Evaluating the differential response approach in child protection : a systematic review of the evidence




Traish, Nawal Murjana

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In U.S. Fiscal Year 2017, states responded to 2.4 million calls reporting child abuse or neglect, spanning from inadequate supervision to severe physical maltreatment (U.S. Children’s Bureau, 2017). Since the mid-1990s, child welfare reformers have increasingly acknowledged that such a volume of reports warrants a wider, more flexible range of interventions than the standard fact-finding investigation. Today, the majority of states offer at least two distinct responses to child maltreatment reports through an approach known as Differential Response (DR). Despite the rapid proliferation of DR over the past two decades, critics have charged that it does not keep children as safe as traditional one-track systems, and some states have discontinued their pilot programs after mixed results. This report takes a systematic review approach to identify and assess the most rigorous published studies examining DR’s impact on child maltreatment recidivism. The balance of evidence supports the claim that DR, and in particular the Alternative Response (AR) track, has kept children equally as safe, or safer, than their counterparts served by the traditional investigative response. Qualitative research has also revealed that caregivers receive the Alternative Response intervention more positively than the traditional investigation. The report identifies key differences in jurisdictions’ implementation of DR that have led to varying levels of success and offers policy and practice recommendations based on state and county practices that have yielded the best outcomes. Disparate research methodologies also contributed to different findings on child safety outcomes. The report recommends more consistent analytic strategies to make state DR evaluations comparable to one another and to build a stronger national consensus on the efficacy of the approach


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