The Case for Differential Response from a Carver County Minn. Child Protection Manager

carver-county_logo_webAs a program manager in a Minnesota County with 14 years of experience with Differential Response, I am writing to point out some of the benefits we have found in our implementation of the program, and to suggest that the problems identified in The Imprint can be avoided.

What we now call Family Assessment in Minnesota is an integral part of our child protection work. Child Protection reports are screened in and out in the same way they always were. The only change is that we also decide on a track for each screened in report. All reports, even those we screen out, are cross reported to law enforcement. The same risk assessment and safety assessment tools are used in our assessments and investigations. We look for family strengths, signs of safety and exceptions to problems, and we seek all the information we can get about harm and danger in all of our work.

When families don’t cooperate with an assessment, we switch to an investigation. When families fail to implement needed safety at any point, we seek court intervention without consideration of track. In both tracks we make a determination of the need for protective services.

Presently about 20 percent of our screened in reports are assigned for investigation. In these cases we are required to conduct our investigation together with law enforcement, to record our interviews, and to make a determination about whether parents maltreated their children.

The other 80 percent are assigned to our Family Assessment track where our assessments are flexibly tailored to individual family circumstances. Sometimes we interview the parents without law enforcement. Sometimes we go out together. We often set up an appointment with parents. Sometimes we drop by unannounced. Sometimes we begin by interviewing the children at school. In short, we do what makes sense to obtain the most accurate assessment we can.

I used to think of child protection as a cat and mouse game where we tried to figure out what was really happening inside the family home while the parents tried to keep it hidden.

We have found that parents are far more likely to be open and honest with us when we don’t act like we are out to get them. They are more likely to cooperate with us and to engage in thinking their own way through their children’s safety and well-being. As a result we don’t need to take families to court as often, we don’t need to remove as many children to keep them safe, and we aren’t getting as many re-reports as we did in the past.

The changes we made didn’t come without challenges. Two years into learning our safety planning approach we discovered that our repeat maltreatment numbers had gone up. We analyzed the data, discussed the implications, and concluded that we had been overly optimistic. We improved our rigor and our repeat maltreatment numbers dropped to a level we wouldn’t have previously dared to dream about. If instead we had gone back to doing the work the way we always did it, we would likely be getting the results we always got.

All of us in child welfare are now focused on learning to respond effectively to traumatized children. We aren’t yet doing as much for all of the parents who are stuck in their own childhood trauma and we aren’t likely to help these parents heal by repeating the treatment they received as children. Our Family Assessment approach enables us to respond to parents with more respect and understanding and they can safely pass this on to their children.

Dan Koziolek is a Child and Family Manager at Carver County Community Social Services.

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