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Family and Children's
Resource Program

Vol. 18, No. 2
May 2013

North Carolina's Community Response Program:
Piloting a Prevention-Focused "Third Track" for MRS

North Carolina is exploring ways to make its child protective services programs more effective and prevention focused. We are building on our successful alternative response system for Child Protective Services, which in our state is called Multiple Response System (MRS).

MRS began in 2001, when the NC Division of Social Services developed and piloted an approach that gave county DSS agencies the flexibility to respond to CPS reports either with the traditional investigative assessment or the "family assessment." In a family assessment the agency's approach to the family is less adversarial. Rather than focus on investigating and assigning blame for a specific instance of maltreatment, the agency assesses the family as a whole and offers to support them and build on their strengths.

Duke University's Center for Child and Family Policy rigorously evaluated MRS. Findings showed a positive effect on child safety, prompting the legislature to twice approve expansion of the initiative. By 2006, all 100 North Carolina counties had begun implementing MRS (Lawrence & Snyder, 2009). Duke's evaluation showed that children were as safe or safer than they were with just the traditional CPS approach. In addition, counties implementing MRS had a "higher proportion of on-time case decisions as compared to the control counties" (Lawrence & Snyder, 2009).

Strengthening "Alternative Response"
A number of states are trying a new prevention approach with families who are experiencing difficulties and have come to the attention of a child welfare agency, but whose situations don't warrant formal involvement with child protective services. For many of these families, an additional level of support early on can prevent an escalation of difficulties and decrease the likelihood of future CPS involvement.

Under the new approach, a state expands its differential or multiple response system to include a "Community Response" track in addition to the family assessment and investigative assessment tracks. The Community Response path . . . assumes there will be no further involvement of (child welfare services) in the case unless the circumstances prove to be different than what was known at intake, or there is a change in circumstance. This path is selected when child maltreatment is not a concern, the child is deemed to be safe, and there are either no or low risks of harm to the child. However, it is clear the family is experiencing problems or stressors, which could be addressed by community services (Child Welfare Services Stakeholders Group, 2003).

The Community Response path typically includes a family's voluntary participation and partnership with the organization, case management services that address family-identified needs, and use of evidence-based programs and a strong network of community resources.

North Carolina's Pilot Program
Seeing the success that other states have had with Community Response, North Carolina has begun to pilot this approach. Over a three-year period that will run from July 1, 2012 to June 30, 2015, the Community Response is being piloted with four agencies: Buncombe County DSS, Catawba County DSS, Easter Seals UCP, and Orange County Partnership for Young Children.

The Community Response programs in these pilot sites are intended to fill a gap in the continuum of child maltreatment prevention programming by reaching out to families who have been reported to CPS, but whose cases have been:

  • Screened out at CPS intake, or
  • Unsubstantiated, or
  • Closed with a CPS decision of "services recommended," or
  • Closed with a CPS decision of "no services needed."

In North Carolina Community Response services are always voluntary and offered at no charge to families.
Our state's Community Response Program is overseen by the NC Division of Social Services and funded by approximately $1.15 million from the NC Children's Trust Fund.

Program Goals
North Carolina's Community Response Program aims to support cross-agency collaborative, community-based initiatives to provide outreach, support, and services to individuals and families identified as being at risk of compromised health and safety to eliminate or reduce those risks by promoting protective factors that strengthen and support families. The program's pilot agencies are required to:

  1. Target families with children ages birth to five.
  2. Demonstrate collaborative relationships with community partners in the delivery of services and community child maltreatment prevention strategies.
  3. Provide services based on the Principles of Family Support Practice.
  4. Demonstrate a commitment to meaningful parent and family engagement.
  5. Ensure families have access to supports and services to meet their basic needs, including economic support, benefits access, employment coaching, and financial literacy programming.
  6. Provide and/or make referrals to a service or program that demonstrates an acceptable level of evidence-based or evidence-informed practice.

Different Roads to the Same Goal
Each agency participating in North Carolina's pilot of Community Response has tailored the initiative to meet the needs of families it serves and to take advantage of unique community partnerships. That fact was brought out on a recent statewide MRS/System of Care teleconference. The three pilot sites participating in the call shared highlights of their work, which included the following:

Different Ways of Operating. Community Response protocols differ in the pilot sites: some agencies include screen-outs from CPS intake in determining which families to contact, while others do not.

One agency uses assessment tools, such as a parent resiliency scale and child development questionnaire. Some agencies have program staff based at the social services agency, while others are based in the community.

Different Evidence-Based Programs. As shown in the table below, the selected evidence-based practice models used by North Carolina's Community Response pilot sites vary.

Funded Agency County Served Evidence-Based
Practice Model(s)

Buncombe County DSS

Buncombe Nurturing Parenting; Circle of Parents
Catawba County DSS Catawba Early Head Start; Parents as Teachers
Easter Seals UCP Craven Circle of Parents
Orange County Partnership for Young Children Orange Early Head Start; Child-Parent Psychotherapy;
Parent-Child Interaction Therapy; Strengthening Families; The Incredible Years

Diverse Challenges. Occasionally, families have experienced confusion about the roles of different agencies working with them, because of prior contact or current services with other organizations. Another challenge for one site was getting the referral process institutionalized--staff turnover throughout the agency necessitated that worker training/retraining be ongoing. One organization had difficulty getting a parenting group formalized. In another, criteria for participation in a play-and-learn group inadvertently screened some parents out.

Making the initiatives successful requires continual review of data, valuing and prioritizing opportunities for open communication between collaborating partners, being open to feedback from families, and creativity in overcoming challenges.

Notable Strengths. Program participation is voluntary and acceptance rates are higher than expected. At two of the sites, at least 50% of families contacted by staff have accepted the services. Program staff work with parents around the family's schedule, and have the flexibility to meet outside of typical workday hours.

This program is in its early stages. With two more years left in the grant it's too soon for the sites to draw conclusions about outcomes. When asked about families' response to the initiative, program sites repeated what they had heard from families: that the partnership and support has prevented evictions, helped parents gain stable employment, and helped them respond better to their children's needs.

As we seek to learn what works in prevention we can look to these sites and to others across the nation, such as California and Wisconsin, which have piloted a Community Response track for a number of years.

Integrating prevention into CPS intake services is good for families and for workers. Families find in the agency a partner committed to helping them overcome struggles and ensuring the safety and well-being of their children. Workers benefit, too, from having options to help families who they know have difficulties. The Community Response may also save money in the long run, if the modest dollars spent on prevention services reduce the need for costly foster care later on.

Striving for better outcomes for families makes prevention a priority.

References for this and other articles in this issue