(Originally published October 2018)

Differential response (DR) in which screened in CPS reports are assigned to either (a) an investigative track which results in a CPS “finding” such as substantiated or unsubstantiated, or (b) an assessment track which may include an offer of services, but no finding of parental fault. This is arguably the biggest change in U.S. child protection systems during the past two decades. Currently, almost half of states employ some version of differential response which, in Washington State, is named Family Assessment Response (FAR).  Consider how almost all state child protection systems operated prior to differential response:


  • State laws that defined child neglect emphasized parental fault, failure, inability or refusal to meet a child's need for food, shelter, clothing, hygiene, medical and dental care, with (in some states) a poverty exception that protected parents from CPS findings of negligence when parental inability to provide for a child's basic needs was due to lack of financial resources.

  • No state statute that defined neglect required the public child welfare agency to connect a destitute family with poverty related services or to fund services not available in the community. 

  • Screened in CPS reports, no matter how minor the allegations, were investigated. These investigations were substantiated, unsubstantiated, “indicated” or found to be inconclusive. In some states (but not Washington) only families substantiated for child abuse or neglect were eligible for services.

  • CPS caseworkers made initial unannounced home visits in almost all investigations; alleged child victims were interviewed at school or elsewhere and, if possible, without prior notice to parents.

  • State child welfare systems had a thin array of family support services; some agencies had no poverty related services, or one-time only services, with which to assist poor or severely poor families. 

  • Parents with substantiated allegations for any type of child maltreatment were placed on a central registry, or were otherwise prohibited by law from working in some occupations.

  • Most out-of-home placements of maltreated children occurred through emergency removals that involved law enforcement officers. These placements were followed within a few days by shelter care hearings and, a few weeks later, by a dependency hearing. The federal government eventually limited the length of voluntary placements to a few months, with financial penalties for ignoring these limits. As a consequence, some state systems began to discourage the use of voluntary placements.


The permanent planning “clock” began ticking on the day a child was placed in foster care, even if the placement was voluntary. Child welfare agencies were required to file a termination of parental rights action for children in care for 15 out of 22 months (and more quickly in some states) unless there were “compelling reasons” not to do so. 


Taken together, this was (and is) an intimidating set of laws and practices that I have described in a few past commentaries as civil policing of the parenting of the poor.  These CPS policies and practices were developed by states in the 1960's in response to shocking cases of battered babies, and then extended to reports of sexual abuse in the 1970's. Permanent planning laws were added in the 1980's and 90's.  However, from the very beginning of modern state and county child welfare systems, reports of child neglect far outnumbered reports of physical abuse or sexual abuse. For many neglect reports, investigation has been a useless waste of time and energy when it is not actually harmful. Referrals of severely abused babies and other young children have never exceeded 1-2% of CPS reports in the United States.


Consider the following scenario:


A public health nurse who makes a home visit to the single mother of a low birth weight 3-month-old finds that the child has a severe diaper rash and that the mother is irritable with the baby during the feeding episode she witnesses while in the home. The baby smells like she has not been bathed recently.  The mother admits to being depressed and having trouble getting out of bed to feed and change the baby during the night.  The mother needs and wants help, but is frightened that CPS will take her baby. The nurse states that the baby is growing normally, but is beginning to look a bit delayed in motor development.


In the strange new world of child protection, some state systems employing the dubious 'Safe/Unsafe' distinction might actually screen out this report but, in most states in past decades, the report would have been screened in and investigated. If the CPS investigator found no additional reasons to be concerned about the baby's safety and welfare other than information provided by the public health nurse in the CPS report, this mother might have been offered parenting education, child care and referral to a physician or mental health agency, depending on the skills, values and workload of the investigator, the availability of community services and the mother's willingness to accept services. Nevertheless, the investigator would have been required to make a “finding” of substantiated/unsubstantiated/indicated or inconclusive, and it's possible the mother could have been found to be negligent due to the diaper rash and poor hygiene of the baby without receiving any services whatsoever. What parent in their right mind would voluntarily ask for help from an agency operating in this way?


Compare the following scenario:


An aunt of a 3-year-old child calls CPS to report that her sister is locking her niece in her bedroom for hours both during the day and in the evening when she's partying with her boyfriend and his “druggie” buddies. The aunt reports that when the mother is irritable after drug binges she slaps Angela, the 3-year-old, “hard,”  pulls the child around the apartment by the hair and calls her bad names. The aunt claims to have seen the mother drag Angela to her bedroom by the hair. The boyfriend (not Angela's father) is also emotionally abusive to the child, according to the aunt.  “Angela is scared to death and she has reason to be,” the aunt states. Angela is not yet toilet trained which infuriates the mother, according to the aunt. The aunt asserts that there are other family members who have observed mistreatment of the child and may be willing to talk to the investigator, but (she says) “they're afraid of the boyfriend. He's a scary guy.”


This report warrants investigation because it is important to determine if the aunt's specific allegations, i.e., locking the child in the bedroom for hours, slapping the child, hair pulling and name calling are true.  When effective child protection depends on gathering accurate information regarding specific alleged incidents of child maltreatment and a pattern of parenting practices denied by a birth parent, use of an investigative protocol makes sense. If the aunt's allegations are true, this 3 year old may be in mortal danger without (as yet) having any apparent inflicted injury. Law enforcement agencies are unlikely to investigate a report of this type.


Differences among differential response systems


State and county child welfare systems that have implemented DR have had widely varying percentages of CPS reports assigned to the assessment track, e.g. from less than 10% to more than 80%. Some early adopters of DR, e.g., Minnesota, assigned two thirds of screened in CPS reports to assessment tracks in various counties for many years. Other states, such as Washington, have had close to a 50/50 ratio of investigations to assessments. Such large variations in the ratio of assessments to investigations suggest differences in the criteria used by screening units to assign tracks. Most DR systems use some combination of safety and risk assessment criteria to assign tracks, but may routinely assign all reports of sexual abuse and recent physical abuse to the investigative track. In some states, all reports that involve children  age 3 and under are assigned to the investigative track. Every DR system allows cases assigned to the assessment track to be transferred to the investigative track following an initial home visit.  However, some evaluations of DR have found that track changes occur infrequently, i.e., in no more than 5-6% of cases.


DR systems vary widely in the extent of concrete services and other services that can be provided to families in the assessment track, and in the percentage of families offered and provided services. Some states, with philanthropic support, have been able to provide a thousand dollars of services (all categories) to each family in the assessment track. Washington State allows expenditures per family of $1,000-$1,200 with Area Administrator approval, and expenditures of more than $1200 per family with the approval of a Regional Administrator. In past years, some state and county DR systems provided services to no more than 25-30% of families in the assessment track, indicating that use of DR in these states did not dramatically increase the rate of in-home services to families with open CPS cases. In other states and counties, DR has greatly increased both the percentage of families with CPS investigations/assessments who receive in home-services and the amount of services, especially poverty related services provided to low income families. In my view, it is the extent of poverty related services available to families in DR assessment tracks that has the greatest potential to change child protection involvement from something low income families fear to involvement they want.


Absent a large infusion of poverty related services and other family support services available to moderate and low risk families with CPS reports, DR systems may function like “CPS lite”, a kinder, gentler approach to child protection with a limited ability to help troubled families through in-home services. In the assessment track:


  • The assigned assessment caseworker contacts the parent by phone, email or text to schedule home visits, including the initial home visit.

  • The assessment caseworker seeks parental permission to interview children; child interviews may sometimes be conducted in the presence of parents.

  • Caseworkers engage in token safety and risk assessments while focusing on the needs of families.

  • Caseworkers may not contact collateral sources of information to check out parents' stories, or establish the validity of specific allegations of child maltreatment contained in CPS reports.  

  • Caseworkers are not required to interview every child in the family regardless of the allegations in a CPS report as they may be required to do in the investigative track. Consequently, the larger the percentage of screened in reports assigned to the assessment track, the greater the reduction in CPS workload.


Vocal critics of DR view this list of common DR practices as a strong indication, if not proof positive, that DR endangers child safety. Clearly, DR can be implemented in ways that endanger children. I have visited a couple of states where some mandated reporters strongly believed that DR had left children in their community in harm's way.  In these states, CPS caseworkers had been overwhelmed by workload demands for years, and may have used DR in questionable ways in order to reduce these pressures. DR had become a way of quickly disposing of a large percentage of screened-in cases with little more than a nod and wink at agency rules regarding safety and risk assessment of families in the assessment track. However, if these child welfare systems had done away with DR, the most likely effect would have been an erosion and eventual collapse of investigative standards, absent staffing increases. Overwhelmed investigators are no better at protecting children than overwhelmed assessors, investigative response no better than family assessment response in extreme circumstances.  


The Contagion Effect


In many states whose child protection systems employ DR, I doubt that the differences between investigative practices and family assessment are as great as they appear on paper. In some small to medium sized offices, a small number of CPS caseworkers do both investigations and family assessments, probably using the same family engagement practices albeit with different rules. Even in large offices with specialized investigative and family assessment units, caseworkers in these units interact frequently, attend joint trainings and sometimes transfer from one type of unit to the other. Investigative practices influence assessment practice and vice verse. For example, investigators may begin to schedule home visits rather than making unannounced visits. DR may gradually lead to more family friendly investigative practices, while the safety first orientation of investigators is likely to influence how family assessors do their job, for example by noticing and immediately responding to safety threats.


Multiple evaluations of DR indicate that families respond more positively to family assessment than to standard investigative practices. However, it is unlikely that families who receive services authorized by assessment staff will forget that the caseworker is employed by an agency that can initiate legal action to remove their children from their home.


Consider the following scenario:


You are the parent of two teenagers, 17 and 15. One day, you receive a call from a community service officer who works for the police department. The officer informs you that the high school your children attend has reported your children for using and distributing small amounts of illegal drugs on school premises. The officer would like to make an appointment to talk with you about how to communicate with your children to prevent greater involvement in drug use and distribution. She assures you that your children are not under investigation, and that the meeting she is requesting is voluntary.  Would you schedule the meeting or call your attorney, or both?


Family assessment response might elicit pretty much the same response from parents reported to CPS, at least initially. In many instances, it may not be easy for caseworkers in an assessment track to convince parents that they want to help rather than to investigate alleged wrongdoing.


In my next Sounding Board, I will discuss evaluations of DR in a few states and the scholarly controversy surrounding DR. ©




Fuller, T., Ellis, R. & Murphy, J., “Examining Outcomes of Differential Response: Results from Three Randomized Controlled Trials in Colorado, Illinois and Ohio,” presentation at  the 19th National Conference on Child Abuse and Neglect, May 1, 2014.


Hughes, R. & Vandervort, F., “Differential Response: A Misrepresentation of Investigation and Case Fact Finding in Child Protective Services,” APSAC Advisor, American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, Vol. 28, Number 2, 2016.


Loman, A., Siegel, G., ”Effects of approach and services under differential response on long term child safety and welfare,” Child Abuse and Neglect, Vol. 39, January 2015.


Waldfogel, J., The Future of Child Protection: How to Break the Cycle of Abuse and Neglect, ISBN, 1998.




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