What is Structured Decision Making?

SDM assists practitioners to work with families and to focus resources on those families, in an effort to reduce the incidence of subsequent harm and neglect. The SDM assessments and associated service responses are used to identify critical decision-making points and improve the structure and consistency of the decisions made and the services provided.

Consisting of eight assessments and supporting definitions (refer to SDM assessments), SDM is incorporated into the Child safety practice framework and assists practitioners with key decision-making from the time allegations of harm or risk of harm to a child are reported to the department, until the child and their family exit the child protection system.

Each SDM assessment is based on research or evidence and addresses a specific practice question, to assist practitioners to reach a decision. The assessments are not completed in isolation and do not make decisions for practitioners (link to How do SDM assessments fit with professional judgement?)

The Children's Research Center

The Children's Research Center (CRC) is a not-for-profit organisation based in Wisconsin, USA. The CRC has developed SDM over the last 20 years and SDM is currently the most widely used methodology in the USA, being used in over 22 jurisdictions. A number of States and Territories in Australia have either implemented SDM or are looking to implement SDM.

Goals of Structured Decision Making

The two goals of SDM are to:

  1. Reduce subsequent harm to children and families:

    • reduce subsequent reports of harm or risk of harm
    • reduce subsequent substantiations
    • reduce subsequent injuries
    • reduce subsequent out-of-home care placements.

    Research by the CRC indicates that when SDM is used accurately, the quality of case decisions and departmental accountability improve.

  2. Reduce the length of time taken to achieve permanency for children in an out-of-home-care placement.

    Children should not 'drift in care'. Children will return safely to the family or when this is not possible, be placed in long-term stable out-of-home care in a timely way. Parallel planning should occur the moment a child enters care, allowing Practitioners to identify and support alternative arrangements should reunification not be successful.


The key objectives of SDM are to:

  • identify critical decision points
  • increase reliability of decisions
  • increase validity of decisions
  • target resources to families at highest risk
  • use case level data to inform decisions throughout the department.

Critical characteristics

There are four critical characteristics of SDM.

  1. Reliability: Structured assessments and guidelines systematically focus on the critical decision points in the life of a case, increasing consistency in assessment and case planning. Families are assessed more objectively and decision-making is guided by the facts of a case, rather than a “gut feeling”.
  2. Validity: Research repeatedly demonstrates the model's effectiveness at reducing subsequent abuse/neglect, as evidenced by reduced rates of subsequent notifications, substantiations, injuries to children and placements in out-of-home care. The cornerstone of the model is the actuarial research-based family risk evaluation that classifies families according to the likelihood of subsequent abuse/neglect, enabling agencies to target services to families at highest risk.
  3. Equity: SDM assessments ensure that critical case characteristics, immediate harm indicators and domains of family functioning are assessed for every family, every time, regardless of social differences. Detailed definitions for assessment items increase the likelihood that practitioners will assess all families using a similar framework. Research demonstrates racial equity of the family risk evaluation in classifying families across risk levels. The reunification assessment has demonstrated expedited permanency for children, regardless of race.
  4. Utility: The SDM model and assessments are easy to use and understand. The assessments are designed to focus on critical characteristics that are necessary and relevant to a specific decision point in the life of a case. Use of SDM assessments provides the practitioner with a means to focus the information gathering and assessment process. By focusing on critical characteristics, practitioners are able to organise case information in a meaningful way. Additionally, the assessments facilitate communication between practitioners and the team leader, and between teams, about each family and the status of the case.

Each SDM assessment assists practitioners to answer specific questions at critical decision-making points, as outlined in the SDM assessments section.

Maintaining contact with children and families is a key activity for Child Safety staff. The SDM assessments, in particular the family risk evaluation, family risk re-evaluation and the family reunification assessment help guide Child Safety staff to determine how often they should have contact with the child and their family during ongoing intervention. The higher the level of risk, the more frequently Child Safety staff should have contact with the family. This strategy targets resources to those children most at risk in the community. Refer to the Minimum departmental contact requirements (PDF, 75 KB) for further information.

Cultural considerations

Given SDM addresses key decision-making points, practitioners must provide an opportunity for the recognised entity to participate in the decision-making process for any significant decision about an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander child and consult with the recognised entity for all other decisions. Throughout the SDM assessments there are references to Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander child rearing practices. These practices are derived from a body of cultural knowledge specific to Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander persons and are defined as incorporating:

  • independence
  • responsibility of children at an earlier age
  • cultural authority (within kinship/clan groups)
  • cultural responsibility (passing on of knowledge or skills).

The cultural commentary used throughout the assessments and accompanying definitions is learned communal knowledge obtained from the experience and personal history of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people.