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Differential Response

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Differential response is an alternative to the traditional investigations in child welfare for accepted reports of abuse or neglect. In most states, for low- to moderate-risk accepted reports of child maltreatment, differential response focuses on partnering with families to provide services that meet their needs while dismissing the labels of perpetrator and victim and removing the determination or finding that is often required by statute.

Many communities are using differential response as a way to enhance their child welfare system to avoid creating adversarial relationships with families and increase their voluntary engagement in services. 

Click on the Conference tab below for more information about 
the 2014 Differential Response Conference


Looking for The National Quality Improvement Center on Differential Response in Child Protective Services (QIC-DR)? - Click Here

What is Differential Response?
Engaging — Not Just Investigating — Families

Child abuse and neglect reports vary significantly. For example, an isolated incident of inadequate supervision is not comparable to repeatedly hitting a toddler for misbehaving. Nor is either of these the same as the sexual exploitation of a young person by his/her parent.

In traditional child protective services systems, without differential response, there is only one response to all of those reports. Child welfare workers investigate the allegation that results in a formal disposition indicating whether or not maltreatment occurred. Currently, research findings indicate that this single approach is not effective in all types of reports of maltreatment.

That’s why differential response, also referred to as “dual track,” “multiple track” or “alternative response,” has emerged. It is an approach that allows child protective services to respond in multiple ways to abuse and neglect allegations. The ways in which differential response is practiced varies; however, generally, for high risk reports, an investigation ensues while for low- and moderate-risk cases with no immediate safety concerns, a family assessment is conducted which gauges the family’s needs and strengths. Research shows that these families who receive an assessment rather than an investigation are more likely to be receptive to and engaged in the receipt of services when they are approached in a non-adversarial, non-accusatory manner.

The Kempe Center’s national initiative is exploring differential response to provide the field with comprehensive information and resources. Our initiative has expanded to include technical assistance and training for states, tribes and other jurisdictions on the design, launch, implementation and evaluation of differential response.

The Core Elements of Differential Response

In 2006, Merkel-Holguin, et al. conducted a national survey on differential response in child welfare. Core elements were identified in order to clearly define and distinguish differential response from the multitude of child protection reforms across the nation’s state and county child welfare systems. These core elements have been slightly adapted over time.

The core elements common across child welfare agencies that practice differential response include:

Use of multiple, discrete tracks of intervention when screening in and responding to maltreatment reports; these tracks are codified in statute, policy and/or protocols. 

  • Determining track assignment by:
      • presence of imminent danger;
      • evel of risk;
      • the number of previous reports;
      • the source of the report; and/or
      • presenting case characteristics, such as the type of alleged maltreatment and the age of the alleged victim.
  • The ability to decrease or elevate original track assignments based on additional information gathered during the investigation or assessment phase.
  • Providing voluntary services for families who receive a non-investigatory response, meaning families can accept or refuse the offered services without consequence.
  • No identification of perpetrators and victims for the alleged reports of maltreatment that receive a non-investigation response.
  • No entry of the name of the alleged perpetrator into the central registry for those individuals who are served through a non-investigation track.


The Kempe Center has partnered with Walter R. McDonald & Associates, Inc. and the Institute of Applied Research on a five year, federally funded evaluation of Differential Response in Child Protective Services.

Research & Evaluation Reports 

Differential response is being implemented in a wide range of U.S. states -- and around the world. You can benefit from others’ experience by reading research and evaluation reports that detail differential response as it has been applied in multiple settings and systems:

2006 National Study

2006 National Study on Differential Response (PDF) 


Canadian and International Research and Emerging Models of Practice (PDF) 


Colorado Year 1 Site Visit: Final Report (PDF) 


Connecticut Department of Child and Family Services Differential Response System (PDF) 


Differential Response in Illinois: 2011 Site Visit Report (PDF) 


Extended Follow-Up Study of Minnesota's Family Assessment Response (PDF)

Minnesota Alternative Response Final Report (PDF)

Minnesota Parent Support Outreach Program Evaluation (PDF)  


Differential Response in Missouri After Five Years (PDF)

Missouri Family Assessment and Response Demonstration, 1997 (PDF)


Differential Response in Nevada: Final Evaluation Report (PDF) 

New Zealand

Developing the Differential Response Model in New Zealand 

North Carolina

Multiple Response System and System of Care: Two Policy Reforms Designed to Improve the Child Welfare System (PDF)


Ohio Alternative Response Evaluation: Final Report (PDF)

Ohio Alternative Response Evaluation Extension, Interim Report, January 2012 (PDF)

Ohio SOAR Project: Year 1 Site Visit Report (PDF)


Alternative Response Systems Program



Protecting Children: Special Issues Devoted to Differential Response

Call for Presentations Released!
The Planning Committee for the 9th Annual Conference on Differential Response in Child Welfare is now accepting applications to present in Seattle Washington on November 11-14, 2014. Applications are due April 10, 2014. Applicants will find all of the instructions in the Call for Presentations. Applicants must download and complete the Presentation Application Form (Microsoft Word) and submit it via email to

Save the Date for 2014
9th Annual Conference on Differential Response in Child Welfare
November 11-14, 2014
The Westin Seattle

Tentative Schedule:
November 11: 8:00am – 4:00pm Pre–Conference Skills Institutes
November 12: 8:00am – 4:00pm
November 13: 9:00am – 4:00pm
November 14: 9:00am – 12:30pm

8th Annual Conference on Differential Response  
The Kempe Center hosted the 8th Annual Conference on Differential Response in Child Welfare in Vail, Colorado on October 22-25, 2013. This year’s theme, “Differential Response: A Catalyst for Change,” was focused on all of the innovations that fit naturally with the implementation of a differential response child protection system. We had 368 practitioners, supervisors, administrators, trainers, researchers, attorneys, judges and advocates in child welfare from 24 states, Canada, Hong Kong and Norway. The conference was a huge success thanks to our planning committee, sponsors, presenters and engaged participants. We hope to see you in Seattle next year!