MCCS Selected in the Statewide Expansion of Differential Response Program

Guest Column was submitted by Anna Tinnerello, Intake/Assessment Supervisor at Marion County Children Services.

The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS) has selected Marion County Children Services in the 2012 expansion of Ohio’s Differential Response Program. Based on the results of a successful Supreme Court of Ohio and ODJFS pilot project, the recently enacted state budget bill requires a plan for the statewide expansion of the Differential Response Program. The recent competitive application process resulted in selection of seven counties to participate in the next phase of the project’s expansion – Marion, Allen, Belmont, Clinton, Lake, Stark, and Vinton – bringing the number of participating counties to 40.

Ohio’s Differential Response system provides two pathways recognizing the varied nature of reports and offering the opportunity to respond differentially through either a traditional response or an alternative response. Currently, Marion County Children Services completes traditional response investigations on all accepted child abuse and neglect referrals. Traditional response can be considered adversarial in nature with use of “victim” and “perpetrator” labels and the determination of fault. The investigation process requires a significant amount of time and attention obtaining the specifics of the reported incident. While some cases are transferred to another caseworker for ongoing services due to the high level of risk of future maltreatment, the majority of investigations are closed with recommendations and referrals made to service providers in order to address areas of need. However, upon case closure it is the family’s discretion to follow-through with the services recommended by the caseworker or not.

Alternative response emphasizes creating a working partnership among families and child welfare and community agencies. It focuses on identifying concerns and finding solutions, not on assigning blame, finding fault, gathering evidence or applying negative labels. Alternative response allows caseworkers to work jointly with families to identify and use their strengths to address their concerns and to make certain that they and their children are, and can remain, safe. Addressing family-identified concerns and needs and using agency and community resources to support family are key elements in the service design. Families may voluntarily remain open through the collaborative development of a family service plan to accomplish goals identified by the family.

It is important to recognize that alternative response is neither better than, nor supplants, the need for and use of traditional response. Traditional response will always be the preferred pathway for all reports which could result in potential criminal charges and/or is necessary to determine whether serious incidents of child maltreatment occurred. Also, alternative response is not outreach or diversion programming. Child abuse and neglect reports assigned alternative response must meet the threshold of law required for Marion County Children Services intervention.

In this first year of implementation, Marion County Children Services will primarily target reports of child neglect for the alternative response. The agency recognizes the importance of continuity of services. By adopting the one-worker one-family model, families will be further benefited by the established trust and rapport of the existing caseworker and family relationship. The caseworker initially assigned will remain with the family through the life of the alternative response case.

Ohio first piloted alternative response in 2008 and the results shows better outcomes for not only children and families but local communities as well. By working jointly with the family, caseworkers were able to successfully link them to social service programs that might meet their needs. Families that received an alternative response approach were more likely to report that they were very satisfied with treatment by their workers. In addition, agencies experienced the reduction of children requiring foster care placement and subsequent reports of child maltreatment, resulting in long-term cost savings to the community. More importantly, child safety was not compromised.

The results are consistent with a comparable study on alternative response in Minnesota. Many other states have found – and Ohio’s early results indicate – that Differential Response helps keep families together by engaging families in services and reducing the level of intervention necessary to keep children safe. “Differential Response helps keep families together, which leads to better outcomes and happier children,” said ODJFS Director Michael Colbert. “It fundamentally changes the way we do business and allows us and our county partners to provide a better service to children and families at a lower cost to taxpayers.”

Steve Hanson, manager of the Supreme Court’s Children, Families and the Courts Programs, said the benefits of the program also extend to the court system. “Some families require the full attention of the court system to ensure the safety of children and oversee the family’s response to services. Differential Response helps reduce court dockets allowing judges to give greater attention to those families that require formal court involvement.”

Complete results and evaluation of the initial AR pilot can be found in the Executive Summary Report on our website. Marion County Children Services will begin implementation of Differential Response on April 1, 2012. The agency invites you to learn more about its efforts by attending a Community Forum on April 24th from 8:00am—10:00am in the Guthery Room of Morrill Hall at The Ohio State University at Marion. Please contact Ruth Johnson at 740-389-SAFE to reserve your seating for the event.

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