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Differential Response to Reports of Child Abuse and Neglect
Series: Issue Briefs|
Child Welfare Information Gateway. |
|Year Published: 2008|
Why the Growing Interest in Differential Response?
A number of factors explain the growing national interest in differential response. Some of the most significant are discussed below, including limitations of traditional CPS practice, recognition of the importance of family engagement, and an increased focus on accountability and outcomes.
Limitations of Traditional CPS Practice
In the two decades following the passage of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) of 1974, reports of abuse and neglect rose sharply, reaching 3 million per year in the mid-1990s without a corresponding increase in available staff. In response, CPS practice became more bureaucratic, standardized, and legalistic (Farrow, 1997). At the same time, families coming into the system were experiencing multiple and increasingly complex problems, such as co-occurring substance abuse, mental health, and domestic violence issues. As the numbers and severity of cases overwhelmed CPS agencies, many States adopted narrower definitions for forwarding a report on for formal investigation, and those investigations became more rigorous (Daro, Budde, Baker, Nesmith, & Harden, 2005). These conditions combined to create seemingly conflicting objectives for CPS: investigate and sanction perpetrators of maltreatment, while providing therapeutic and support services to families to address complex problems (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001).
In this context, a growing dissatisfaction with traditional CPS practices contributed to the emergence of differential response systems. This dissatisfaction reflects several perceived shortcomings in a system focused predominantly on investigation, including:
- Limited capacity for response. While every State has legal mandates for CPS to respond to all legitimate reports of child abuse and neglect, overwhelmed agencies with heavy caseloads and limited resources cannot thoroughly consider risks and needs in all accepted reports. Some legitimate reports—frequently those judged to be of lower risk or severity—are screened out or closed without further action.
- Adversarial orientation. Investigations help CPS to identify victims and provide evidence for prosecution of perpetrators in the most severe cases. Parents and caregivers often, understandably, perceive investigations as accusatory and are fearful of the threat of out-of-home placement of their children if they agree to receive in-home services while being monitored by the investigative agency. This can make parents less willing to accept services and less motivated to change their behavior.
- Low rates of services. Some argue that many families are inappropriately subjected to intrusive interventions that lead to little in the way of services. Nationally, less than 30 percent of reports of suspected child maltreatment result in substantiation of abuse or neglect, and even fewer are opened for ongoing services.
- Family problems not addressed. Although immediate safety issues are normally resolved before a CPS case is closed, the underlying causes for those threats to safety frequently are not. As a result, many families experience subsequent maltreatment reports while their problems, stresses, and issues remain unresolved.
As a result of these issues, CPS agencies with a focus on investigation have been perceived both as being overly intrusive into family life and as not doing enough to protect children (Schene, 2005; Schene, 2001; Farrow, 1997; Waldfogel, 1998; Orr, 1999).
The child welfare community has been open to approaches that can be more immediately helpful to families and that can promise more lasting change. Differential response developed largely as a way to overcome the limitations identified in the traditional response by differentiating among the types of situations reported, recognizing that adversarial investigations can create barriers to working with families effectively, and finding ways to protect children and stabilize families through comprehensive assessments followed by connections to existing community-based services and supports.
Recognition of the Importance of Family Engagement
A second force behind the emergence of differential response is a growing recognition of the importance of family-centered practice and, specifically, family engagement. Family-centered practices, such as family team meetings, are generally understood to improve the level of cooperation with services compared to investigations that lack more comprehensive assessments and individualized service planning. Family involvement in the assessment and service planning process fosters a shared understanding about how the family got to the point of a maltreatment report, what needs to change, what services might help, and who is expected to do what, by when. Differential response systems leverage opportunities to engage families, identify motivations to change, build on family strengths, and involve extended family networks and community supports in protecting children (Schene, 2005).
Increased Focus on Accountability and Outcomes
A third factor in the evolution of differential response systems is the growing interest in establishing accountability for agency actions beginning with the passage of the 1994 amendments to the Social Security Act. The introduction of the Child and Family Services Reviews (CFSRs) has heightened awareness within the child welfare community that the work of child protection should be measured against the outcomes of safety, permanency, and child well-being. The findings of the initial round of reviews indicated serious deficiencies in most jurisdictions in the area of assessments of children and families and indicated that improvements in this area could lead to better outcomes. As a result, many jurisdictions are paying attention to the value of responding more individually to reports and learning more about what has to change in each family to achieve and sustain a better end result.
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