Taking a Different Approach

In Brief: Taking a Different Approach: January 2010

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By Kelly Crane

States are looking for innovative ways to cope with the 1 million cases of child abuse that flood in each year. Instead of a “one size fits all” approach in child welfare, they are looking for better ways to use their staff and community resources.

One method, referred to as differential response or alternative response, is being used in a number of state child protective service programs. It allows use of more than one approach to handle initial accepted reports of child abuse or neglect.

Differential response allows protective service workers to consider factors such as the type and severity of the reported abuse and the age of the child. It also takes into account the willingness of parents to participate in services, such as counseling, parenting classes or drug treatment.

Responses can range from a full investigation when there is an allegation of severe abuse to a thorough assessment of the family’s needs when the allegation of risk is low to moderate. In contrast, the traditional approach is to conduct a formal investigation whenever an allegation is made and it ends with a determination of whether child abuse or neglect took place.

“Differential response has the promising goal of better protecting more children over time by engaging parents in the process of making sustainable changes to keep their children safe,” says Caren Kaplan, director of Child Protection Reform for the American Humane Association.

The first two states to pass legislation using differential response—Florida and Missouri—have had varied success.

Florida created a tiered approach that sent serious cases of abuse or neglect to the police for investigation and less severe cases to the appropriate treatment and services, which could include mental health and substance abuse services, counseling and more. Missouri allows families identified at low to moderate risk of abuse or neglect to voluntarily sign up for services.

Missouri decided to expand its approach statewide after trying a pilot program in 14 counties. The approach has served as a model for differential response in other states. Florida, which also expanded its practice statewide after pilot programs, found that its application was inconsistent when it was expanded to the entire state. The state ultimately ended its differential response approach for a variety of reasons, including budget constraints. However, there have been recent efforts to reinstate their differential response approach and ensure it is applied consistently statewide.

Since 1993, when Florida and Missouri started their programs, 14 states have enacted legislation to either start a differential response approach or create a pilot project. As well, a number of other states have implemented a variation of the approach in their child protective services.

Minnesota has had some form of differential response in practice for the past decade. Currently, the state offers families an alternative to the traditional child welfare investigation by offering parents services, such as treatment for drug or alcohol problems. Families receiving these services were less likely to have new reports of maltreatment, according to evaluations.

“Often it’s the circumstance or the conditions of the family, frequently related to poverty, that interfere with parents’ ability to keep their children safe,” says Erin Sullivan Sutton, director of Child Safety and Permanency for the Minnesota Department of Human Services. “When we work in partnership with families to address those conditions, we are able to keep children safe and reduce the need for out-of-home placement.”

Illinois recently enacted legislation that will create a demonstration project to include alternative responses. Like other states, Illinois child protection workers will employ the two-pronged approach that includes either providing help to the family where the risk of harm to the child is low, or conducting a formal investigation when the risk is high.

“This is the child welfare bailout or stimulus plan for overwhelmed families,” says Illinois Representative Mary Flowers. “The response brings families back into the context of caring for children in state custody. When we determine families are not in a high-risk situation, we can step in to provide the necessary services to keep the family intact.”

Overall, differential response approaches are yielding positive results in many states. Evaluations of practices have found child safety was not compromised. Families and caseworkers also are satisfied with the assessment of need and the services offered, demonstrating that offering a differential response to families can have a positive effect on the relationship between child protection service workers and families.

Questions still remain, however, on the best way to track families that are referred to community services, how to engage families in voluntary services, the availability of resources in the community, and who will be liable if a child is injured or even killed while receiving services. Those will be key issues for legislators as they continue to craft effective differential response approaches and provide oversight to ensure child safety.

Kelly Crane tracks child welfare issues for NCSL.

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