Differential is Essential

By Caren Kaplan  Mark Redmond’s description of Differential Response is not accurate.

His September column (“Is Differential too Deferential?”) mischaracterizes the DR process and raises suspicions that it has contributed to child abuse deaths. Rigorous evaluation findings of differential response in Minnesota and Ohio, from field experiments conducted by the Institute of Applied Research, do not support those views.

 For decades, the child welfare system has responded to reports of alleged maltreatment as if all reports were the same. But families who come to the attention of the child welfare system are not identical to one another. Families, like individuals, have distinct histories, particular circumstances and specific challenges.

DR offers child protection systems the ability to respond in diverse ways, with approaches that effectively target the needs of each family, as determined by their own assessment, and by the agency’s assessment.  What is most important is that safety of children is not compromised.

DR is a child protection approach that values the families’ identification of its own needs and connects families with services that build their capacity to keep their children safe. DR focuses less on investigative fact-finding and more on assessing and ensuring child safety in cases that are of low and moderate risk.  Services are provided to families without a formal determination of whether abuse/neglect did or did not occur.

When effectively implemented, DR can prevent the increase of risks of harm to a child and thus avoid more serious instances of maltreatment, as well as future involvement with the child welfare system. 

The investigation response remains the viable and appropriate response to cases that are of a more serious nature, such as sexual abuse and serious physical abuse. (For example: shaken baby, broken bones and burns.) Any situation that requires the active involvement of law enforcement or court intervention is not suitable for DR. Once the family is assigned to receive the investigation response or the differential response, this decision can be changed. Re-assignment can occur if family circumstances warrant such a change.

In the 15 –month evaluation of Ohio’s Alternative Response Pilot Project, information collected on control and experimental groups of 4,529 families generated significant findings:

  • No evidence that replacement of investigation responses with differential responses reduced the safety of the children. Children were as safe under differential response as under investigation approaches.
  • Subsequent reporting of families for child maltreatment declined, particularly among minority families – the most impoverished families in the study.
  • Removals and out?of?home placements (foster care) of children declined.
  • Provision of poverty?related services increased, such as food and clothing, utility assistance, rental payments, car repair and transportation, and other financial help.
  • Families served through DR were more frequently connected to counseling and mental health services.
  • Families were more engaged, more satisfied with their workers and more satisfied with services they received under DR.

These Ohio results are consistent with the findings of Minnesota’s longitudinal evaluation.

National data on child victimization is based on data provided by states. Thus, states with large populations can have major impacts when there are changes in definitions or data collection methods. Redmond cites dramatic decreases in the numbers of children substantiated as abused or neglected. In 2007, the national total of children substantiated as abused and neglected decreased from 903,000 to 784,000. Isolating DR as the single cause of these changes is not accurate.  For example, beginning in 2007, Florida reclassified reports with a disposition of “some indication” of abuse and neglect to the category of “other”.  This changed the state’s total number from approximately 134,000 child “victims” in 2006 to 53,000 in 2007. 

Attention to data trends is important, but that is not the issue. We need to structure a child welfare system that provides a continuum of responses, from which selections can be made based on the family’s presenting needs and situation, in order to optimize the possibility of building safety around the child by meeting these needs. The continuum should include supports and services that prevent abuse and neglect from happening in the first place, provide services that can keep families intact where child safety can be assured, address the unique needs of families and children that cycle in and out of the child protection system, and help the most vulnerable children find permanent, loving families.

 In 1993, Missouri and Florida became the first DR states. Today almost half of the nation’s states are implementing some form of differential response. They understand, as we do, that the family who needs assistance in providing supervision for young children is not the same as the family who is impacted by chemical dependency, and still not the same as the family who cannot adequately explain why their infant has serious brain trauma. All vulnerable families with issues that threaten child safety warrant our attention. It makes good sense to diversify our responses to families to reach our common, preeminent goal: to protect children and keep them safe from harm.      


Caren Kaplan, ACSW, is director of child protection reform at American Humane Association.


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