The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Inside the "Black Box": Parent Perspectives On Differential Response in Child Protective Services

Sunday, January 19, 2014: 9:15 AM
HBG Convention Center, Room 002B River Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Tamara Fuller, Director, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, IL
Megan S. Paceley, MSW, PhD Student, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, IL
Jill Schreiber, PhD, Assistant Professor, Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, Peck Hall Room 1306, IL
Background and Purpose. Many Child Protective Services (CPS) systems have implemented Differential Response (DR) in efforts to improve child and family outcomes by providing a wider array of concrete and preventative services with a less adversarial and more supportive approach. Quantitative survey data confirms that parents who receive DR services are more engaged, receive more concrete services, and have higher overall satisfaction than those who receive a traditional investigation; yet we still have little knowledge of what occurs inside the “black box” of service provision. This qualitative study provided an in-depth analysis of parents’ perspectives of the effectiveness of the services they received through a non-investigative CPS approach.

Methods.  Telephone interviews were conducted with 20 parents who received DR services across one state. Participants were mostly white (n=14) and female (n=17). Parents were asked to describe their experiences with DR, their relationship with their caseworker, and which aspects of their experience were most helpful in addressing their needs. Interviews were recorded, transcribed, and analyzed using thematic analysis (Braun & Clark, 2006) and NVivo software. Several rounds of coding were completed by three researchers, during which they independently coded data and then merged codes until consensus and saturation were reached. Researchers used member checking, peer debriefing, and multiple data analysts to ensure the trustworthiness of the data collection and analysis. 

Results. Although concrete and supportive services were important to parents, a positive and emotionally supportive relationship with the caseworker was of utmost significance. The caseworkers’ use of a respectful approach to child protective services facilitated the development of these positive relationships that were most helpful to parents. Among the caseworker behaviors that were most frequently mentioned by parents were: asking questions in a thoughtful manner, careful listening to both parents and children, following through on promises, and non-judgmental attitudes. Parents also discussed specific services they received as helpful, but services had less impact than the relationship they had with their worker. Some case management services were also described as helpful, particularly those that helped parents establish or improve relationships with others, including advocating for parents with service providers, mediating arguments between family members, and providing coaching on parenting or relationship skills. Material support, such as providing cash assistance for rent or furniture, was helpful when received but occurred infrequently and parents also expressed frustration with not received needed material support.

Conclusions and Implications.  Conventional wisdom and previous research suggests that engaging parents in child welfare services is difficult. Although many CPS systems are experimenting with providing a wider array of preventative services in a less adversarial manner, concerns have been raised about financial burden of providing additional services to more families. Results of the current study suggest that in the eyes of parents, their relationship with the CPS worker was the most important aspect of the experience, as opposed to concrete services such as rent or utilities. Thus, a concerted effect to improve caseworker engagement skills could yield measurable improvements in intermediate and long-term outcomes.