Increasingly, States are using a differential response system, also known as alternative response, multiple response, and dual tracking. Differential responses arose primarily from the recognition that families referred to the child welfare system often face numerous issues, including substance abuse, domestic violence, mental illness, or economic and food insecurity, and that in certain circumstances an investigation, which might be adversarial, may not be helpful in meeting the family’s needs. They allow Child Protective Services (CPS) agencies to be more flexible in how they respond to child maltreatment reports and engage families more effectively in using services that address their specific needs.
Actual implementation of differential response varies among and even within States. Generally, agencies use level of risk or need as the criteria to open a case, rather than a report of abuse or neglect. Therefore, depending on the practices of the State, differential response may be used in cases that are either screened in or screened out during the intake process. If a case is screened in and deemed to have no significant safety and risk concerns, the agency may choose to conduct an differential response in lieu of an investigation. In addition, some States employ various types of differential response. Some States may, in addition to differential response and investigation, also have a resource referral/prevention track for reports that do not meet CPS screening criteria but suggest a need for community services. In these situations, a referral is made without opening the case for either an investigation or a differential response.
Although differences exist among and within States, differential response practices do have some common characteristics. The Child Welfare Information Gateway identifies six of them. Differential responses are:
- Assessment focused: The primary focus tends to be on assessing families' strengths and needs. Substantiation of an alleged incident is not the priority.
- Individualized: Cases are handled differently depending on families' unique needs and situations.
- Family-centered: A differential response uses a strengths-based, family engagement approach.
- Community oriented: Families on the assessment track are referred to services that fit their needs and issues. This requires availability and coordination of appropriate and timely community services and presumes a shared responsibility for child protection.
- Selective: A differential response is not employed when the most serious types of maltreatment are alleged, particularly those that are likely to require court intervention, such as sexual abuse or severe harm to a child.
- Flexible: The response track can be changed based on ongoing risk and safety considerations. If a family refuses assessment or services, the agency may conduct an investigation or close the case.
However, a differential response track will still share many underlying principles with the traditional child protection approach. They will:
- Focus on the safety and well-being of the child
- Promote permanency within the family whenever possible
- Recognize the authority of CPS agencies to make decisions about whether removal from the home and out-of-home placement is necessary, and when to involve the courts
- Acknowledge that in some cases other services, including voluntary or community services, may be more appropriate than those provided by the CPS agency
Once the agency has decided to use a differential response track, it will conduct a family assessment to determine the family’s needs. Based on this assessment, the agency will provide the family with referrals to community providers. After services begin, the agency will continue to monitor the family’s progress, performing ongoing assessments to ensure that the family continues to receive appropriate services, and, if necessary, providing additional services.
If the family actively engages in these services and is able to resolve problematic safety factors and lower the risk that led to agency involvement, then the case can be closed. If the risk cannot be lowered or eliminated and the agency determines that the child or children cannot remain in the home safely, then the case may need to move onto an investigation track.
It is important to note that while the agency can attempt to engage the family in strengths-based services, the agency cannot usually force participation. If a family refuses to engage in services, case closure is likely to occur, unless safety concerns justify a shift in the agency's approach to a formal investigation track.