Alternative Responses to Child Maltreatment: Findings from NCANDS. Implications

07/01/2005

In general, these findings demonstrate that implementation of an alternative response system reflects its intention  to serve children and families who appear to be at lower risk or who present less immediate safety concerns. The findings are consistent with the expectation that these families circumstances may not warrant a traditional CPS response, but can benefit from some intervention to prevent potential or future maltreatment.

These analyses of child, report, and maltreatment characteristics suggest that States are implementing their alternative response systems somewhat differently. Some of this may be due to the stage and scope of implementation in each State. Other explanations may include the degree to which policies clearly specify how the response assignment is made. It is also unknown if the profile of cases referred for alternative response changes as a system matures and workers become more comfortable with employing a less adversarial approach for intervention. Still, some discretion by individual caseworkers is likely responsible for much of the variation between alternative response and investigations, as much as client and report characteristics. Further, State population demographics and availability of resources may also factor in the decisions made and outcomes observed. A closer examination of the types of services utilized by families assigned to alternative response, compared with families assigned for investigation, may reveal more distinctive characteristics.

Presumably, the specific State-level policies regarding referral to alternative response are responsible in part for the differences evident in these findings. The guidelines for determining whether cases should be referred to alternative response are typically based on the severity and type of maltreatment, but may vary considerably by State. These variations may reflect not only differences in policies, but also decisionmaking processes for assessing cases for response assignment, system capacity, and organizational philosophy.

It appears that services are being provided to a greater proportion of families who receive an alternative response. It also appears from this data that even though children who had been previously referred to alternative response do experience subsequent reports and responses by CPS, in general they are not at any greater risk for subsequent reports than those who received an investigation. Furthermore, they are not at any greater risk for subsequent victimization. With this knowledge, at the system level, agencies that refer children and families to the alternative response or investigation track may be confident that, if specified guidelines guide the decision, the childs future safety is no more likely to be compromised.

Clearly, many factors influence the processes and outcomes of alternative response systems, and it may be helpful to more closely examine the interaction between these factors. Generally, the findings from this study demonstrate that alternative response has been provided in situations in which the severity of the problems is less extreme. The results are also broadly consistent with those found in evaluations of individual States alternative response systems. This study provides a more textured understanding of alternative response systems across States and the outcomes associated with families and children who benefit from such systems.

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