessment in safeguarding children, Lyme Regis: Russell House Publishing
West Berkshire Council (2008) How was the ‘Strengthening Families’ framework developed? (Original link no longer available. Contact www.westberks.gov.uk/
Westbrock, S. (2006). Utilizing the Signs of Safety framework to create effective relationships with child protection service recipients. MSW Clinical Research, University of St Thomas, St Paul Minnesota.
Wheeler, J., Hogg, V. and Fegan, G. (2006). Signs of wellbeing: a tool for early intervention. Context, 86: 5–8.
Wheeler, J. and Hogg, V. (2011), Signs of safety and the child protection movement, in Cynthia Franklin, Terry S. Trepper Eric E. McCollum Wallace J. Gingerich, (eds.), Solution-focused brief therapy: a handbook of evidence-based practice, New York: Oxford University Press USA.