The Court-Ordered Case Plan

Vol. 1, No. 10

Therese Roe Lund is with the National Resource Center for Child Protective Services. Jennifer Renne is with the National Resource Center on Legal and Judicial Issues.


  • Learn how to increase the case plan's likelihood of success.
  • See what a safety-related case plan looks like.



Child Safety: A Guide for Judges and Attorneys is a book that assists the legal community in better understanding certain social work constructs in child abuse and neglect cases. The purpose of the book is to educate attorneys and judges about the method by which child welfare agencies gather information about a family and make basic safety decisions such as initial removal and reunification, thereby helping attorneys and judges to be better equipped to hold the child welfare agency accountable to this process. Removal and reunification decisions have a profound impact on children and families. The Child Safety Guide demystifies the process of assessing child safety decision-making by providing a rigorous analytical framework that attorneys can use to actively involve themselves and their clients in defining and shaping safety decisions, thus providing effective representation on issues of removal and return of children throughout the life of the case.

The Guide is a collaborative project of the National Resource Centers on Child Protective Services and Legal and Judicial Issues. It lays out the underlying principles of safety decision-making in child welfare cases, and shows how agency adherence to these principles is the paramount issue before the court in making reasonable and active efforts findings. The Guide explains how to ensure that the bar for return remains where it was when children were removed—on whether the child is or can be made safe in the home—and that this question is not complicated by other considerations.

The Guide can also be useful for developing policy and bringing about systems change that strengthens due process of law, thus improving the legal system’s ability to protect the Constitutional rights of families by ensuring that the executive branch of government adheres to the law and its own policies regarding removal and return of children.

The chapter reproduced here lays out what, on its face, appears to be a controversial premise which is: nothing in the family necessarily needs to change in order for the child to remain home, or be returned home if an in-home safety plan can sufficiently control threats. Safety plans are defined as strategies, activities, services that, when put together, will control for the threats and temporarily substitute for the parents’ lack of sufficient protective capacities.

In some cases, an out-of-home safety plan needs to be established (i.e., a placement is made) because no amount of services or other strategies will keep the child safe. The threats are too pervasive, or volatile/unpredictable. In a situation like that, the progress made through the case plan strategies (reducing the threats and increasing protective capacities) may very well inform us later that now, if we do that analysis of “what would it take”—lead us to believe that the conditions for return are now met and an in-home safety plan will work.

This chapter also touches on the issue (further explored in other chapters) that while most courts tend to focus on mere “compliance” with a case plan, what is often neglected is whether the change services have had the impact they are intended to have, that is: have threats been reduced eliminated and/or have protective capacities been sufficiently enhanced to manage those threats such that the child can safely be returned home while the parents continues to work on the case plan?

The issues of safety, permanency and well-being are not in silos: they are interdependent. In developing more rigorous thinking about how to achieve permanency, this book (and accompanying technical assistance) separates out the safety piece in order to highlight how disciplined the decision making must be, and often leads to earlier, safer permanency outcomes for children while also enhancing child and family well being.

Free technical assistance is available to local courts on the principles of the Child Safety Guide. As a first step, please contact Jennifer Renne at


From Child Safety: A Guide for Judges and Attorneys, Chapter 8


The case plan is different from the safety plan in two respects:

It details what must change to be “successful,” such as terminating court jurisdiction; (versus an in-home safety plan detailing what must be controlled for the child to be placed at home).

Its effect can be achieved over time (versus a safety plan day-by-day controlling threats of danger).

Federal and state laws and policies specify requirements for case plans (including requirements about the child and foster parents).

This article shows judges and advocates how to determine whether a case plan recommended by the parties a) is consistent with federal safety requirements; b) is consistent with a logical process for safety decision-making; and c) has a high likelihood of achieving “success.”


Federal Foster Care Requirements: Titles IVB and IV-E of the Social Security Act, as Amended by the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA)

When children are deemed unsafe and are placed out-of-home to assure safety, ASFA says the following about case plans:


Excerpt from ASFA

SEC. 475. [42 U.S.C. 675] as used in this part or part B of this title:
(1) The term “case plan” means a written document which includes at least the following:
(B) A plan assuring that the child receives safe and proper care and that the services are provided to parents, child and foster parents in order to improve conditions in the parents’ home, facilitate return of the child to his own safe home (emphasis added)
(5) (B) the status of each child is reviewed periodically but no less frequently than once every six months by either a court or by administrative review…in order to determine the safety of the child, the continuing necessity for and appropriateness of the placement, the extent of compliance with the case plan, and the extent of progress which has been made toward alleviating or mitigating the causes necessitating the placement (emphasis added)

The case plan should contain a logical strategy for addressing the reasons the court became involved: threats of danger to the child and parents’ insufficient protective capacity.

Federal law also establishes time limits for children in an out-of-home placement. These time limits make it essential that:

• The case plan lays out an effective and expedient strategy to prepare parents to ensure children’s safety; and

• Progress under the case plan is evaluated frequently and revised when needed.

The case plan outcome should be a home environment with no threats of danger or, at least, sufficient protective capacities to manage such threats. The case plan should include goals, tasks, and timetables for services facilitating changes: eliminate specific threats of danger and develop protective capacities regarding threats.

Again, keep in mind that while the case plan should reduce threats of danger over time, the safety plan, out-of-home or in-home, ensures the child’s safety now. While the case plan and safety plan may be written in the same document, it is helpful to keep their purposes distinct.

Note that a case plan covers more than safety outcomes; it also outlines how to get children’s needs met. This article and the larger work from which it comes only address safety aspects of case plans.


Increasing the Case Plan’s Likelihood for Success


Benchcard K


The judge should consider:


Does the case plan include goals or tasks addressing changes in behaviors, commitments, and attitudes related to safety? Listing services people must attend, directing them to “follow all treatment recommendations,” does not allow the court to measure progress, only to measure attendance or participation.

An example: “Alan will demonstrate an ability and willingness to delay his own needs to provide food, supervision, and attention for his daughter Kayla.”

Does the case plan follow logically from the threats and gaps in protective capacities in the home? Be precise when detailing a case plan’s strategy, and specify what must change.

Does the case plan duplicate the safety plan? If yes, one plan (or both) is not fulfilling its purpose. A case plan does not replace the safety plan, nor is it a duplicate. These plans work concurrently. The case plan works on changing things so the parents, in time, can keep their child safe without the court intervening; while the safety plan, in or out-of-home, helps control things now so the child stays safe from threats.

Does the case plan target issues that influence threats of danger? Does it target conditions interfering with parent protective capacity? Some parents must deal with their own experiences of being victimized to develop protective capacities. Some mental health issues make a parent so ill-prepared for being protective that those issues must be addressed first. A case plan calling for the parent to “learn about child development” will fail if it does not address these crucial problems.

How do parents react to the case plan? An experienced judge knows how to gauge a parent’s hope, fear, or remorse.

Does the case plan focus on reducing threats without also increasing protective capacities? The family has the best chance for success if they reduce threats and increase protective capacity. Compare the benefits of a) having a single mother end her live-in relationship with her boyfriend who physically abused her and her child; and b) helping that mother develop her alertness to danger and willingness to put her child first. If the first succeeds, one threat is eliminated. If the second succeeds, future threats will be managed by the mother. Both strategies can be in the case plan. Focusing solely on reducing threats, while more obvious, will likely limit long-term success.


Case Example: What a Safety-Related Case Plan Looks Like


Note: not all information will be provided in this sample excerpt of a case plan. Goals, services related specifically to the children’s treatment needs, the foster parent, permanency planning requirements, etc. would also be included in a complete case plan. What follows is an example of a strategy that involves increasing protective capacities and decreasing threats of danger. (Of course, real case plans may follow other formats.)


Family Composition

Mother: Jennifer, age 21

Children: Ashante, age 4; Anijah, age 2, and Richard, age 8 months


Specific Threats

The parent’s behavior is dangerously impulsive or she will not/cannot control her behavior.

In attempting to discipline the children, the mother lost her temper and ended up injuring Anijah’s face with a broken broom. Although the mother was upset over the injury, she acknowledged that she felt that she was unable to control herself and unable to prohibit herself from hurting the children. The mother’s general pattern of responding to problems and difficulties appears impulsive and short sighted, and at the time she is unaware of how her actions may result in serious harm to her children. The mother reports a history of “problematic relationships” with men characterized by verbal arguing and physical altercation, which she herself sometimes instigates. The mother has a previous charge of disorderly conduct to which she pleaded no contest. The mother’s lack of foresight (“present-mindedness”) and impulsive behavior coupled with numerous sources of stress limit her ability to manage her own behavior to keep from injuring the children.

The parent lacks parenting knowledge, skills, and motivation necessary to assure the children’s basic needs are met.

The mother has difficulty establishing and applying consistent routines and rules for the children. She lacks planning and foresight in her care and discipline of her children. She has unrealistic expectations regarding the children’s behavior, specifically feeling that the children are capable of managing themselves. These views, in effect, place the children in danger. She is unhappy in the parenting role. This compounds her feelings of stress and contributes to her outbursts toward the children.

The family does not have or use resources necessary to assure a child’s basic needs.

The mother is unable to meet the children’s basic needs for food, clothing, stable shelter, and medical treatment. This inability is due in part to her poverty, limited education, and lack of self discipline, and lack of job skills. It is also due to the mother’s lack of planning, forethought, and effort to take necessary steps to provide for the needs of the children. Currently the mother is unemployed and she is reluctant to seek employment. Mother has a longstanding history of dependence on others: boyfriends and relatives meet her needs and makes decisions based on the crisis of the moment. The mother’s lack of planning has caused her increased stress; feeling of being trapped and isolated; inability to maintain stable housing; inconsistency in providing for the children’s food, shelter, and medical care; and impulsiveness in her care of the children.


Case Plan (Child Currently in Foster Care)

Case Plan Strategy Or Objective

By focusing on enhancing specific parent protective capacities that Jennifer lacks, and by using appropriate services to help, Jennifer will become able on her own to manage her behaviors or other issues that are causing the threats to the children.


Case Plan Goals

Jennifer can effectively think through, develop and discuss realistic long term plans for assuring the protection and basic needs of the children; she is proactive in seeking help; she anticipates problems and is solution focused in her response.

Jennifer is creative and adaptive as a parent as evidenced by being able to adjust to changes in her life; and she makes reasonable choices to effectively deal with the challenges facing her and her children.

Jennifer is able to cope with stresses and is determined to see plans through in order to manage her life and care for her children.

Jennifer can control her emotions and behavior; she is tolerant when dealing with the children; and is able to consistently manage their behavior in ways that are helpful to them and to her.

Jennifer uses resources necessary to meet the children’s basic needs and is thoughtful about how best to use resources to assure the long terms care of the children (i.e. stable housing, food, and clothing).


Services to Help Achieve Goals

Individual therapy, 1x per week, with Jane Doe, Ph.D.

Home management skill building, 2x per month, with DSS parent aide and 1x/month with CPS worker

Employment and Housing Assistance,

18 sessions beginning 12/1, with DSS economic assistance program

Support Group for Adults Who Were Victims as Children, 1x per week, at mental health clinic


Case Management Responsibility

CPS social worker will help enroll Jennifer in the above services and resources. The worker will coordinate and communicate with all parties to routinely evaluate the progress of the case plan goals and notify the court of any significant events or need for revision.


Progress Evaluation Timeframe

Every 90 days the CPS worker will consider Jennifer’s progress and make adjustments as needed. The CPS worker’s sources for information regarding Jennifer’s progress will be from Jennifer herself, the CPS worker’s own observations, the parent aide, Dr. Jane Doe, the mental health clinic support group facilitator, and Jennifer’s economic assistance worker.


Reprinted with permission from Child Safety: A Guide for Judges and Attorneys. Published by the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law.




Order Child Safety: A Guide for Judges and Attorneys

Did you find this article helpful? Do you think more information like this would help you? More information is available. This material is excerpted from Child Safety: A Guide for Judges and Attorneys, 2011, by Therese Roe Lund and Jennifer Renne, published by the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law. Copyright © 2011 by the American Bar Association. Reprinted with permission of the authors. All rights reserved. This information or any or portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.


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