Maryland families who are involved in low risk child maltreatment cases — such as leaving a child unattended — now have an option called Alternative Response that allows them to receive a social service response that is appropriately measured to suit their circumstances.

In the past, families with children who experienced a rough patch had only option — to be investigated by the local Department of Social Services — no matter whether the incident was minor or severe. As a result, the relationship between families needing help and the caseworkers whose job it was to provide it was often adversarial.

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Alternative Response helps eliminate this adversarial relationship and facilitates a more trusting and cooperative dynamic between families and the case workers trying to help them.

In all cases, the social services worker's first priority is to ensure that the child is safe. Once the child's safety is established in low-risk cases, the Alternative Response comes into play. With this approach, caregivers are given stronger voices in determining which interventions, if any, are needed to improve the well-being of the family and, most importantly, the child.

The family and case worker work as a team to complete a thorough assessment that identifies the family's unique strengths and needs. Then the family and the case worker jointly develop a plan to ensure that the child receives the appropriate services.

Families are more open to receiving services that they themselves have identified as being necessary. Furthermore, by eliminating the investigation, the relationship between the family and the social services department is less adversarial and more collaborative.

As in all child welfare cases, the case worker is constantly evaluating the child's safety and is available to provide additional interventions if necessary, including moving the case from the Alternative Response to the Investigative Response track.

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion about the implementation of Alternative Response in Maryland. And while Alternative Response is indeed new, the principles behind it aren't.

For many years, Maryland's Department of Human Resources has been focused on using a more family-centered approach. AR is a natural progression of that trend.

Furthermore, AR was not designed or implemented in a vacuum. It required input from our entire community. The Department of Human Resources collaborated with stakeholders, advocates, experts, community service providers and local social services department offices — a group which is now the Alternative Response Advisory Council — to create Maryland's AR program.

The council, of which Advocates for Children and Youth is a member, incorporated best practices from across the country into Maryland's AR program and planned the five-region launch of which Baltimore City's was the final phase. The city was purposely phased in last to ensure that all current challenges were identified and fixed before being implemented in an area perceived to have the greatest need.

Even while developing Maryland's Alternative Response program, children's safety was always a paramount concern. This is reflected in a number of ways, including that the response times for AR and investigative cases are identical.

Independent evaluators are also doing a robust evaluation of Maryland's AR program, which will determine whether children with AR cases are safe as well as whether their families receive as many services as investigative cases. Reports from the evaluators will be submitted to the General Assembly in 2014 and 2015.

Finally, the Alternative Response Advisory Council continues to evaluate the program's implementation and recommend ways it can evolve and improve.

Advocates for Children and Youth will continue to support the use of Alternative Response because we believe that every child welfare case is unique and should have a measured and appropriate social service response.

Our goal continues to be keeping families intact but never at the expense of the child's safety. Alternative Response does just that.

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Melissa Rock, Baltimore

The writer is child welfare director at Advocates for Children and Youth.

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

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