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Alternative Responses to Child Maltreatment: Findings from NCANDS

Publication Date
Jun 30, 2005

Child protective services (CPS) agencies face a large volume of reports, increasingly complex cases, and strained resources. Because of their belief that many CPS reports do not require a traditional investigative response, some States have developed practices and policies to differentiate how cases are handled. Generally, investigations are aimed at determining whether the child maltreatment actually occurred, or if the child is at risk for maltreatment, and putting in place an appropriate intervention. In contrast, alternative responses emphasize the assessment of the familys needs and the prevention of future maltreatment, with less attention given to making a formal determination of maltreatment.

Alternative response has been defined as a formal response of the agency that assesses the needs of the child or family without requiring a determination that maltreatment has occurred or that the child is at risk of maltreatment. (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2003a). State policies on alternative response vary, although typically families are approached as a unit, and given options about services and assistance, with a focus on the well-being of the entire family. Although not universally true for all States, the service philosophy is to build on the familys strengths, while ensuring that needs for childrens safety are being met.

This research examined case-level data reported to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) by six States  Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Wyoming  that offered both alternative response and traditional investigation. Case characteristics, circumstances of reports, and outcomes were examined for 313,838 children of whom 140,072 received an alternative response during 2002.

Some similarities across States were also found, in that alternative response was more likely to be used in certain situations, such as:

  • When reports were from nonprofessionals and school sources , rather than from social workers, medical personnel, or legal or criminal justice sources;
  • For cases with less pressing safety concerns; and
  • For reports that did not include allegations of sexual abuse.

However, in some ways, States differed widely in their use of alternative response, such as:

  • The proportion of reports that were referred to alternative response;
  • The extent to which the existence of an alternative response option has resulted in fewer investigations; and
  • The types of maltreatment for which alternative response was used.

Overall, the findings from the included States indicate that the use of alternative response was either increasing or stable over time, possibly reflecting States at different stages of implementation. It also appears that though children who had been previously referred to alternative response do experience subsequent reports and responses by CPS, they are not generally at any greater risk for subsequent reports than those who received an investigation. Furthermore, they are not at greater risk for subsequent victimization. While alternative response systems differ across States, they all seem to reflect their intention  to serve children and families who present less immediate safety concerns.