Differential Response

Differential response is an alternative to the traditional investigations in child welfare for accepted reports of abuse or neglect. In most states, for low- to moderate-risk accepted reports of child maltreatment, differential response focuses on partnering with families to provide services that meet their needs while dismissing the labels of perpetrator and victim and removing the determination or finding that is often required by statute.

Many communities are using differential response as a way to enhance their child welfare system to avoid creating adversarial relationships with families and increase their voluntary engagement in services.

What is Differential Response?

Engaging — Not Just Investigating — Families

Child abuse and neglect reports vary significantly. For example, an isolated incident of inadequate supervision is not comparable to repeatedly hitting a toddler for misbehaving. Nor is either of these the same as the sexual exploitation of a young person by his/her parent.

In traditional child protective services systems, without differential response, there is only one response to all of those reports. Child welfare workers investigate the allegation that results in a formal disposition indicating whether or not maltreatment occurred. Currently, research findings indicate that this single approach is not effective in all types of reports of maltreatment.

That’s why differential response, also referred to as “dual track,” “multiple track” or “alternative response,” has emerged. It is an approach that allows child protective services to respond in multiple ways to abuse and neglect allegations. The ways in which differential response is practiced varies; however, generally, for high risk reports, an investigation ensues while for low- and moderate-risk cases with no immediate safety concerns, a family assessment is conducted which gauges the family’s needs and strengths. Research shows that these families who receive an assessment rather than an investigation are more likely to be receptive to and engaged in the receipt of services when they are approached in a non-adversarial, non-accusatory manner.

The Kempe Center’s national initiative is exploring differential response to provide the field with comprehensive information and resources. Our initiative has expanded to include technical assistance and training for states, tribes and other jurisdictions on the design, launch, implementation and evaluation of differential response.

The Core Elements of Differential Response

In 2006, Merkel-Holguin, et al. conducted a national survey on differential response in child welfare. Core elements were identified in order to clearly define and distinguish differential response from the multitude of child protection reforms across the nation’s state and county child welfare systems. These core elements have been slightly adapted over time.

The core elements common across child welfare agencies that practice differential response include:

Use of multiple, discrete tracks of intervention when screening in and responding to maltreatment reports; these tracks are codified in statute, policy and/or protocols.

  • Determining track assignment by:
    • presence of imminent danger;
    • evel of risk;
    • the number of previous reports;
    • the source of the report; and/or
    • presenting case characteristics, such as the type of alleged maltreatment and the age of the alleged victim.
  • The ability to decrease or elevate original track assignments based on additional information gathered during the investigation or assessment phase.
  • Providing voluntary services for families who receive a non-investigatory response, meaning families can accept or refuse the offered services without consequence.
  • No identification of perpetrators and victims for the alleged reports of maltreatment that receive a non-investigation response.
  • No entry of the name of the alleged perpetrator into the central registry for those individuals who are served through a non-investigation track.


Contact Us