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Using Differential Response in Reports of Child Abuse and Neglect

Darrin, age 4, and Corrinne, age 3, attend a child care center while their mother, Shawna, age 22, works at a dry cleaning business. One afternoon the teacher in the center noticed bruises on Darrin's buttocks. She reported this to the center's social worker, Lisa. Lisa contacted the hotline of the Missouri Division of Family Services (DFS), the CPS agency. This call was the fifth report to DFS on this family; the fourth was just a few months ago concerning unsanitary conditions and continual violence in the home. The father of these children, Doug, age 25, has a history of gang involvement, incarceration, and domestic violence. Doug and Shawna were evicted from their apartment due to frequent calls to the police about their constant fighting. When Shawna separated from Doug and moved to public housing, the case was closed. But Shawna had fears that her children could be taken away from her.

Based on the hotline information, DFS placed the case in the "family assessment" track. That evening Diane, the caseworker, met with Shawna and her children at their apartment to ensure that the children were safe and to offer them emergency services.

Diane and Shawna discussed how Darrin became bruised. Shawna readily admitted "whipping" him for misbehaving and showed Diane his bruises. Shawna openly discussed with Diane her difficult living conditions and problems including the lack of money, transportation, and support from relatives who were no longer willing to help her. During their discussion, Doug arrived. He was defensive and refused to answer questions. He was tired of the "police" telling him what to do and wanted people out of his personal business. He stormed out of the apartment.

Diane offered Shawna and her children emergency shelter and family preservation services to avoid out-of-home placement for the children. Shawna accepted. She also agreed to meet the next day at the nearby Family Resource Center.

After this first meeting Diane became convinced that the case belonged in the family assessment track. There was no immediate threat to the safety of the children nor any criminal violation, and Shawna showed a cooperative attitude by accepting services that would stabilize the family. Before the dual-track approach was instituted, Shawna would have been investigated, most likely by a child protective investigator from a specialized unit. The investigation would have taken valuable time during which Shawna and Diane were able to build a relationship and to address strengths and needs specific to her family. A typical investigation would have missed this opportunity for supportive problem solving and could have led to unnecessary placement for the children, an inappropriate level of intervention, and inclusion of Shawna's name in the centralized child abuse registry. Using this dual-track approach, Diane and Shawna can work creatively and effectively on long-term solutions to Shawna's parenting difficulties.

Lisa and Diane met Shawna at the Resource Center the next day. Doug was there too, encouraged by the positive approach Shawna had told him about. They explored with them what supports they had, what had worked for the family in the past, and what they felt they needed now. Shawna was worried about the unsafe, unsanitary living conditions in public housing, and also indicated the need for respite care. Lisa explained the various programs available to the family. Shawna was especially interested in the Mother-to-Mother mentoring program offered through a local church that provides support, parenting skills, and friendship. Doug was quiet and withdrawn, but as he listened, he indicated that he wanted to parent his children. A neighborhood acquaintance of his helped out at the Resource Center, and Doug agreed to talk to him about getting involved in a fatherhood program. The atmosphere at the Resource Center was friendly and comfortable. No one accused or threatened them. The Resource Center staff would also help Shawna move from the shelter to permanent housing. Both Doug and Shawna were surprised to find out about so many other resources in their neighborhood that could help them.

Shawna left the meeting feeling that maybe this time things could change and her children would be safe with her. For once Doug did not feel defeated by the attitude of DFS workers.

What Shawna and Doug experienced was a system that responded to their needs. Not all cases were investigated; not all substantiated maltreatment would result in parents' names being entered into a central registry. Many cases, like theirs, need family services to help them be better parents, rather than the adversarial nature of an investigation. The Missouri child welfare agency is using a new approach: differential response.

What is differential response?

Differential response allows for more than one method of initial response to reports of child abuse or neglect. Called "dual track," "multiple track," or "alternative response," this approach recognizes the variation in the nature of reports and that one approach does not meet the needs of every case. Without expanding the existing state definitions of abuse or neglect, the use of differential response allows agencies to provide services to some cases without a formal determination of abuse or neglect.

Although differential response varies from state to state in its implementation, usually there are at least two categories of response to reports of child abuse and neglect. The first category includes reports that are immediately recognized as presenting serious safety issues for children and/or potential criminal charges against the alleged perpetrator. When "tracks" are used, these reports go on the "investigation track." The second category includes situations in which there are needs that, if addressed, could stabilize the family and enable the parents to better care for their children. These reports go on the "assessment track." When and how that happens varies across jurisdictions, but this distinction characterizes differential response.

Normally, in differential response, cases on the assessment track are not "substantiated" and the name of the "alleged perpetrator" is not entered into the state central registry of child abuse and neglect. In fact, substantiation as the gateway to services is greatly diminished in systems of differential response. Instead, the level of need stands as the criteria for opening the case, rather than a clear "founding" or "substantiation" of the abuse or neglect. If the case is on the "assessment" track and the family is unwilling to participate in services, however, they cannot be forced to do so. Of course, shifting the case to another track and using the power of the court to order the family to participate in services is possible, but is not often done.

Most of the states that have gone in this direction have modified their statutes because it represents a major change in the laws governing the response to child abuse and neglect.

Time for change: shortcomings of an exclusive investigative approach

Dissatisfaction with child protective services (CPS) has grown during the past decade. The public scrutinizes both failures to protect a child as well as actions that appear to be overzealous intervention in a family. Seldom do we read articles lauding the efforts of a frontline caseworker to protect a vulnerable child. Rarely does the child protective services program get the public support of other agencies and service programs in the community.

Every state has legal mandates to investigate all legitimate reports of child abuse and neglect, but these can rarely be met. Existing resources require some of those reports, however legitimate, to be screened out without further assessment. Staff base these judgment calls on perceived risk, but often the person making the report feels frustrated.

When a caseworker "screens in" a report, an "investigation" begins; the parent or caregiver usually perceives this as accusatory and adversarial. The caseworker focuses on determining whether the abuse or neglect occurred and on identifying the person who is responsible. If this person is a parent or caretaker, the matter falls to child protective services. If the situation warrants opening the case-again, resources and policies result in the majority not being opened for ongoing services-actions to remove the child from the home are initiated, or in-home services to address the family problems identified are provided. In fact, fewer than 20 percent of the children are removed, even temporarily. When the case is opened for services, often the actual rate of service provision is low. Moreover, it is rare that the key criteria for closing the case is the achievement of clear outcomes in terms of changed behavior on the part of the parents. Although immediate safety issues are normally resolved before the case is closed, the underlying causes are not. It is not uncommon to have subsequent reports on the same case.

Many reporters and parents have been frustrated with the response of CPS. They see the response as a disruptive investigation, often leading to little in the way of services unless the situation is so severe the child had to be removed from the home. It is not surprising that many policymakers, mandated reporters, caseworkers, and families have been critical of this system. The child welfare community has been open to approaches that can be more immediately helpful to families and promise more lasting change.

Multiple track, dual track, or alternative response-whatever name we give this approach-is tailored to each family's needs. The response depends on what is reported, the level of severity, the willingness of parents to accept help, and the connections that the family has or could form with community supports and services. There must be some way to differentiate among what is reported and adjust the response to these factors.

Why choose differential response?

There are several specific reasons for moving away from a single investigative approach:

* If we treat all reports in the same way, we miss some clear need for immediate action to protect the safety of children in the most severe cases.

* If we use an investigative approach for all cases, we also miss early opportunities to engage some families in services that could enable them to better parent their children.

* If we approach all families in an "adversarial" way, vital information about the strengths of the family, the supports they have among their extended family and community, and their motivation to change could be overlooked in the effort to find out whether the abuse occurred and who is responsible.

There are also reasons for moving toward differential response:

* We can better serve many of the families reported to CPS in ways that focus more on help and less on the "legal" and "child removal" dimensions currently associated with CPS. Authoritative, involuntary intervention should be reserved to protect children when their parents are unwilling or unable to make efforts to change their behavior or situation.

* To truly protect children and strengthen families, community partnerships between public and private resources, as well as formal and informal supports, are needed. Formal services consist of structured professional interventions such as family therapy, a specialized assessment, or health care. Informal services tap into families' support networks and use family members or others to help address areas of needed support; for example, assistance getting kids to school on time, transportation to a doctor, or child care to fit an unusual work schedule. For such partnerships to develop, working relationships are needed among CPS and the community to support, assist, and even encourage new behaviors among some of the parents identified as abusing and neglecting their children.

Variations in approach

States have moved toward differential response in different ways. One immediate distinction is how many options or "tracks" for reports of abuse and neglect will be used. Initially, only two were considered -assessment or investigation-but some states saw the value of multiple tracks, using as many as five alternative directions.

Another broad difference has been when a report is "tracked." One method is to track a case as soon as the report is "accepted." The assessment or investigation response could begin immediately and the process of response would be distinct depending on the track. Some states choose to go through the initial assessment/investigation in a somewhat standard manner and, based on what is found, determine which track to pursue. Another variation is to have the initial response to the report handled by a community agency. For example, the public health system might immediately get the report for assessment if it is clear that the situation involves a need for substance abuse evaluation and treatment.

Assumptions and requirements

Although there are important variations in differential response systems, at a general level there are some shared assumptions on which differential response is built:

* It will be clear from the initial facts presented which track is appropriate for most cases. All systems allow for moving cases from one track to another, if necessary, but most likely the case remains in the track initially selected. Therefore, careful, accurate assessment at the point of initial intake is required.

* Placing a case in the assessment or service track rather than the investigation track will not increase the danger or risk to a child. This assumes assessment-track cases receive immediate, active intervention; they are not to be considered "low priority" cases. All cases are to receive immediate, active intervention because all meet the state requirement for some level of intervention. They just can be better served in a different way.

* The community has sufficient and appropriate services available, including those available through the local public human services system, to be used in a timely way by families tracked toward services. Service providers must be sensitive to the protective issues present in families who have been referred by CPS. Furthermore, communication is necessary between community service providers and CPS so that risks that may emerge can be rapidly addressed. In short, services normally required for these families must be available.

* Well-articulated systems of coordination and integration between CPS and the network of service providers is essential.

* Families are more likely to be cooperative and motivated to voluntarily participate in services when they are approached in a less adversarial, investigative mode. Frontline staff in CPS and other agencies must be trained and their skills developed in assessing and engaging families. Staff must be familiar with the service resources in the community. The patterns of access and the ease of access to services loom larger in importance in systems of differential response.

* Only cases of greater severity, with uncooperative caregivers, and continued high risk of maltreatment need to be entered in the state central registry, a database used by CPS, police, and employers to identify perpetrators of abuse. It is assumed that there is no reason to identify a perpetrator, "substantiate" the maltreatment, and register the case when this profile does not fit. Because some remain skeptical about this assumption, careful evaluation or documentation of outcomes for the various tracks may be required.

* Situations that pose the greatest risk to the safety of the children will be apparent, and an appropriate response will be forthcoming. Developing and tracking individualized responses to these cases is a logical requirement.

* Over time, community responsibility for the protection of children from abuse and neglect will increase using differential response. Both formal and informal resources can play a stronger role in the lives of vulnerable children and their families. Work must be done to develop needed services; engage more voluntary, informal resources; and help CPS systems relate to those resources more consistently.

Although not always a state requirement, differential response can benefit from a systematic evaluation in the first years of implementation as well as some ongoing monitoring or self-evaluation to identify areas that need "course-correction."

Anticipated benefits

The benefits anticipated from differential response follow from the assumptions and requirements:

* The system of response will be better suited to the variety of conditions present in families involved in abuse and neglect.

* The most serious cases will be readily apparent and immediate action will be facilitated.

* Parents will be more motivated to change the behaviors that put their children at continued risk of abuse or neglect.

* More children will be protected over time by engaging more parents in the process of making sustainable changes.

* More services and supports will be available to vulnerable children and their families, and they will work together more effectively.

* The public responsibility for protecting children will be broadened; more people will see this responsibility as going beyond CPS and law enforcement.

* The rate of subsequent, repeat reports to CPS will go down.
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