Differential Response (DR) is a child welfare system reform that allows child protective service (CPS) agencies to assign cases to distinct assessment and service tracks by level of risk. While variation exists across systems, high risk cases are typically served through a traditional investigative response (IR); low to moderate risk cases are served through an alternative response (AR). Research suggests that DR systems improve family engagement, worker satisfaction, and community satisfaction without compromising child safety. The purpose of this study was to examine the causal effects of DR programs in the secondary prevention of child maltreatment and foster care entry using panel data from 2004-2016. We hypothesized that DR systems (a) increase the number of reports screened in by CPS agencies given dedicated service availability for low to moderate risk cases; (b) decrease child victims by diverting families from the IR track, and therefore, substantiation decisions; and (c) decrease foster care entries through diversion and preventive services receipt.
Data and Sample. We examined the effects of DR systems on child maltreatment reports, victims and foster care entries using state/year panel data from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) and the Adoption and Foster Care Reporting System (AFCARS) from 2004-2016. We drew DR system information including jurisdiction and program start and end dates from NCANDS alternative response victim data. We adjusted for a large number of state level covariates using data from the University of Kentucky Center for Poverty Research, the Current Population Survey, and the March Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement. We accounted for changes over time in other social safety net programs that affect child maltreatment outcomes, specifically TANF and the refundable EITC. A series of robustness checks included the log of SNAP, WIC, SSI and Medicaid recipients and adjusted for changes in incarceration over time, the nation’s opioid epidemic, and differences in state CPS report screening rates.
Analytic Approach. To estimate the causal effects of DR systems on child maltreatment outcomes, we used difference-in-differences models, an approach that embeds policy changes as quasi-experiments in a regression model. We used state fixed effects to account for the presence of universal state mandated reporting laws, which did not change over the study period. All analyses were performed in STATA 15.
Results. States that implemented a DR system during the study period experienced increases in child maltreatment reports accepted for investigation (6.8%, p<.05), decreases in neglect victims (9.8%, p<.10) and decreases in foster care entries (6.1%, p<.05) when compared to states without DR systems. These results were robust after adjusting for all covariates and variables included in robustness checks.
Conclusions and Implications. DR programs appear to represent a critical tool in the secondary prevention of child neglect and foster care entry. Important differences exist with regard to the structure, practice features, and resources available to DR systems. Therefore, future research should seek to capture this variation to determine the most effective approaches at state and local levels.