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Differential Response

One Size Does Not Fit All...

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. 

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 on Differential Response (PDF) 


Program Evaluation of the Colorado Consortium on Differential Response - Final Report Appendices, April 2014

Colorado Year 1 Site Visit: Final Report (PDF) 


Illinois DR Final Report, January 2014

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

New Zealand 
North Carolina 

Ohio SOAR Final Report- Executive Summary, January 2014

Differential Response Implementation Resource Kit

The Differential Response (DR) Implementation Resource Kit is a resource for child welfare jurisdictions that are considering or planning for DR implementation and are interested in ways that others have approached the implementation process. The Resource Kit provides readers with information on the various ways that jurisdictions have conducted their implementation processes, including the basic design features for DR implementation, and sections organized around the following topics:

     • Policy

     • Practice

     • Implementation Processes

     • Communications

     • Evaluation

The Resource Kit provides extensive information on the DR implementation processes of jurisdictions across the United States. Each of the five sections includes a matrix of survey items asked of 16 jurisdictions with currently operational DR systems. Each section also includes a narrative analysis of the matrix, as well as an electronic web folder, as part of the Resource Kit Document Library, which includes documents that are either publicly available or were shared by the surveyed jurisdictions for public use. Some sections include additional tools or resources that can assist jurisdictions with their planning processes, such as the DR Legislative Language Matrix (in the Policy Section) and the Communications Materials Matrix (in the Communications Section).

Protecting Children: Special Issues Devoted to Differential Response

Looking for information about the next Differential Response Conference?

We have merged the Differential Response Conference with another annual conference into one event - The International Conference on Innovations in Family Engagment: Continuing the Learning on Differential Response, Family Group Decision Making, and Other Reforms. Click here to visit our official conference webpage!

9th Annual Conference on Differential Response in Child Welfare

The Kempe Center hosted the 9th Annual Conference on Differential Response in Child Welfare in Seattle, Washington on November 12-14, 2014. The theme, “Family and Community Engagement: The Keys to Child Safety” explored how we engage families and communities in child safety. We had over 350 practitioners, supervisors, administrators, trainers, researchers, attorneys, judges and advocates in child welfare from 26 states, Canada, Japan and Hong Kong. Thanks go to our planning committee, sponsors, presenters and engaged participants. We hope to see you in Minneapolis! 


Handouts from the Conference 


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.