Social Work Differential Response in Child Welfare
Patricia Carlson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0302


In the late 1990s, child welfare jurisdictions in the United States and other countries began to implement an alternative approach to allow for a more flexible response to differing needs and circumstance of families reported to child protective services (CPS). This alternative approach to structuring child welfare services is commonly referred to as differential response (DR); it is also called alternative response (AR), family assessment response (FAR), multiple response (MR), or dual track. Currently, thirty-two states have legislation to enact or pilot-test a DR approach. DR is not a practice model but rather a policy orientation that focuses on broadly assessing the family’s situation to identify underlying needs and issues. DR consists of practice reforms intended to provide families involved with the child welfare system with the concrete services and supports needed to provide a safe environment for their children. In jurisdictions with DR, accepted reports (i.e., reports to CPS that meet a legal definition of abuse or neglect) are assigned to either an investigation response (IR) or an alternative response, depending on the type of allegation and factors such as safety concerns, risks, prior reports of abuse or neglect, the victim’s age and relationship to the alleged perpetrator, reports of domestic violence, and substance use. The IR involves a forensic approach to gather the evidence needed to formally determine whether an incident of child abuse or neglect occurred, as defined by state law. Cases assigned AR are accepted reports of child abuse and neglect that are generally low- and moderate-risk cases, With AR cases, social workers conduct a comprehensive assessment and work to meet families’ needs with concrete services and supports. In addition, AR cases do not require a formal determination of child abuse or neglect, and the names of alleged perpetrators are not entered into a central registry. The track assignment for AR families can change if new information is discovered or if the family’s situation changes, necessitating an IR.

Introductory Works

Prior to DR, child abuse or neglect cases deemed low or moderate risk often closed following completion of an investigation, and a significant percentage of these families were subsequently rereported to the child welfare system. There was acknowledgment that the child welfare system was not meeting the needs of these families. Several sources describe the foundation of DR. Conley 2007; Crane 2010; English, et al. 2000; Godsoe 2012; and Ji and Sullivan 2016 provide an overview of the need for reform in the child welfare system, as well as implementation suggestions. Kyte, et al. 2013 gives a review of early DR implementation studies. Child Welfare Information Gateway 2020 explains that DR is not a manualized practice intervention but a way to structure child protective services. Merkel-Holguin, et al. 2006 identifies the core elements of DR, to provide definitional clarity of the approach as well as to distinguish it from other child protection reforms. National Conference of State Legislatures 2019 and Child Welfare Information Gateway 2019 provide an overview of laws and policies that address DR, including the Child Abuse Protection and Treatment Act (CAPTA), as well as state-specific policies and regulations.

  • Child Welfare Information Gateway. 2019. About CAPTA: A legislative history. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.

    Describes the legislative history of CAPTA, originally enacted on 31 January 1974 (P. L. 93–247), through its reauthorizations and the amendments enacted on 7 January 2019.

  • Child Welfare Information Gateway. 2020. Differential response: A primer for child welfare professionals. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.

    Offers a basic primer on DR aimed at child welfare professionals. Provides a description of DR, approaches to implementation, and considerations for practice.

  • Conley, Amy. 2007. Differential response: A critical examination of a secondary prevention model. Children and Youth Services Review 29.11: 1454–1468.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.childyouth.2007.06.003

    Provides an overview of the need for reform in the child welfare system and discusses intervention strategies, including voluntary service provision, home visits, paraprofessional service delivery, and targeting basic and concrete needs.

  • Crane, Kelly. 2010. Taking a different approach. State Legislatures 36.1: 33.

    A brief overview of early DR implementation in Florida and Missouri. The author highlights key issues for policymakers, engaging families in services, community resource availability, and jurisdiction liability issues.

  • English, Diana J., Tom Wingard, David Marshall, Matt Orme, and Anna Orme. 2000. Alternative responses to child protective services: Emerging issues and concerns. Child Abuse & Neglect 24.3: 375–388.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0145-2134(99)00151-9

    This early study of a DR model highlights the issues that precipitated the need for a new approach to child welfare practice, and the importance of establishing clear criteria for diversion to community services.

  • Godsoe, Cynthia. 2012. Just intervention: Differential response in child protection. Journal of Law & Policy 21.1: 73–92.

    Highlights the differences between DR and a traditional child welfare approach and discusses its potential to better engage parents and families. The author cautions that DR will not change our approach to child welfare, because overall design of the child welfare systems are still the same and do not include a preventive component.

  • Ji, Daniel, and Richard Sullivan. 2016. The manifest and latent functions of differential response in child welfare. Research on Social Work Practice 26.6: 641–652.

    DOI: 10.1177/1049731515605185

    The authors discuss the emergence of DR in the context of residualism.

  • Kyte, Alicia, Nico Trocmé, and Claire Chamberland. 2013. Evaluating where we’re at with differential response. Child Abuse & Neglect 37.2: 125–132.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2012.10.003

    A review of DR studies published from 2000 to 2012. The review focuses on effectiveness, screening, family assessment, and organizational considerations. The authors offer recommendations for further DR implementation.

  • Merkel-Holguin, Lisa, Caren Kaplan, and Alina Kwak. 2006. National study on differential response in child welfare. Washington, DC: American Humane.

    Identifies the core elements of DR to provide definitional clarity. This first national study of fifteen sites implementing DR indicates that there is variation in how DR is implemented, but that general low- and moderate-risk cases received an assessment response that was not forensic in nature and did not include formal substantiation.

  • National Conference of State Legislatures. 2019. Differential response in child protective services: Analysis of state legislative provisions. Washington, DC: National Conference of State Legislatures

    Provides an overview of the core elements of DR, analysis of state legislative provisions, and a listing of state enacted DR legislation.

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