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Differential Response: A new approach to fighting child abuse and neglect

Differential Response: Recognizing that one size does not fit all

For as long as child protective service agencies have been in existence, they have been surrounded by a stigma in the communities that they serve. For decades, child protective services (CPS) has been battling the perception that the system separates parents, children, and siblings, effectively breaking apart families with devastating effects.

In addition to an uphill battle in perception, CPS agencies have been challenged by large volumes of child abuse and neglect reports and decreasing resources. Facing mounting challenges, Illinois stakeholders agreed that it was time to rethink approaches to helping families in need. Illinois is one of 17 states that is experimenting with an innovative new approach to child abuse and neglect called differential response.

Research has shown that one size does not fit all when it comes to child maltreatment. For the past several years, Illinois and many states across the nation have been undergoing a paradigm shift. Differential response offers tailored services to lower risk families in the child welfare system. At the 2012 Family Impact Seminar, hosted by IGPA and several co-sponsors (see below), researchers, practitioners, and experts on family policy gathered to discuss the effectiveness of differential response, and ways to ensure the approach’s success in Illinois.

The Panel

The panel included widely respected experts on the differential response approach, including:

  • Womazetta Jones, Project Director, Differential Response, Illinois Department of Children and Family Services
  • Tamara Fuller, Director, Children and Family Research Center, School of Social Work, UIUC
  • Kelly Crane, Child Welfare Policy Specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures
  • Joel Rosch, Senior Research Scholar, Policy Liaison, Center for Child and Family Policy, Duke University

What is Differential Response?

In November 2010, Illinois began implementing a 5-year trial approach to child protection services called differential response. Differential response is a new approach to serving clients reported for child abuse and neglect, depending on the severity of the allegation. Womazetta Jones, who is charged with implementing differential response with Illinois DCFS, said that differential response is for cases that are assessed as low- and moderate-risk. The assessment process takes into account the underlying conditions and factors that may jeopardize a child’s safety; for example: access to food, health care, and shelter.


“Under differential response, you don’t come into the system as a suspect.”


In contrast to the traditional investigative approach, in which CPS agents seek evidence of maltreatment, differential response instead begins with creating a relationship with caregivers to build upon the strengths and needs defined by the family. Assessment are not formal, or in other words, once the child is determined to be safe, the caregiver is not entered into a central database. Participation is completely voluntary, and the caregiver will work with a caseworker to determine what services will best fit the strengths of their family unit. In Illinois, caseworkers provide intensive services, working with the family for a 60- to 90-day period.

“Under differential response, you don’t come into the system as a suspect,” said Joel Rosch of Duke University. “Differential response workers approach the parents first; that makes a big difference.” This shift in approach is intended to engage the family to create a system of support.

Illinois is implementing a paired team approach where one representative from DCFS will accompany one community-based service worker to meet with the family. Unique in Illinois, the differential response worker is separate from any work occuring in the CPS agency. According to the University of Illinois Children and Family Research Center, the differential response worker will act as a family coach or advocate. The worker has a maximum of 12 cases at one time, and is dedicated to each family as a change agent.

For example, if DCFS receives a report that a child is suffering from neglect, a caseworker will call the caregiver to set up a convenient time and place to meet to discuss the issue at hand. Once the caseworker conducts a home visit to determine that the child is safe, he or she will offer to work with the family to help meet their needs. If the family accepts the service, they will evaluate their strengths and find ways to address any issues. A caseworker may teach a mother how to diaper her new baby. Or, a caseworker may connect the mother to federal and statewide food assistance programs or help her secure reliable childcare.

The Illinois General Assembly were very involved in the decision to implement differential response in Illinois, said Kelly Crane of the National Conference of State Legislatures. Illinois legislators helped define child abuse, found ways to fund the new approach, and legally required evaluation. This involvement has made a difference in the type of program enacted in Illinois. Crane said that differential response is being looked at in many states; 30 states have a program that includes at least some components of differential response, and 17 are implementing the approach in full.

Does it Work?

As more and more states begin to implement pilot programs of this nature, researchers are delving into the important component of evaluation. In 2009, Illinois was chosen as one of three states to participate in a research and demonstration program through the National Quality Improvement Center on Differential Response in Child Protective Services (QIC-DR). Along with Colorado and Ohio, Illinois will implement and evaluate a differential response program and undergo comprehensive evaluation from planning to implementation to long-term results.

So far, the evaluation has found that differential response is “going well,” according to Tamara Fuller (above, right) of the University of Illinois Child and Family Research Center, one of the organizations working with QIC-DR to research differential response in Illinois. “Client satisfaction measures are way up,” Fuller said. Clients report that they have more pathways to receive more services, and are satisfied with the help they receive. Workers also find that the system allows them to make more progress with clients.

The technical programming of differential response varies from state to state, so costs also vary. However, research shows that overall, differential response is slightly more expensive in the short-run, but has long-term cost savings.

Fuller said that one area where research could make a contribution is in evaluating effects on family functioning and wellbeing. Data are not available to make strong conclusions on how the approach is affecting the inner workings of the families in need.


Clients report that they have more pathways to receive more services, and are satisfied with the help they receive.


Yet before declaring the approach a homerun, Rosch said practitioners and researchers must address some important misperceptions.

First, research has not shown that differential response leads to fewer reports. However, as Rosch pointed out, this does not mean that it is not working. More reports may instead indicate that families are more willing to seek help.

Second, the number and severity of cases judges face are not decreasing. Judges often express concern, because from their point of view, there has been little change. Yet oftentimes, Rosch said, this can be attributed to a decrease in the number of moderate- to low- risk cases going to court due to differential response intervention. The number of cases may not change due to the sheer backlog of cases in the system.

This brings up an important goal for implementation: clearly communicating the goals of differential response to all stakeholders, including judges, law enforcement agents, educators, child advocates, and the media.


Speaking from experience with a similar approach in North Carolina, Joel Rosch had some clear advice for Illinois: “You can’t do this alone.” 


What’s Next for Illinois?

In order for differential response to be effective in Illinois, the panelists pointed to a few key factors:

  • Systems must be in place to ensure realistic implementation
  • All groups involved must be committed to planning and evaluation systems
  • Stakeholders must be involved in every way possible—local schools, law enforcement agencies, and medical professionals should see differential response as a component of a wider effort to more effectively deliver a system of care to clients
  • CPS must convince parents that they are not going to “snatch children,” but instead are going to help the family access the essential services they need
  • Those leading the implementation process must also create a coordinated effort to explain the goals and effects of differential response to the media, legislators, judges, and other stakeholders, so that they understand how the paradigm shift is occurring, and its long-term policy goals

Speaking from experience with a similar approach in North Carolina, Joel Rosch had some clear advice for Illinois: “You can’t do this alone.” Rosch said that building allies with all social institutions will be essential to long-term success.

For more on differential response in Illinois, visit: University of Illinois Children and Family Research Center  

For more on the system in North Carolina, visit Duke’s Center for Child and Family Policy  

For more on evaluation, see the University of Illinois Children and Family Research Center’s “Differential Response in Illinois: 2011 Site Visit Report”  (PDF)

This year’s Family Impact Seminar was part of the Council on Contemporary Families Annual Conference, co-sponsored by the University-Based Child and Family Policy Consortium. The event, “Crossing Boundaries: Public and Private Roles in Assuring Child Well-Being,” was held in Chicago on April 27 and 28. The event was co-hosted by IGPA and the UIC Department of Sociology, and co-sponsored by: (from The University of Illinois at Chicago) College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; Gender & Women’s Studies Program; Honors College; Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement; Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy; Jane Addams College of Social Work; Office of Faculty Affairs; Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Affairs; Urban Health Program, College of Nursing. (From the Consortium) Center for Child and Family Policy, Duke University; Center for Family Resilience, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign; Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago; Schubert Center for Child Studies, Case Western Reserve University.