Differential Response
Differential Response - Children and Family Research Center

A growing number of state and county child welfare systems are implementing Differential Response (DR), which is an approach to child protective services (CPS) which allows for more than one type of initial response to screened-in reports of child abuse and neglect. Reports that include allegations of moderate to severe physical abuse or sexual abuse or imminent risk of harm to a child receive an investigation, which involves gathering forensic evidence and making a formal determination of whether child maltreatment has occurred. Reports that involve low to moderate risk allegations and minimal chance of court involvement receive a family assessment, which involves an emphasis on family engagement and a more holistic assessment of family needs. There is no substantiation of maltreatment allegations at the conclusion of a family assessment, and parents’ names are not entered into a central registry. Both responses typically include the use of safety and/or risk assessments and share the same common underlying goal – keeping children safe from additional maltreatment.

Of the states that have implemented DR, several have conducted rigorous evaluations that have compared the outcomes of low-risk families who received a traditional CPS investigation or a family assessment. Researchers at the Children and Family Research Center have been at the forefront of advancing the child welfare field’s knowledge about the effectiveness of Differential Response. In 2009, following a competitive application process, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services was selected as one of three research and demonstration sited funded by the National Quality Improvement Center on Differential Response in Child Protective Services (QIC-DR) to implement and evaluate DR. CFRC Director Tamara Fuller led the 4-year evaluation that examined the process through which DR was implemented and the differences in engagement, services, and maltreatment recurrence between families with allegations of neglect that received either an investigation or a family assessment. With over 8,000 families randomly assigned to one of the two groups, the Illinois DR evaluation was one of the largest randomized controlled trials of DR conducted to date and the results of the evaluation have been widely disseminated to child welfare practitioners and policy-makers.

As a leader in Differential Response research, the CFRC is currently collaborating with the Oregon Department of Human Services to evaluate their DR model. The Oregon evaluation consists of a process evaluation that will examine both the implementation process as well as fidelity to the Differential Response and Oregon Safety Models, an outcome evaluation that will compare maltreatment recurrence and foster care entry rates among four groups: families in DR counties that receive an Alternative Response (AR) and their matched comparisons in non-DR counties, and families in DR-counties that receive a Traditional Response (TR) and their matched comparisons in non-DR counties. In addition, a cost evaluation will compare the costs and benefits associated with implementing DR.

This page contains a comprehensive listing of all the evaluation reports, journal publications, conference presentations, and invited lectures that the CFRC research team has produced related to Differential Response in CPS. Check back frequently for the latest information, or stay up to date by subscribing to our newsletter here.

Related Publications


  Jul 2014 / Presentation / Program Evaluation / 

Differential Response

John Fluke, Lisa Merkel-Holguin, Ying-ying Yuan, and Tamara Fuller

Presented at the 16th annual child welfare waiver demonstration project meeting in July 2014, this presentation highlights the status of Differential Response (DR) implementation in the U.S.; summarizes the results of the "first generation" of DR evaluation research on key indicators including parent engagement with CPS, child safety, and program costs; and suggests areas for the next generation of DR research.

  May 2014 / Presentation / Program Evaluation, Safety / 

Examining Outcomes of Differential Response: Results from Three Randomized Controlled Trials in Colorado, Illinois, and Ohio

Tamara Fuller, Raquel Ellis, and Julie Murphy

Jurisdictions across the country have adopted dual-track systems and there has been increasing focus on building the evidence base around this innovative approach to CPS services. In 2009, Colorado, Illinois and Ohio were selected by the National Quality Improvement Center on Differential Response in Child Protective Services (QIC-DR) to implement Differential Response and conduct rigorous, multi-year evaluations of their DR approaches. During this panel, evaluators from the three sites will discuss highlights from the outcome evaluations, focusing on outcomes related to parent perceptions of CPS and child safety. An interactive discussion of the implications of the findings for practice and future research will follow.

  Jan 2014 / Presentation / Child Welfare Practice / 

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

Tamara Fuller, Megan Paceley, and Jill Schreiber

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.

  Oct 2013 / Report / Child Welfare Practice, Program Evaluation, Safety / 

Differential Response in Illinois: Final Evaluation Report

Tamara Fuller, Martin Nieto, and Saijun Zhang

In December 2009, the State of Illinois was selected by the National Quality Improvement Center on Differential Response in Child Protective Services (QIC-DR) as one of three sites to implement and evaluate Differential Response (DR). This report presents the final findings of the outcome evaluation and cost analysis, which compared the newly implemented family assessment child protective services (CPS) response (known as "DR" in Illinois) to the traditional investigation response to answer three research questions: 1) How is the assessment response different from the investigation response in terms of family engagement, caseworker practice, and services provided? 2) Are children whose families receive an assessment response as safe as or safer than children whose families receive an investigation? 3) What are the cost and funding implications to the child protection agency of the implementation and maintenance of a differential response approach? The report provides an overview of the development and proliferation of Differential Response over the past two decades, summarizes previous research, and provides descriptions of both the traditional investigation response (IR) and the new differential response (DR). A description of the research design and data collection instruments is offered. Findings are presented that compare the two CPS responses (IR and DR) with regard to parent engagement and satisfaction; service provision; child safety and family well-being; and costs per-case.

  Feb 2013 / Journal Publication / Child Welfare Administration and Policy, Child Welfare Practice

Engagement in Child Protective Services: Parent Perceptions of Worker Skills

Jill Schreiber, Tamara Fuller, and Megan Paceley

Recent reforms in child protection systems (CPS) in several countries have placed an increased emphasis on engaging parents in the initial assessment and service planning process. CPS workers, however, face multiple barriers to successful engagement with parents, including parents' preconceived notions of CPS and their subsequent fearful or angry responses to the initial visit. This qualitative study sought input from 40 parents involved in CPS regarding the strategies that workers used to successfully engage them in the child protection intervention. Three major themes about worker skills emerged from the analysis of the interview transcripts: parents were more positively engaged with CPS workers who they perceived as competent, who utilized positive communication skills, and who provided them with either emotional or concrete support. These findings have clear implications for CPS worker training; especially for CPS agencies that do not require CPS workers to have social work degrees. Additional implications for CPS agencies, such as the need for realistic worker caseloads and effective community outreach, are discussed.
Schreiber, J., Fuller, T., & Paceley, M. (2013). Engagement in child protective services: Parent perceptions of worker skills. Children and Youth Services Review, 35, 707–715.

  Nov 2012 / Presentation / Child Welfare Practice / 

The Family Voice in the Evaluation of Differential Response

Tamara Fuller, Raquel Ellis, Julie Murphy, and Marc Winokur

Family perspectives are often overlooked when data is collected in child welfare proigram evaluations. To elicit the family voice from caregivers involved with Child Protective Services in Differential Response systems in Illinois, Colorado, and Ohio, the evaluators designed and administered a family exit survey. This presentation, given at the 7th Annual Conference on Differential Response in Child Welfare, describes the instrument development process and presents preliminary findings. The presentation also focuses on special considerations when collecting data from child welfare populations, including the importance of cognitive testing and strategies for enhancing response rates. Finally, results of a qualitative study with families conducted in Illinois are presented.

  Apr 2012 / Presentation / Child Welfare Practice / 

Differential Response: Sounds Great! But Does it Work?

Tamara Fuller

Presented at the 2012 Family Impact Seminar and Council on Contemporary Families (CCF) annual conference. As more and more states adopt Differential Response and other front-end child welfare system reforms, it is important to stay informed of the current evidence base for these practices. This presentation reviews the most recent evidence on the effectiveness of Differential response in relationship to: family engagement and satisfaction, service delivery, repeat maltreatment, family functioning and well-being, and cost-effectiveness. The importance of continued rigorous evaluation of Differential Response is emphasized.

  Mar 2012 / Report / Child Welfare Practice, Program Evaluation, Safety / 

Differential Response in Illinois: 2011 Site Visit Report

Tamara Fuller, Kathleen Kearney, Sandra Lyons

This report summarizes information on the implementation of Differential Response (DR) in Illinois by the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) as of July 1, 2011. The State of Illinois is one of three sites selected by the Quality Improvement Center on Differential Response in Child Protective Services (QIC-DR) to implement and evaluation a DR program, and the only one of the three to implement DR statewide. The Illinois Site Visit Report examines the exploration and adoption phases of DR implementation in Illinois; provides a detailed description of the DR program that was developed; presents findings on the fidelity of DR practice to the program described in policy and statute; and assesses the core competency and organizational drivers used in the first year of project development. Information for this report was collected through three primary methods: (1) document review, including legislation, rules, procedures, protocols, and contracts; (2) statewide focus groups with both workers and supervisors who provided DR services and conducted child protective investigations; and (3) individual interviews and a focus group with key informants critical to DR implementation and program development.

  Mar 2012 / Report / Child Welfare Practice, Program Evaluation, Safety / 

Differential Response in Illinois: 2011 Site Visit Report Executive Summary

Tamara Fuller, Kathleen Kearney, Sandra Lyons

This executive summary provides a brief summary of the full Differential Response 2011 Site Visit Report. It includes an overview of the DR Program that was implemented statewide in Illinois on November 1, 2010. It also summarizes findings from the site visit data collection that occurred in June 2011. The Illinois Site Visit Report examines the exploration and adoption phases of DR implementation in Illinois; provides a detailed description of the DR program that was developed; presents findings on the fidelity of DR practice to the program described in policy and statute; and assesses the core competency and organizational drivers used in the first year of project development.

  Jan 2012 / Research Brief / Child Welfare Administration and Policy, Safety / 

An Introduction to Differential Response

Tamara Fuller

In November 2010, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services implemented a Differential Response (DR) approach to child protective services. The Department was also selected as one of three site funded to conduct of rigorous evaluation of the implementation and outcomes of DR, and the Children and Family Research Center was selected as the local site evaluator. This brief describes the Differential Response program that was implemented in Illinois and provides an overview of the comprehensive evaluation.

  Nov 2011 / Presentation / Child Welfare Practice / 

"They Treated Me Like a Real Person": Family Perspectives on Effective Engagement Strategies

Tamara Fuller & Megan Paceley

Despite being a central concept of most family-centered service interventions, including Differential Response, very little is known about the best ways to engage families in child welfare services. The small amount of literature that exists typically focuses on engaging families in mental health or substance abuse treatment, rather than the mandated or involuntary services often provided by child welfare. What little evidence has been collected within child welfare points to very low or uneven levels of parent engagement, even within interventions designed to encourage parent participation. This presentation highlighted the results of a qualitative study of family engagement strategies used by both DR caseworkers and investigators in Illinois. Individual interviews were conducted with approximately 40 caregivers who provided in-depth accounts of their experiences and responses. Responses were transcribed and analyzed to reveal those strategies that were most effective (and least effective) in making families feel engaged.

  Nov 2011 / Presentation / Child Welfare Practice / 

Understanding Families Involved in Differential Response in Illinois

Ji-Young Kang

This study tries to understand families' existing stressors at the case opening in DR in Illinois. It presents the amount and types of stressors families have at the case opening in DR based on phone surveys with caregivers in Illinois DR.

  Apr 2011 / Presentation / Child Welfare Practice / 

Evaluating Differential Response: Why Bother?

Tamara Fuller

The State of Illinois implemented Differential Response (DR) on November 1, 2010, and is rigorously evaluating both the implementation process and the intended and unintended outcomes of the intervention. The DR evaluation is comprehensive, including multiple surveys, focus groups, interviews, and administrative data collection. The amount of time and effort required of such evaluation can be a burden on front-line staff, who are often called upon to help with the data collection. This presentation, given at the four regional Differential Response summits in April 2010, explained the importance of evaluation and the valuable information that will result from careful data collection efforts.

  Nov 2010 / Presentation / Child Welfare Practice / 

Putting it All Together: Lessons Learned from Implementing Differential Response in Illinois

Womazetta Jones, William Wolfe, Tamara Fuller, & Kathleen Kearney

This presentation describes the lessons learned from the first year of statewide implementation of Differential Response in Illinois. Highlights from the lessons learned included the importance of engaging key stakeholders in a collaborative planning process in determining program design; recognizing the role of core implementation drivers in establishing a successful model; modifying and utilizing SACWIS for effective data collection; and designing a statewide randomized control trial to inform both child protection policy and practice. Presented at the Fifth Annual Conference on Differential Response in Child Welfare, Anaheim, CA, November 10, 2010.

  Jul 2010 / Presentation / Child Welfare Administration and Policy / 

RCT Evaluations of Differential Response: Creating Data Resources

Brett Brown, Kathy Chase, William Wolfe, Womazetta Jones, Tamara Fuller & Tony Loman

Differential response (DR) is a promising child welfare reform being rigorously evaluated in a number of states using random control trials (RCT). This workshop will present work from ongoing and recently completed RCT evaluations of DR. Issues covered will include: modifications to child welfare administrative data systems to accommodate random assignment, tracking cases, and DR data collection; developing complementary non-administrative data resources for evaluation; data design for cross-site comparisons; and successful strategies for promoting cooperative work between SACWIS staff, evaluators, and program personnel. Presented at the 13th National Child Welfare Data and Technology Conference, Washington DC, July 20, 2010.