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Building safety around children and young people

Updated: 24 February 2017

What's Important To Us

When working with children and young people it is vital that we build safety around them in ways that will endure beyond our involvement with the family/whānau. Building safety is an ongoing process which needs to be continuously reviewed as a child or young person’s circumstances change. Factors including age, gender and history play a significant role when building safety around children and young people; what will provide safety for a teenager who is living away from home will look vastly different for a two year old who is in the care of their parents.

This key information outlines when and how to build safety around children and young people; their families and whānau. It provides clarity around the principles and key elements of the building safety approach and where to find more information.

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What is safety and when do I think about it?

A safe child or young person:

  • is free from physical, sexual and emotional harm
  • has an enduring relationship with a safe adult who cares for them and protects them
  • has their basic physical needs met e.g. a safe, warm home, healthy good, good hygiene
  • has opportunities to express their needs, wishes and feelings, including how safe and happy they feel.

Safety is also about giving children and young people opportunities to have their emotional and physical developmental needs met by a range of capable adults.

Building safety is at the forefront of all our work with children and young people, their family and whānau, from intake to case closure. Our focus must always be on the nature of the care being provided to the child or young person as well as their own behaviour especialy where emotional distress, self-harm, suicide and/or drug and alcohol use is a concern.

The Signs of Safety approach

The Signs of Safety approach to child protection casework was developed in the 1990s in Western Australia by Andrew Turnell and Steve Edwards, and is now utilised in child protection work all over the world including New Zealand. The approach looks at how workers can build partnerships with parents and children and young people in situations of suspected or substantiated abuse while dealing with the abuse in question. The Signs of Safety approach encompasses a set of six safety organised practice elements:

  • Understanding the unique position of each family/whānau member
  • Finding exceptions to the abuse (e.g. when the abuse could have happened but didn’t)
  • Discovering family/whānau strengths and resources and using these to form a foundation upon which safety can be built
  • Reaching a common understanding about what needs to happen in order to build safety around the mokopuna
  • Utilising scaling to embrace the possibility of change
  • Assessing the willingness, confidence and capacity of the family/whānau to complete the work that needs to happen (Turnell & Edwards, 1999).

How do I build safety?

Child protection work is probably the most demanding and highly scrutinised areas of work within the helping professions due to its intense focus on society’s most vulnerable mokopuna (Turnell, 2010). Social workers are constantly finding themselves in the position of having to decide whether or not it is safe enough for a child or young person to stay with their parents or usual caregivers or whether there is enough safety for them to return home.

Robust assessment

In order to build safety you need to have a clear understanding of the current situation for the child or young person and their family/whānau. This involves gathering relevant and useful information about what has happened and about the broader context within which the mokopuna sits (de Haan & Manion, 2011), as well as understanding the capacity of the family/whānau to build safety.

Use the Tuituia assessment framework (PDF 338 KB) to guide your thinking and undertake Tuituia assessment of the needs, strengths and needs that exist.

Remember that situations children and their families/whānau can and do change quickly – our assessment of a situation for a particular child or young person may look different from one day to the next depending on the information we have at hand.

Analyse the information you have gathered using the child and family consult. The consult process helps you think critically about the circumstances for the child; ‘map’ your thinking about what you know to be happening in the family/whānau, and what you need to see the family/whānau doing to know the child or young person is safe. Involve as many people as you can in the consult – the family/whānau and other professionals - so that they can be part of the conversation.

The key to the consult process is the development of:

  • a clear ‘danger/harm’ statement - what was reported, by whom, what was the adult behaviour, what was the impact on the child or young person, then
  • a clear ‘risk’ statement - what are we worried might happen in the future and the possible impact on the child or young person.
  • a goal which describes (in specific behaviours) what will be happening when the child or young person to be safe

Create a plan and put it into place

Next, you’ll work with the child or young, their family/whānau, and their support network to build safety around the child or young person. This involves incorporating the strengths and resources within the family/whānau, encouraging the things they already do to create a safe environment, using people who are willing and able to take action, and giving compliments when the family/whānau is doing well (Turnell & Edwards, 1999).

Ask yourself the following questions as you work with the family/whānau:

  • Who needs to be part of the discussion about building safety?
  • How will I know that the actions we have put in place will help keep the mokopuna safe?
  • Are there periods of time each day/week that require special attention?
  • Is there safety for each mokopuna in the family/whānau group?
  • How will I record the plan? Who will receive copies of the plan? When will we review the plan?

Example safety plan for an infant (DOCX 27 KB)

Example safety plan for a sibling group (DOC 1.9 MB)

Working with the family/whānau

Our role does not become one of ‘the expert’ who knows definitively where the boundary lies between behaviour that is clearly safe for the child and behaviour that is open to interpretation; rather, we need to constantly position ourselves to be able to ask the parents what others would think if they saw that particular behaviour (Turnell & Essex, 2006).

We work together with the parents, the child or young person their safety network to identify what is safe and what can be misinterpreted.

When considering how to build safety for a child or young person who is returning home, there are additional factors to keep in mind.

One of the most significant mistakes that can be made is thinking that because a dynamic has not occurred or recurred the family/whānau have it under control. Recent history will be based on a series of visits and interactions only, rather than continuous family/whānau life. What we know is that as loved and wanted as the child or young person is, stressors will be added to the family/whānau upon their return and we need to have strategies in place to minimise the impact of these.

In families/whānau where there has been parental alcohol or drug abuse, such additional stressors may also increase the risk of relapse. Supports may need to be increased at the point of return home and then closely monitored as the placement continues. See the Caring for mokopuna policy for more information about returning children and young people home.

Involving children and young people in building safety

Children and young people are at the forefront of all that we do. Their voices need to be included in all of the decisions that are made for them. Building safety cannot happen without their participation. How can they keep themselves and others safe if they don’t know what safety looks, sounds and feels like? When building safety with families/whānau, consider the following questions:

  • What is the appropriate role for the child or young person in the building safety process?
  • How will you involve the child or young person in building safety?
  • What specific skills, knowledge and resources will you use?

If necessary, slow down the building safety process and create as many opportunities as possible for the child or young person to have their say. While this may add extra time to the task itself, decisions that have been made in a more considered way lead to better outcomes for the child or young person in the long run (Turnell & Essex, 2006).

Records about how safety will be built need to be written in a straightforward manner and in a language that the child or young person understands, preferably using their own words.

Keeping our focus on mokopuna

Framing difficulties as opportunities

The process of building safety will likely not be an easy one for parents. In order to build safety they need to acknowledge that professionals and sometimes other family/whānau members have legitimate safety concerns (even if they don’t agree with them) and be willing to examine how they care for their child, make changes to care routines in order to build safety, and accept a high level of professional support and monitoring.

There will be times when parents and their support people may appear confused, uncertain, frustrated, even angry with the process and, as social workers. You need to avoid seeing any of these responses as evidence of resistance or dysfunction (Turnell & Essex, 2006).

When parents are struggling, this demonstrates that they are engaged with the process and taking it seriously. This can be a great starting point for you to explore how they are feeling and come up with solutions to keep moving forward. Adopting a mindset whereby opportunities sit behind a family/whānau’s struggles will only enhance your capacity to build safety with that family/whānau.

Using different tools to build safety

Family safety circles: The circles are a practical tool to help identify the people who are part of the safety network for the child, and to help professionals and family/whānau members develop strong and effective safety networks

Words and pictures: This approach helps children and family/whānau explain what has happened to them, what they are worried bout, what has happened over time, and what is being done about it.

The safety house: This tool is designed to be used with children to find out what safety means to them, and what needs to happen to make them feel safe and keep safe.

The future house: The future house is used as a means of gaining family/whānau members’ views about what safety for their child will look like in the future.

For more information


De Haan, I. & Manion, K. (2011). Building safety and deepening our practice. Social Work Now, 47, pp. 35-43.

Parker, S. (2010). Introduction to Safety Planning: Working with Families to Develop Rigourous and Comprehensive Safety Plans. Aspirations Consultancy.

Turnell, A. & Edwards, S. (1999). Signs of Safety: A Solution and Safety Oriented Approach to Child Protection Casework. New York, USA: W.W. Norton & Company.

Turnell, A. & Essex, S. (2006). Working With ‘Denied’ Child Abuse: The Resolutions Approach. Berkshire, England: Open University Press.

Turnell, A. (2010). The Signs of Safety: A Comprehensive Briefing Paper (version 1.03). Resolutions Consultancy Pty Ltd.