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March 2008Vol. 9, No. 2Hawaii's Differential Response System: An Interview With John Walters

Hawaii's differential response system, implemented in 2005, has already shown compelling positive outcomes for children and families and for the caseworkers who provide services. In a recent interview, John Walters, the Program Development Administrator for the Department of Human Services, talked with Children's Bureau Express (CBX) about the development and implementation of this significant systems change.

CBX: What were some of the factors that prompted Hawaii's Child Welfare Services (CWS) to implement a differential response system?
Walters: There were two main factors that motivated the change, and both of them came out of our CFSR and PIP. The first was the high percentage of cases that were "risk" cases rather than "safety" concerns. Also, about two-thirds of the children who came into foster care returned home in a short time, so we knew we could probably maintain those children safely in the home with services. The second factor was the high caseload that our workers were carrying—averaging about 24 families per worker. With the workload requirements, we did the math and realized our workers were not going to be able to meet the PIP goals and would have no time to provide other services to the families. We decided to implement a differential response system, because we believe it provides the most effective approach to serving families with risk issues that focuses on family strengthening and removal prevention as an identified alternative. This would also provide CWS workers with additional, needed time to support families with safety factors. We saw that we could address both of the factors with differential response.

CBX: Talk about the implementation and the different components of your differential response program.
Walters: One of the first things we did was to contact the National Resource Center for Child Protective Services (NRC CPS). We knew that they could tell us what works in other States and help us find the best solutions. Working with Theresa Costello and the other NRC staff, we developed a web-based intake process that allows us to triage incoming reports. Using this system, all reports of child maltreatment now fall into four categories:

  • No response
  • Low risk, to be addressed with Family Strengthening Services for up to 6 months
  • Moderate risk, to be addressed with Voluntary Case Management for up to 1 year
  • High risk/safety concern, to be addressed with a child welfare services investigation

Both the Family Strengthening Services and the Voluntary Case Management are in-home services systems and were able to take on this new responsibility. We already had positive relationships with these providers, and they enhanced their services to take on this new responsibility. The ability to refer cases without safety factors that are identified as low, moderate, or moderate high to the private agencies frees up our CWS staff to take on the most serious cases.

To ensure consistent safety assessments, both the private agencies and State CWS staff use the same safety assessment instrument. This is the first activity conducted by a private agency when visiting the family home. If Family Strengthening Services or Voluntary Case Management providers find that there is a safety concern—which happens in approximately 15 percent of the cases they see—the agency then refers the case back to CWS for an assessment and possible investigation.

We outstation two of our CWS staff members in each Voluntary Case Management agency to ensure good collaboration between the two systems. This position, called the Voluntary Case Liaison, helps address issues such as confidentiality and access to prior CWS involvement and/or criminal history, as the Liaison has access and enters specific case information into our CWS system.

CBX: How has this systems change been accepted by families, workers, and other stakeholders?
Walters: We've been very fortunate with the response. Of course, the families and children like it better, because we are removing fewer children. Families trust us more, and they feel like we are working with them. Caseworkers were initially concerned about the safety of the children, but they knew that a change was needed, and they really stepped up to the plate and embraced the change. They saw that we had a chance to make things better and to forge strong partnerships with the community in the process. The private agencies have fully embraced this program and are committed to supporting the philosophy of working with families to support and keep the family together. So, I would say that differential response has been well received all around.

CBX: Tell us about your evaluation and outcomes.
Walters: It’s been great to see positive change. In Hawaii, for at least 7-8 years, the caseloads had been going up, the children in foster care were also increasing, and until we implemented the differential response system, it looked like things were just going to keep getting worse. The differential response system did everything we had hoped it could accomplish. Overall, 38 percent of cases now go to Family Strengthening Services and Voluntary Case Management. But the best news is that the number of children in out-of-home care has decreased by 20 percent, and caseloads for workers have dropped from an average of 24 to 18. In addition, recurrence of child abuse and neglect decreased from 5.7 percent in 2004 to 2.2 percent in 2007.

We're planning a full-scale evaluation effort that will encompass the whole system. And we're anxious to see the numbers from our next CFSR, when that happens in 2009. In the meantime, we're continuing to reach out to the community and make improvements wherever we can to ensure the safety, permanency, and well-being of Hawaii's children and families.

John Walters can be contacted at

Visit the website for the 2007 Children's Bureau Conference for Agencies and Courts to download a PowerPoint presentation on "Hawaii's Differential Response System: Practical Implementation Strategies That Led to Successful Outcomes" [editor's note: this link no longer exists].