Differential response, also called alternative response, is a system reform that establishes multiple pathways to respond to child maltreatment reports. Differential response encourages community agencies to help support families that are considered low risk, allowing child protection services to focus on the more serious cases in which child abuse and neglect have been confirmed. Differential response has also been recognized as a strategy that could be used to reduce racial disproportionality and disparity in the child welfare system. This flexible, strengths-based practice recognizes that variations in families' needs require different approaches and provides options for using family involvement and community resources in case planning and service provision. Assessments are done to help agencies develop strategies for identifying child and family needs and concerns and tailor its response accordingly. Resources include State and local examples.
Differential Response: A Primer for Child Welfare Professionals
Differential Response in Child Protective Services
National Conference of State Legislators (2019)
Provides a statutory analysis of the major provisions identified in State differential response legislative enactments in those States.
Policy Report - Issues in Differential Response: Revisited (PDF - 4,583 KB)
Piper, Vandervort, Schunk, Kelly, & Holzrichter (2019)
Center for Child Policy & The New York Foundling
Reviews research and literature on the use of differential response in child welfare from 2011 to 2018 and examines how the use of the approach has changed over time.
R.E.D. Teams and the Consultation and Information Sharing Framework [Video]
University of California Davis Extension, Center for Human Services (2018)
Shares a video from R.E.D. (Review, Evaluate, and Direct) team codeveloper Sue Lohrbach about new, collaborative approaches to decision-making for child maltreatment referrals.
State and local examples
Alternative Response Resource Guide: Investigations (PDF - 857 KB)
Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (2020)
Provides information for caseworkers and supervisors working with families who are eligible for alternative response. The guide discusses ways caseworkers can work collaboratively with the family while keeping child safety paramount.
An Alternative Response to Child Protection in Nebraska (PDF - 718 KB)
Voices for Children in Nebraska (2017)
Explains how Nebraska has reformed policy and practice to allow for a more collaborative response that meets the individual needs of families when the risk to children is deemed to be low to moderate.
A Case Study in Public Child Welfare: County-Level Practices That Address Racial Disparity in Foster Care Placement (PDF - 309 KB)
Pryce, Lee, Crowe, Park, McCarthy, & Owens (2019)
Journal of Public Child Welfare, 13(1)
Studies two counties in New York that have reduced the number of Black children in foster care and examines approaches that address racial disproportionality and racial disparity, including differential response.
The Collaborative Assessment, Response, Engagement, & Support (CARES) Approach
New York City Administration for Children’s Services (2021)
Describes an alternative-response program, CARES, used in New York City that partners with families to find strengths-based solutions and supports.
California Department of Social Services (2021)
Reviews the use of differential response in California child welfare services to respond in a more flexible way to reports of child abuse or neglect.
Differential Response Program
Colorado Department of Human Services
Assesses children for safety through family and community partnerships and collaborates with families to facilitate behavioral change. The organizational processes and practices contained within the differential response are also explained.
Examining the Impact of Differential Response on Race Equity Outcomes (PDF - 911 KB)
University of Minnesota & Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare (2014)
Addresses how differential response, or family assessment response as it is known in Minnesota, addressed some racial disparities in the State’s child welfare system.
Family Assessment Response
New York State Office of Children and Family Services
Describes Family Assessment Response, New York’s alternative child protective strategy that works to engage families in an assessment of child and family needs and find solutions to family problems.
In Colorado, Making Smarter Decisions About Child Welfare Investigations
Annie E. Casey Foundation (2019)
Details the creation of RED (Review, Evaluate, and Direct) teams, which are groups of three to five social workers, supervisors, and managers that work together to consider child protection referrals. RED teams in Colorado are using data to assist them in their decision-making and are often including professionals from other areas beyond child protection, such as education and health care.