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'Alternative response' is no solution to child abuse [Commentary]

Earlier this month, The Baltimore Sun published an important story describing the expansion of Alternative Response (AR) across Maryland ("A new tactic to halt child abuse in Maryland," July 5). The new system assigns child abuse and neglect cases to one of two tiered tracks based upon whether they are deemed low or high risk.

High risk cases are formally investigated, low risk ones are not.

While Maryland's Department of Human Resources, certain advocates, and a clot of consultants and evaluators celebrate the move to what they see as an evolution in the state's response to child abuse, they are missing — or worse, disregarding — simple documented truths that should shake any reasonable person's confidence.

The idea behind AR is simple. Child abuse investigations are harsh and alienate parents from caseworkers. Further, most child abuse allegations are associated with neglect, which is assumed to be less severe. The tiered system is designed to minimize friction and prioritize cases.

According to the proponents of AR, and the state of Maryland, child protective services should conduct softer investigations called "assessments" for cases involving neglect or milder physical abuse. Instead of court-ordered services, families on the AR track are offered voluntary options. Hallmarks of traditional investigation, like interviewing a child alone or showing up unannounced, are discouraged.

The assumption is that this softer approach will lead to more engaged families. With engaged parents children will be safer and fewer will enter foster care.

These are unassailable intentions. Unfortunately, the facts don't support the assumptions. And what is being sold as sound practice is far from proven — and quite possibly dangerous to children.

The problems with alternative response are numerous:

•The evidence base that has been used to promote AR has drawn serious criticism from a varied group of researchers and academics.

A recent evaluation by the University of Illinois at Urbana's Children and Family Research Center found that AR was less safe for Illinois children.

And moving limited money to the alternative track compromises services dedicated to the higher risk cases.

Alternative response's popularity has grown with the fortunes of the Institute for Applied Research (IAR), a non-profit research shop that has conducted the bulk of alternative response evaluations over the past two decades.

"Many claims in this body of research about the benefits of [A]R exemplify marketing and promotional strategies rather than objective science," wrote a team of researchers led by Ron Hughes and Judy Rycus of the North American Resource Center for Child Welfare in the September 2013 issue of the academic journal Research on Social Work Practice. The authors went on to evoke the term "knowledge cartel" to describe the intertwined interests of powerful charitable foundations, research firms like IAR and government entities that can push for dramatic social reforms based on flimsy evidence.

Over the years, a vocal proponent of alternative response has been Casey Family Programs (the Seattle-based cousin of the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation), which has invested nearly $2 billion since 2005 to cut the foster care population in half by 2020. While the powerful foundation explicitly denied promoting alternative response in an interview, the promotional literature that bears its seal, the convenings it organizes, the testimony its staff submits before Congress, and the organizations and initiatives it financially supports appear to tell a different story.

In Maryland, Casey Family Programs played a key role in implementing alternative response. It stocked the state's alternative response advisory council meetings with at least six consultants who made presentations, recommendations and were ready to answer questions. And it co-sponsored a trip to Ohio and Minnesota so social services staff could see alternative response in action. And throughout AR reform in Maryland, Casey distributed self-published reports citing the Institute for Applied Research's evaluations, providing fodder for advocates.

Casey also had final say in choosing who would evaluate Maryland's AR program. Minutes from the August 2013 advisory council meeting state that while the social services agency had "approved the plan for evaluation" it was "waiting for final approval from Casey Family Programs."

The Institute for Applied Research won the contract.

The recent evaluation of Illinois' now defunct alternative response experiment throws even more doubt into the equation. When compared to children on the traditional track, children on the AR track were more likely to be victims of alleged and substantiated child maltreatment after 18 months.

And what is never accounted for in these studies is the cost to the system as a whole. In 2013, Illinois' Department of Children and Families sent a letter to the legislature explaining why it was disbanding AR.

"[A]R required transferring staff out of frontline child protection positions … thus driving up caseloads for investigative staff that contributed to high caseloads that put children at risk," the letter reads.

A special investigations unit's analysis of more than a dozen child fatalities in Los Angeles implicated the county's AR experiment as a critical component in many of those deaths. And in Connecticut, a federal court monitor assigned to the state child welfare system has repeatedly pointed to AR's role in increasing strain on child welfare worker caseloads.

Alternative response sounds so right. But as Shelley Tinney, executive director of the Maryland Association of Resources for Families and Youth told me: "If you are not going to provide the services these families need to keep kids safe, you haven't solved the problem."

Daniel Heimpel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections, a journalism non-profit dedicated to covering the child welfare system. He is also a lecturer of public policy at UC Berkeley and the University of Southern California. His email is dheimpel@fosteringmediaconnections.org.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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