Over the past year Maryland's Department of Human Resources has begun implementing a different approach to families reported for child abuse and neglect called "Alternative Response" (AR). Also referred to as "Differential Response," similar reforms to Child Protection Services (CPS) have been implemented in other states during the past 20 years. The common theme of these reforms is a recognition that the situations of families differ substantially and that responses to child maltreatment reports should vary accordingly. For example, think of families accused of neglecting their children's education or allegedly clothing or feeding or supervising their children inadequately. Compare these to families in which a child has been severely beaten or abandoned or sexually abused. In AR systems, reports of the latter type are investigated. The former types in many, but not all, instances receive non-adversarial family assessments.
So long as child safety remains the paramount concern, most people see this kind of discernment as reasonable, but lately some have begun to insist that the practice is reckless and that all reported families should be approached in the same way, as if they had severely abused or damaged their children.
Two recent articles in the Baltimore Sun contain statements along these lines ("A new tactic to halt child abuse in Maryland," July 5 and "'Alternative response' is no solution to child abuse," July 17). The former included an interview with a critical attorney and the latter was written by a journalist who has been working with the attorney to oppose these reforms. Having had long discussions with both, I believe they are profoundly misinformed.
The first thing that happens during an AR family assessment is a determination of the safety of the children. This is much like what investigators do but without the intention to label parents as child abusers. When child safety problems are found, the worker and family develop a safety plan to ensure future child safety. In all the states we have studied, when child safety threats are seen to continue, further action is not voluntary. Parents in these cases are not permitted to simply dismiss the CPS worker. Workers can switch families to investigations. Services are voluntary when child safety is not threatened or has been addressed satisfactorily.
CPS workers visit families on a daily basis and make judgments in each case about the safety of the children. We are all grateful for their tireless and often thankless labors to protect our children. They are the most knowledgeable people to ask about child endangerment. In multiple surveys conducted over the past 20 years of hundreds of workers and supervisors in states that have implemented AR, the overwhelming majority (over 90 percent) indicate that children are as safe or safer in AR family assessments as in forensic investigations. Maryland workers have expressed the same opinion.
Hundreds of thousands of U.S. families are reported to CPS each year. In the traditional CPS system in most states only a small fraction of reported families were assisted in ways that might prevent future child maltreatment. Studies have shown that under AR, needed preventive assistance to families increases. Here are some examples out of hundreds observed: help with back rent to avoid homelessness, transporting a family to counseling, purchasing a bed for a child, taking a domestic violence victim to a shelter, linking the family to emergency food, referring to disability services, and so on. Only in the strange world of the critics is this kind of help seen to be a waste of money and to endanger children.
As to claims that AR contributes to the deaths of children: Are they serious? Strange that no one else but these critics has noticed this horrendous effect during the past 20 years.
AR is accused of redirecting resources away from severe cases to the less severe cases. Our cost studies have indicated that preventive services may pay for themselves in the long term as new encounters of families with CPS are averted. But the cost issue raises a more basic and glaring problem — the paltry funding for preventive services to CPS families in most U.S. states. The critics who are attacking AR are mute on this issue. Let's get serious about funding the prevention of child abuse and neglect rather than nitpicking the few dollars that are spent on families in need.
Anyone interested in the research is able to read our freely available reports on AR in Missouri, Minnesota, Ohio and Nevada. In them they will find both supportive and critical analyses. Like all reforms, AR is not a magic bullet and does not always work perfectly, but most see it as a reasonable change to help prevent child abuse and neglect.
Tony Loman works at the Institute of Applied Research. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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