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April 2012Vol. 13, No. 3Differential Response for Screened-Out Reports

When families come to the attention of child welfare systems for reports of child maltreatment that do not warrant investigation or formal assessment, they often can benefit from intervention services to prevent future reports. The process through which States point these families toward prevention services is the focus of a recent study conducted by the National Quality Improvement Center on Differential Response (QIC-DR).

Traditionally, differential response refers to an approach that allows child protective services (CPS) agencies to respond in more than one way to screened-in reports of child maltreatment. This study, however, focused on State responses to screened-out reports, which refer to those families who do not warrant CPS intervention but may benefit from other preventive services. 

In April 2011, 102 State public child welfare administrators and Community-Based Child Abuse Prevention (CBCAP) agency contacts were sent an email with a link to and information about the survey. Both CBCAP State leads and State leaders from child welfare systems were surveyed. A total of 49 respondents (48 percent) completed the survey, 13 respondents (13 percent) deferred to the information provided by the other respondent from their State, and 40 contacts (39 percent) did not respond. The QIC-DR was able to gather information from all but seven States.

The survey report provides descriptive summaries of State approaches, contact information for some States, and, where possible, resources regarding their response systems for screened-out reports. The discussion portion of the report strongly focuses on States without formal response systems to screened-out reports as well as information about States implementing new response systems.

Nine States have statewide, formal response systems to screened-out reports, and five States have jurisdictions with formal response systems. Twenty of the 26 States indicated interest in implementing a preventive or early intervention response pathway to screened-out reports. Lisa Merkel-Holguin, Principal Investigator of the QIC-DR, said the increasing interest is expected. "Many States are reorganizing their CPS systems to have a differential response approach. I'm not surprised to see a growing interest by a number of CPS systems looking at screened-out reports because some research shows there to be less variability than anticipated between low- to moderate-risk families that are screened in versus those that are screened out. In addition, these systems desire to serve vulnerable families before additional reports may occur."

Lauren Morley, Manager, Training and Prevention at the American Humane Association, said State approaches vary. "What some States refer to as differential response looks different from practice in other States that refer to their systemic practice using the same terminology. For example, some States are doing excellent work in the way of front-end prevention and early intervention for those families who come to the attention of the system but aren’t screened in for a formal CPS response, and those States are calling that response to screened-out reports a differential response. Through this study, we were able to better understand what these formal responses look like and to more clearly discern what preventive efforts exist in States both with and without a differential response CPS system."

In September 2013, the QIC-DR will release, in partnership with its three research and demonstration sites, final outcomes, cost, and implementation studies. Merkel-Holguin said States might be waiting to see what those results show and how that evidence can inform practice and systems changes.

The authors suggest that further study is needed to develop best practices for serving these vulnerable families. Morley said, "There's not going to be just one model. It's more about what components we can study and learning about how to develop the most effective system with areas where flexibility at the community and State levels will be essential."

Formal Public Child Welfare Responses to Screened-Out Reports of Alleged Maltreatment, by Lauren Morley and Caren Kaplan, is available on the QIC-DR website: (314 KB) 

Special thanks to Lauren Morley, Manager, Prevention and Training at the American Humane Association, and Lisa Merkel-Holguin, Director, System and Practice Advancements in Child Welfare at the American Humane Association and Principal Investigator of the QIC-DR,  for providing the information for this article. 

Related Item

CBX featured an article on the QIC-DR in February 2011 issue, "Innovations in Differential Response Across States," and the February 2010 Spotlight section was focused on differential response.