Last Updated: November 2023

The SDM family risk assessment classifies families into low, moderate, high, or very high risk categories according to the likelihood of future child protective services involvement for alleged child abuse or neglect. By completing the risk assessment, the worker obtains an objective appraisal of the likelihood that a family will come to the attention of child protection for allegations of maltreatment to a child in the next 12 to 24 months. The difference between risk levels is substantial. Families classified as high risk have significantly higher rates of subsequent referral and substantiation than families classified as low risk, and they are more often involved in abuse or neglect incidents that require more intensive agency involvement (e.g., child removal).

When risk is clearly defined and objectively quantified, the choice between serving one family or another is simplified: agency resources may be targeted to families at higher risk families because of the greater potential to reduce subsequent CPS involvement and, ideally, maltreatment.

The current risk assessment is based on research on investigations with substantiated or inconclusive alligations of abuse or neglect, which examined the relationships between family characteristics and the outcomes of subsequent substantiated child protective services referrals, investigations, substantiations, and placements. The tool does not predict recurrence but simply assesses whether a family shares characteristics with other familes who are more or less likely to have subsequent child protective services involvement.

Which Cases

Required for all substantiated and inconclusive referrals; also recommended to be completed on unfounded referrals.

No SDM risk assessment should be completed for the following in person responses:

  • An incident involving only a third-party perpetrator of sexual exploitation with no allegations regarding the caregiver;
  • An investigation of child fatality suspected to be a result of abuse or neglect AND there are no remaining minor children in the household; or
  • A referral regarding allegations in an out-of-home care setting.
  • New assigned referrals on open cases.

The social worker who is responding to the referral.


After the safety assessment has been completed and the worker has reached a conclusion regarding the allegation AND prior to the decision to promote to a case or close without continuing services. This is no later than 30 days from the first face-to-face contact.

For children in out-of-home care with a “return home” goal, if a second parent living in a separate household will receive child welfare services, complete a baseline risk assessment within 30 days of identifying that parent. (Note: This risk assessment is completed within a case in webSDM.)


The SDM risk level identifies the likelihood of a household's future child protective services involvement for alleged child abuse or neglect. When considered alongside the SDM Safety Assessment, it can guide the decision of which families may most benefit from post-investigation services. SDM policy also recommends minimum contact frequency standards for open cases based on risk (see Section VI of this manual).

Recommended Decision
Safety Decision
Final Risk LevelSafeSafe with PlanUnsafe
High/Very HighRefer to services or openOpenOpen
Planned Action
Close without intervention

Safe families that have low or moderate risk levels should not be considered for formal Child Welfare intervention. Families in this group may benefit from increased connection to natural support networks and community prevention services (e.g., heat, food pantry, TANFF, SNAP).

Refer to services as primary intervention

Intervention for families in this group may include referral to any of the following:

  • Universal prevention services
  • Referral to a specialist agency or community agency as needed, based on specific family needs. Specialized services may include substance use services, in-home parenting supports, mental health supports, domestic violence services, or other targeted community-based services such as medical care or kinship navigation.
  • Differential Response programs, such as path 2 services provided by community agencies working in partnership CWS to provide an alternative response.
Open for child welfare services case
Intervention for families in this group involves opening a child welfare services case, including:
  • Family Maintenance services supporting in-home child welfare interventions including both voluntary and court ordered.
  • Out of home intervention. NOTE: Select this intervention only for households with unresolved safety threats.
Appropriate Completion
The risk assessment is completed based on conditions that exist at the time the incident is reported and investigated as well as the prior history of the family.
  • Only one household can be assessed on the risk assessment form.
  • Always assess the household in which the child abuse/neglect incident is alleged. If a child is a member of two households and there are allegations on both households, complete a risk assessment on both households.
  • Complete a second risk assessment for non-custodial parents who will receive reunification services.
Scoring Individual Items

Workers should familiarize themselves with the items that are included on the risk assessment and the accompanying definitions for those items. A score for each assessment item is derived from the worker's observation of the characteristics the item describes during interviews with household members (child, caregivers, and others) and collaterals; worker observations; reports and case records; or other reliable sources. Some characteristics are objective (such as prior child abuse/neglect history or the age of the child). Others require the worker to use discretionary judgment based on his/her assessment of the family, through use of the definitions.

After all risk items are scored, the score is totaled and indicates the corresponding risk levels for both subsequent neglect and subsequent abuse. Next, the scored risk level is determined; it is the higher between the abuse and the neglect risk levels).

After completing the risk assessment, the worker considers whether reasons to override the scored risk level are present. There are two types of overrides.

Policy Overrides
Policy overrides reflect incident seriousness and/or child vulnerability concerns and have been determined by the agency to warrant a risk level designation of “very high,” regardless of the risk level indicated by the assessment tool. Policy overrides require supervisory approval. Consider each of the four policy override reasons and mark yes or no as appropriate for each policy override.

Discretionary Override
A discretionary override is used by the worker to increase the risk level in any case in which the worker believes that the scored risk level determined by the risk assessment is too low. This may occur when the worker is aware of conditions affecting risk that are not captured within the items on the risk assessment. When used, a discretionary override increases the scored risk level by one level (e.g., from low to moderate OR moderate to high, but NOT from low to high). Discretionary overrides require a written description of the reasons to increase the risk level and supervisory approval.

After completing the override section, indicate the final risk level, which is the highest of the scored risk level, policy override risk level (which is always very high), and the discretionary risk level.

WebSDM will display the recommended response based on the risk-based case open/close guide and the most recent safety decision. High-risk and very high-risk referrals are recommended to be opened for ongoing services, while low-risk and moderate-risk referrals are recommended for closure unless there is a current safety decision of “safe with plan” or “unsafe.” Enter the actual case disposition (promoted to case or not promoted to case). If the recommended response differs from the actual disposition, provide an explanation. Examples of explanation include the following:
  • Promoting a low-risk or moderate-risk family to a case:
    • Unresolved safety threats. Based on the SDM safety assessment, one or more safety threats could not be resolved.
  • Not promoting a high-risk or very high-risk family to a case:
    • Family declined voluntary family maintenance AND no petition. Family was informed of their high or very high risk level and was encouraged to accept voluntary family maintenance services. The family declined AND no petition will be filed. Mark this item even if family does accept any non-CPS services.
    • Family is receiving or has been connected with community services that will address priority needs and/or contributing factors. The family is already engaged in services OR the worker will assist the family in making connections to community services (worker must be certain that an appointment was made and verify follow-through). These services are directly related to the priority needs identified using the family strengths and needs assessment or other means to identify factors that contribute to risk.
Supplemental Risk Items
These are items that are answered for each investigation in which a risk assessment is completed. The purpose of the supplemental risk items is to gather information on in areas that are thought to have a relationship to subsequent harm. The supplemental risk items are used in validation of the risk assessment, which occurs every five to seven years. Use the definitions to answer the items and gather the information for the answers in the same way as the risk assessment items.