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2002 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 7, No. 4
August 2002

North Carolina Adopts New Approach to Child Protective Services: Multiple Response

Multiple response, North Carolina’s new approach to child protective services, allows for more than one response to initial reports of child maltreatment. Several states, including Missouri, Minnesota, South Carolina, Virginia, Louisiana, Florida, Washington, and Michigan, have implemented and tested multiple response systems, which have also been called “dual track,” “multiple track,” “assessment track,” or “alternative response.” These approaches recognize that reports of abuse or neglect vary a great deal and that, because of this, one approach cannot meet the needs of every family.

Without expanding existing state definitions of abuse or neglect, multiple response allows child protective services (CPS) workers to assist some families without a formal determination of abuse or neglect.

Pilot Counties

In North Carolina, 10 counties will pilot the multiple response system: Alamance, Bladen, Buncombe, Caldwell, Craven, Franklin, Guilford, Mecklenberg, Nash, and Transylvania. In fact, Caldwell and Alamance county representatives have traveled to Minnesota to see similar multiple response systems. North Carolina also brought in professionals from other states to train N.C. Division of Social Services staff and workers from pilot counties.

From what they have seen and learned so far, local staff and administrators are excited about the new approach to CPS. “It makes so much sense,” says Susan Osborne, director of Alamance County DSS. “When you go to the doctor and he tells you that you have a tumor, you undergo surgery. But if you have a cold, the doctor would prescribe a different treatment. We were offering one solution for all problems. Many things contribute to neglect or abuse—sometimes it’s a resource issue or poor decision-making. It’s not always criminal child abuse.”

Multiple Response

Although multiple response varies from state to state in its implementation, usually there are at least two categories of response to reports. The first category includes reports that are immediately recognized as presenting serious safety issues for children and/or potential criminal charges against the alleged perpetrator. These reports go on the investigation track. The second category of reports includes situations in which there are needs that, if addressed, could stabilize the family and enable the parents to better care for their children. These reports go on the assessment track. When and how that happens varies across the country, but this two-tiered approach is what distinguishes multiple response from traditional CPS services.

In North Carolina, the new structured decision-making tools, implemented in April, will help CPS workers determine how to respond to families. Under the old “family risk assessment” instrument, workers had to make a decision about whether to substantiate first, then they would complete a risk assessment. With the new tools, workers complete a variety of assessments with the family before making a decision, according to the N.C. Division of Social Services’ Connie Polk. The new tools include a safety assessment, risk assessment, case decision summary/initial case plan, risk reassessment, case summary/family reunification assessment, and a family strengths/needs assessment.

“The former risk assessment consisted of a single tool to determine safety and risk,” said Polk. “We found it wasn’t meeting the needs of the workers or the families. We researched what other states and counties were doing to find the best tool. Our goal was to move to a more global assessment and to do a better job better understanding all family components – not just the family’s presenting issues.”

Normally, in multiple response, reports on the assessment track are not substantiated and the name of the alleged perpetrator is not entered into the state central registry of abuse and neglect. Under multiple response, substantiation is not required for a family to receive services. Instead, a family’s needs dictate whether a case is opened. When serious maltreatment is uncovered during the course of an assessment, a family can be moved to the investigation track.

Missouri’s Experience

In 1994, Missouri began using an alternative response approach to CPS services—“the dual-track approach.” The state screened maltreatment reports into two categories: traditional investigation and family assessment. The family assessment track was nonaccu-satory and supportive, offering services to families as soon as possible. The family was involved in developing a collaborative plan to address its problems and needs. During the initial pilot of Missouri’s dual-track system, 71% of the reports were placed on the family assessment track and 29% on the investigation track.

“Staff were generally very excited to try a new approach—they weren’t happy with the ‘cookie-cutter approach’ to this work,” said Tena Thompson, children’s services director for the St. Louis office of Missouri’s Division of Family Services. “The community was concerned that the family assessment would have less focus on child safety than traditional CPS services. But we have had no problems—in fact, one of the complaints has been that more cases can’t be on the assessment track.

“In looking at the family more holistically, we have been able to uncover more about the family—good and bad. We have been able to offer more services to the families through this approach. Our research has shown that this is an effective approach that doesn’t compromise child safety and that makes families more invested in the process.”

Jim Schrader, a social services worker in St. Louis, noted that he has been able to help families while not labeling them. “In the past, there was no distinction between criminal child abuse and family problems,” Schrader said. “We had to indicate [a perpetrator], label the family—we could never be a teacher.”

Missouri had its dual-track system rigorously evaluated by outside researchers in several pilot counties. The evaluation looked at the period prior to dual-track implementation compared to post-implementation and also compared the pilot counties with counties not yet using the dual-track approach. A major finding of the study was that safety of children was not compromised, despite the fact that dual-track counties struggled with large caseloads and limited resources. In some circumstances, in fact, safety was improved. Other 1998 findings included:

  • Hotline reports declined

  • Reported incidents in which action was taken increased

  • Children were made safer sooner

  • Re-reports decreased

  • Rates of removal of children from their homes were unchanged

  • When removed from their homes, children spent less time in placement

  • Needed services were delivered more quickly

  • Community resources were better used

  • Families were more satisfied and felt more involved in decisions

  • Workers and community represent-atives preferred the family assess-ment approach

North Carolina

In North Carolina, social workers in the pilot counties anticipate that working with families from a strengths-based, family-centered perspective without labeling them will be a great asset.

“What I’ve seen is that staff are excited about multiple response—they are excited about trying something new,” said Mary Jarrett, CPS supervisor in Alamance County. “Of course, change always elicits anxiety—this is a paradigm shift for us. But we have heard from workers in other states that families are much more willing to engage with you. Those same workers report that their [own] families and friends have noticed a change in them—they attribute the change to work being a much more positive environment.”

With the multiple response system, North Carolina hopes to fare better in the next round of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Child and Family Services Review (CFSR). With a portion of the CFSR focused on family-centered practice and child safety, N.C.’s multiple response system should help counties improve practice outcomes for the 2003 review. “Our best partner in ensuring safety is parents and caregivers,” said JoAnn Lamm, policy and initiatives team leader at Children’s Services in the N.C. Division of Social Services.

Each of the pilot counties will have the flexibility to implement multiple response in a way that makes sense for its community, Lamm said. Eventually, policymakers hope to take multiple response statewide.