The Role of Research in Differential Response and Child Welfare

Our Staff


The Role of Research in Differential Response and Child Welfare

NCCD Children's Research Center

The development of a differential response system serves an important function in child welfare. Differential response allows statutory child protective services agencies to have choices in how they respond to reports alleging child maltreatment. The differential response framework was born out of the field’s desire to have an alternative to the traditional response, which was perceived by some workers and families to be accusatory. Differential response provided a new way to foster good worker-family relationships and engage families’ strengths to address their needs.

The choices offered through a differential response program typically include two or three pathways for reports. Allegations that the agency must respond to under law could be assigned a forensic pathway (often called an “investigation” response) or to an alternative approach (often called an “assessment” response). In some jurisdictions, there is a third option to offer a family support response to reports that do not meet the threshold for investigation, if the worker believes the family may need help.

The National Council on Crime and Delinquency’s Children’s Research Center (CRC) has worked across the country with many jurisdictions that have differential response systems, as well as those that do not. CRC supports child welfare agencies in having a range of responses, whether that takes the shape of a differential response framework or something else.

We also believe that any practice approach should take place in conjunction with rigorous assessment and research. Policies that incorporate reliable and valid assessments of safety, risk, and needs help direct families to the right services, ensuring that resources are used in ways that have the best potential to reduce future abuse and neglect.

The issues raised by Hughes et al. in their recent article, “Issues in Differential Response,” published in Research in Social Work Practice, have provoked conversations in the field about what differential response should look like in practice and what kind of research is needed to fully answer that question. This moment provides a useful opportunity for the field to have pragmatic discussions not just about differential response, but about any approach to child welfare and the essential role research should play in helping us examine practice.

CRC does not view the issues raised by Hughes et al. as reasons to dismiss differential response, but rather as a call to refine our approach to defining, measuring, and evaluating the practice. It is CRC’s hope that the Hughes et al. article will lead not to abandonment of a practice, but to renewed urgency, and will address methodological issues in the evaluation of promising practices and the use of evaluation findings in policy decision making.

”Issues in Differential Response” author Dr. Ronald Hughes is a board member of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

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