U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Surveys Differential Response

This month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released a brief about the efficacy of differential response (DR) and child safety in six states that have implemented this child protection strategy for over ten years. The department collaborated with the Kempe Center at the University of Colorado to compare rates of re-reports and re-reports with substantiation across counties in these states that used DR. Results suggest that the practice did not jeopardize child safety, and in some states it improved child safety.

The findings of this study will contribute to a heated national conversation about the reality of what differential response means for child safety: Have its proponents’ attempts to create a family-centered, strengths-based system of response for children in crisis succeeded? Or has DR, as some scholars argue, enabled child protection services to prioritize a more cost-neutral system over the safety of children in its care?

Differential response means that an agency has “more than one method of initial response to reports of child abuse and neglect,” according to a Children’s Bureau newsletter. In a nutshell,

“The basic rationale for DR is that child welfare systems respond to cases that range widely in terms of the risk and safety issues that families present, so systems should have more flexibility than a single investigation response can offer in responding to these diverse needs.”

According to the report, while the different methods an agency uses vary by state and county, in general they can be talked about as Investigative Response (IR) and Alternative Response (IR). IR is the traditional method, which uses a more “forensically oriented” approach “to determine whether or not there is evidence that a maltreatment incident has occurred and to identify the perpetrator(s).”

Its counterpart, AR, is used to encourage families “to accept and use prevention services,” and comes into play when “risk and safety threats are not so imminent as to demand an investigative response.” Acceptance and use of prevention services is voluntary for families sorted into the AR category, which has sparked criticism from scholars who highlight the jeopardy of parents’ turning those services down.

This research brief cites multiple studies that assert AR is safe for children, effective in engaging families positively and cost neutral. Said-research was foundational for this brief, which then looked more closely at Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Tennessee, the six states that used DR statewide from 2004-2013. It is worth noting that in January of 2015, Minnesota — one of the six states focused on in this study – moved toward discontinuing the use of DR.

In each of the six states in this study, researchers examined the “relationship between the risk of the populations served in AR and IR tracks” and the rates of re-reporting incidents, a factor used to reflect child safety, across each state and its counties.

Researchers specifically sought to determine the statistical relationship between an alternative response and the number of times a re-report or substantiated re-report was issued, meaning that another call or report of abuse or neglect was made on behalf of a child after the alternative response was carried out. In the case of a substantiated re-report, it means that the suspicion of abuse or neglect was confirmed to have happened.

AR was used to different degrees in each state, with Oklahoma utilizing AR 29 percent of the time, Minnesota using it 60 percent of the time, and the other three states falling in the middle.

There were three relationships looked at:

  • A positive relationship, wherein the higher the use of AR by child protective services, the higher the rate of re-report.
  • A negative relationship, wherein higher use of AR showed lower rates of re-reports or substantiated re-reports.
  • No relationship, which shows no systemic difference between counties with high use of AR versus low use of AR.

While establishing this relationship between AR and rates of re-reports in the states and counties in question does not show that AR causes the change in level of re-report, researchers did seek to control for multiple factors that could also account for the relationship between AR and re-reports.

Ultimately, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Tennessee all showed a significant negative relationship between AR and re-reports, and the remaining three showed no relationship. All states except Missouri reportedly showed a significant negative relationship between AR and substantiated re-reports.

Data from individual counties within each state also showed consistently lower rates of re-reporting where use of AR was higher than the state’s median use of AR.

Overall, results of this study show that as far as differential response is concerned in the six states studied, using alternative response in child protective services cases is not connected to higher levels of re-reporting and substantiated re-reporting, and in some states is connected to lower levels of both.

The implementation of this system continues to change around the country, and is used to differing degrees in different states. However, authors acknowledge that “the findings of this study are applicable only to the six states we examined; the implementation experiences of other states could be different.”

For the full study, click here.

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