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Differential Response to Reports of Child Abuse and Neglect
Series: Issue Briefs|
Child Welfare Information Gateway. |
|Year Published: 2008|
Experience in the Field
During the past two decades, differential response systems have been implemented in more than two dozen States across the country. Some jurisdictions are still in the early stages of implementation, with just a few pilot sites, while others are expanding or institutionalizing their systems statewide. This section discusses what we know about States and local agencies that have adopted differential response, what those systems have in common, and how they differ.
According to The National Study of Child Protective Services Systems and Reform Efforts (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2003a), 20 States had identifiable policies in 2001 that reflected differential or alternative response.2 The policy review portion of the study noted that 11 States had implemented the approach statewide, although not uniformly, while in other States differential response was available only in demonstration or pilot sites (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2003a).
The local agency survey of the same study found that approximately two-thirds (64 percent) of local agencies nationwide (1,660) were conducting both investigations and some alternative to investigation (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2003b). While 2001 is the last year for which such Federal data were collected, similar reforms have since been adopted or are being considered by additional agencies.
Between 2005 and 2006, American Humane and the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) conducted a study of differential response to build upon the 2003 National Study of Child Protective Services Systems and Reform Efforts. Their report includes State and county profiles of differential response efforts, as well as responses from some States/counties to a descriptive survey on the topic (Merkel-Holguin, Kaplan, & Kwak, 2006). It identified 15 States with differential response initiatives, as well as 3 States whose previous initiatives were no longer active at the time of the study.3
Some States also include differential response in statute. As of April 2006, 11 States had statutes that require the use of differential response systems, in which more serious child abuse and neglect cases are assigned to be investigated while less serious cases are assigned to family assessment (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2006).
Drawing on the above sources, the table in Appendix A identifies States with differential/alternative response policies or practice protocols, those that had related statutes in 2006, and those that have implemented differential response statewide or in more limited areas. States that previously had a differential response system but are not currently operating under the system, that have incorporated some elements of differential response into their system, or that are operating a pilot project but do not have a formal differential response system are noted in the last column. Given the current interest in differential response, more States may soon be added to this list.
Regardless of where they are implemented, differential response systems tend to be:
- Assessment focused. The primary focus tends to be on assessing families' strengths and needs. Substantiation of an alleged incident is not the priority.
- Individualized. Cases are handled differently depending on families' unique needs and situations.
- Family-centered. They use a strengths-based, family engagement approach.
- Community oriented. Families on the assessment track are referred to services that fit their needs and issues. This requires availability and coordination of appropriate and timely community services and presumes a shared responsibility for child protection.
- Selective. The alternative response is not employed when the most serious types of maltreatment are alleged, particularly those that are likely to require court intervention, such as sexual abuse or severe harm to a child.
- Flexible. The response track can be changed based on ongoing risk and safety considerations. If a family refuses assessment or services, the agency may conduct an investigation or close the case.
Variations in Approaches Across States
Despite sharing some basic characteristics, a differential response system in one State may look very different from a system in another State. Differential response systems vary in the following ways (Schene, 2001):
Number of tracks or paths of response. Initially, differential response systems reflected only two tracks—assessment and investigation. Over time, some States saw the value of multiple tracks. States with three tracks (e.g., Wyoming) frequently have:
- An investigation track to determine if abuse or neglect took place and provide intervention to stop the maltreatment
- An assessment track to evaluate family strengths and needs and provide services to address needs
- A prevention track for cases with no clear allegations of abuse or neglect but identified risk factors and a need for services
In West Virginia, a variation of the three-track approach includes a "safety check" by a CPS worker as part of the assessment/services track. Other States (e.g., Kentucky) have incorporated as many as four tracks, including one for law enforcement response (when the alleged perpetrator is not the caretaker). Some States have added or eliminated tracks over time.
When the track is selected. Often the response track is identified immediately when the report is accepted or screened in. Some States, however, choose to conduct an initial standardized CPS assessment/investigation and then, based on what is found, determine which track to pursue.
Who responds to initial reports. In some States, all initial reports are handled by CPS, while in others the initial response to some reports is handled by a community agency. For example, the public health system might immediately receive a report for assessment if it is clear that substance abuse evaluation and treatment will be needed.
Ongoing CPS involvement. In some States, once the decision is made to pursue a more voluntary approach, the case is closed to CPS and opened by a community agency. In other States, CPS remains involved and works in partnership with the community agency. In still others, the case is never opened by CPS and goes directly from the reporting hotline to the community agency.
As more States implement differential response, the number of patterns and variations is likely to increase.
2 The National Study of Child Protective Services Systems and Reform Efforts used the following definition of alternative response: "a formal response of [the] agency that assesses the needs of the child or family without requiring a determination that maltreatment has occurred or that the child is at risk of maltreatment." back
3 The study's authors acknowledge there is great variation in State and county implementation of differential response, but they define it generally as a system in which "low- and moderate-risk cases receive a non-investigation assessment response without a formal determination or substantiation of child abuse and neglect." back
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