Signs Of Safety: An Innovative Approach To Child Protection
Updated: Mar 2
Signs of safety is a strengths-based, collaborative strategy for dealing with issues within families. It has its origins in Western Australia in the 1990s with the work of Steve Edwards and Andrew Turnell, and draws upon solution-focused brief therapy. This article will discuss the main characteristics of this approach to family work, and the results that have been achieved so far.
The Signs of Safety approach has been adopted in different forms throughout the world in family social care. In England, as part of the Department for Education’s Innovation Programme it has been adopted as part of a general system-wide approach which may include early help services. The name varies according to its focus, and has been called Signs of Stability for fostering care for example, and Signs of Safety and Well-being for a whole-system approach.
The fundamental principles behind Signs of Safety lie in collaborating with the families involved, as they are deemed as being the experts on their own lives. The focus is also on the family’s own support network and local circumstances which are taken into account to build a realistic plan to keep the child safe.
This approach begins with a basic risk assessment tool based around four questions: “What are we worried about”, “What's working well?” “What needs to happen?” and “What has happened to make us worried?” There is also a ‘danger statement’ which is “What will be the impact on the child if nothing changes?”
The practitioner and family will consider strengths in the family which offer safety over time and the safety goals. They will be asked to consider “What will the child’s life be like when the worries have been removed?” and “On a scale of 0 to 10, where would you rate the situation right now? Where 0 = There is nothing keeping this child safe.” These help to begin a conversation on how all the parties involved see the situation, acting as a springboard for further discussion.
Another example of a tool used is ‘three houses’, where the practitioner or child will draw three houses. One is the ‘House of Good Things’ reflecting what they like about their current life. The second is the House of Worries, and the third House of Dreams reflects what they would like to happen. This has been reported as a turning point for many families when it is presented, as many understand for the first time how the situation is being seen by the child.
Throughout the discussions, simple language should be used, and the emphasis should always be on the family’s strengths which should be fully explored. While it is obvious that the social worker is an authority figure, the approach recommends a creative, rigorous and skillful use of this authority, avoiding an oppressive tone.
With each family, the practitioner will agree on a ‘danger statement’ which describes what would happen to the child if no changes take place. Conversely, the ‘safety goal’ describes what the child’s life would be like when significant changes are made. The family is asked to identify their own network of family and friends who are prepared to work with professionals to develop the safety plan, with a focus on behavioural changes within the family.
Throughout this process, the worker maintains the spotlight on valuing relationships, with a curiosity and respect for the perspectives of others. They should remain humble, reflecting the fact that they do not have the answers for everything, and that finding solutions is a collaborative process. Additional demands are placed on practitioners due to the need to engage the wider social network.
There is also a key focus on what is working well (hence the strength approach) even if this may be minimal. When possible the family, with their social networks, are seeking their own solutions to the identified difficulties. They are involved in testing the effectiveness of any strategies.
This approach requires careful preparation, and draws upon a wide range of professional skills. A key element is in building trust, paving the way for open and honest conversations. Although the process is spearheaded by a professional, a wide range of perspectives will be brought to light, including those of family members. The emerging plans will be focused on what the family will be doing in their day-to-day life, and less on what social services or other professionals will be doing.
There have been a few studies on this approach in the United States though so far there is a lack of evidence on positive outcomes for families. However, research is in its early days. A series of studies by Baginsky et al in England failed to find any defined improved outcomes. However, this study only lasted for 18 months, which is a short period to expect any significant change. These pilot projects were also experiencing difficulties with high levels of referrals, budget constraints, difficulties with the recruitment and retention of social workers and organisational change in the 10 pilot local authorities. Many families also had a long and complicated involvement with social services, bringing into question whether significant change could be observed in such a short period of time.
However, these studies did conclude that the technique has a positive influence on the behaviour of practitioners, and the potential to improve assessments is recognised. Evidence was found for a strengthening partnership between families and social workers. While it was recognised that Signs of Safety is not a ‘magic bullet’, it has the potential to help transform services for children and young people.
Koziolek, D (2007)”Implementing Signs of Safety in Carver County” and Idzelis Rothe, M; Nelson-Dusek, S and Skrypek, M (2013) “Innovations in Child Protection Services in Minnesota”  Baginsky, M; Moriarty, J; Manthorpe, J; Beecham, J and Hickman, B (2017) “Evaluation of Signs of Safety in 10 pilots”