Is there a Better Way to Reduce Child Abuse?

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Is there a Better Way to Reduce Child Abuse?   

Jim Windell

            Every year, more than four million referrals are made to child protection agencies in this country. The U.S. has one of the worst records among industrialized nations – losing on average five children every day to child abuse and neglect.

           In Michigan in 2017, there were 149,758 total referrals for child abuse and neglect to Child Protective Services. If evidence of child abuse is found, children may go into the foster care system. But protecting children from further harm by transferring them into foster care is not only costly from human and societal perspectives, it tears families apart and in some instances children appear no better off in foster care.

           However, a first-of-its-kind national study has found that a special program adopted in many states to help some families at risk of child maltreatment has been surprisingly successful. 

          The program is called Differential Response (DR) and it turns out to be a creative way to keep families together.

          As reported recently in the journal Child Maltreatment, the study found that states with DR programs had about 19% fewer substantiated reports of child maltreatment, 25% fewer substantiated reports of neglect and a 17% reduction in using foster care services when compared to states without DR programs. Michigan is not one of the states that has implemented the DR program.

         The researchers from The Ohio State University analyzed data from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System from 2004 to 2017. They harnessed variations in when states implemented DR programs to compare substantiated reports of maltreatment and neglect and foster care placements in states with and without DR programs. Over the study period, 24 states and the District of Columbia used DR at some point in time. 

         Differential Response was developed as an alternative pathway for CPS workers to help families who came to their attention but were at lower risk of child maltreatment. 

          According to Michelle Johnson-Montoyama, lead author of the study and associate professor of social work at The Ohio State University, “These families have an opportunity to receive voluntary services and to receive referrals to community agencies that may be able to provide assistance.” The assistance, she said, could be in the form of links to organizations that help with housing, food, teaching parenting skills and other resources. 

         When Johnson-Montoyama and her associates started this work, they weren’t planning to focus on Differential Response programs.  They originally were analyzing the effect of social safety net policies in the United States and their impact on preventing child maltreatment. But when they took DR programs into account as they analyzed their data, the impact of the programs stood out. 

         “What was surprising to us was that these programs emerged as really important protective factors for children in all our analyses,” Johnson-Montoyama said. “We decided we had to take a closer look.”

         The positive findings regarding the success of DR programs stood out even after the researchers took into account a wide variety of other factors that could have been related, including whether states that had DR programs also had more generous social safety net programs. 

          “We found differential response programs may be getting families the resources they need to prevent foster care entry,” Johnson-Montoyama added. 

        However, Johnson-Motoyama said the data didn’t allow the researchers to determine exactly why DR programs were so successful.  But she said they do have some ideas about what might be happening. She noted that most of the families who encounter Child Protective Services are poor and may face problems with housing, food, childcare and mental health, among other issues. In the traditional pathway, families may face court orders to participate in various services if they want to keep their children out of foster care. 

        “Sometimes these court-ordered services can set families up to fail,” she explained. “They mean well, but they may not be feasible to complete on the timelines of the child welfare system given a family’s limited resources. Some parents can end up losing their child, simply because they couldn’t fulfill the court-ordered plan.” 

         In contrast, under DR programs, CPS employees work with families to develop voluntary plans that help them meet their needs and keep their children. 

          To read the original article, find it with this reference:

Johnson-Motoyama, M., Ginther, D.K., Phillips, R., Beer, O.W.J., Merkel-Holguin, L., & Fluke, J. (2022). Differential Response and the Reduction of Child Maltreatment and Foster Care Services Utilization in the U.S. From 2004 to 2017. Child Maltreatment; doi:10.1177/10775595211065761


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