Differential Response and the NCFAS-G

With the rapid expansion of child protective services nationwide since the early 1960s, it was soon apparent that not all families referred for investigation were high-risk and required state intervention. Yet, these lower-risk families could, in many instances, benefit from services that were not available to them unless the state intervened.

In the mid-1990s some states began to experiment with a new approach. Instead of an investigation of every family to determine whether or not a child abuse/neglect allegation was substantiated, the families deemed moderate- to low-risk were assigned to a Differential Response worker. Parents were offered services on a voluntary basis, in contrast to high-risk families who were ordered by a court to accept services.

About half the states nationwide currently offer Differential Response programs. Minnesota was one of the first states to do so, and a 2004 evaluation provided these findings for families receiving differential response services as compared to families receiving services following an investigation:

  • No decrease in child safety when compared to families with a traditional investigation
  • Fewer re-reports of child maltreatment
  • Families responded more positively to workers
  • Initial cost was greater but was more cost effective in the longer term

In 2008 the Children’s Bureau funded a National Quality Improvement Center on Differential Response in Child Protective Services (QIC-DR). Three states (Illinois, Ohio, Colorado) were selected to receive funding in order to evaluate the effectiveness of Differential Response.

Here are the just-released findings in common across the sites for families receiving differential response services versus traditional child welfare services:

  • No decrease in safety compared to families with traditional investigations
  • More face-to-face and telephone contacts
  • More services, more quickly, with an emphasis on mental health and concrete services
  • Families very satisfied with services and more likely to request help in the future
  • Higher initial cost but lower cost over time

These current findings on the effectiveness of Differential Response are very consistent with the earlier findings from Minnesota.

The National Family Preservation Network (NFPN) has been a long-time supporter of Differential Response. In 2006, NFPN partnered with San Mateo County Human Services Agency in California to test an assessment tool (NCFAS-G) with their new Differential Response program. The DR program in San Mateo County targeted moderate-risk families with a 90-day service program. The study found that the NCFAS-G was reliable and valid when used with DR families.

The full research report is available here:

If your agency offers a Differential Response program and you are interested in using the NCFAS-G with your program, please contact NFPN at 888-498-9047 or director@nfpn.org.

For more information on Differential Response, visit the QIC-DR:

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