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Brief Treatment and Crisis Intervention Advance Access originally published online on April 11, 2008
Brief Treatment and Crisis Intervention 2008 8(3):226-235; doi:10.1093/brief-treatment/mhn010
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© The Author 2008. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail:

Reducing Child Abuse Potential in Families Identified by Social Services: Implications for Assessment and Treatment

   Paul H. Harnett, BA, MA(Hons), PhD
   Sharon Dawe, BA, MA(Hons), PhD

From the School of Psychology, University of Queensland (Harnett) and the School of Applied Psychology, Griffith University, Mt Gravatt Campus (Dawe)

Contact author: Paul Harnett, School of Psychology, University of Queensland, St Lucia, Brisbane, Queensland 4072, Australia. E-mail: p.harnett{at}

Improving the functioning of families at high risk of child maltreatment poses considerable challenges. One issue is the dilemma of how and when it is appropriate to provide an intervention designed to improve family functioning when the level of risk of the family to the child has not been fully established. A recently reported proposal is to assess the family's capacity to change by assessing the family's response to a brief intervention. This proposed model for assessing capacity to change rests on the assumption that brief interventions can achieve meaningful short-term change in high risk families. The current study evaluated the effectiveness of a home-based intensive treatment program in families referred by child protection services. The program, Parents Under Pressure, was designed for multiproblem families and addresses problems across ecological domains, including problem child behavior, parental stress, family relationships, social isolation, and coping with life demands. Ten families completed the program. Statistically significant improvement was found between the pre- and postassessment measures on measures of parent functioning, child functioning, parent–child relationships, and social contextual measures. The majority of families showed clinically significant improvement, although a small proportion of the families showed no change or deteriorated. The presenting problems and pattern of change varied between families. The study adds to the increasing body of evidence that intensive, ecologically informed interventions can achieve short-term change in some but not all multiproblem families. Implications of the results for assessing parental capacity to change are discussed.

KEY WORDS: child protection, child maltreatment, parenting, child development, program evaluation

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