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Families' Connections to Services in an Alternative Response System

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Document date: December 13, 2006
Released online: December 18, 2006

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in PDF Format.

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Abstract

This study, conducted in an urban and rural county in two states, Oklahoma and Kentucky, sought to provide a detailed description of how families do or do not connect to services in alternative response system in the two study states.  Using data collected from interviews and focus groups with child welfare agency staff, community service providers, and families, the study identified six factors that affect how families connect to needed services, including service network infrastructure, relationships between providers, and service availability, and offered implications as to how these findings could be applied to policy and practice. 


Introduction

In response to calls for different ways to handle low-risk allegations of child maltreatment, states developed "alternative responses" to these cases that differ from the traditional child welfare "investigation." Under alternative response systems, child welfare workers respond to cases where risk of harm to the child is minimal (as determined by frequently used screening tools) by working with families to assess their strengths, determine their needs for services, and make referrals to appropriate community service agencies. This approach is guided by the assumption that the alternative response would allow agencies to protect children and support families but in a less invasive way. At the same time, agencies would be able to reserve resources for their more intensive, high-risk cases.

Currently, at least 29 states use alternative response systems, but the structure and processes of these systems differ by state. Several studies have profiled how alternative response systems are operating, and some have looked across states to describe characteristics of these systems, the types of clients the systems intend to serve, and the basic framework for how the system is set up. When an agency receives a report of child abuse or neglect, that report is assigned a track or path that designates the type of response it will receive. Findings from these studies indicate that the number of track options across states differs from two to five. Response tracks may be limited to alternative response or investigation, or they may include other, narrower tracks, such as resource linkage, law enforcement, and Family in Need of Services Assessment (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [HHS] 2003). Additionally, a case can be officially tracked at the initial acceptance of a report of abuse or neglect, at the end of an introductory investigative period, or at another time by a external community agency with expertise relevant to the report at hand (Schene 2001).

Some research has also considered the relationships between alternative response systems and family safety, family engagement, and future interaction with the child welfare agency. For example, a study of the multiple response system in North Carolina found that its implementation appeared to have no harmful effects in safety, response time, or case decisionmaking, and families responded positively to the approach (Center for Child and Family Policy 2004). A review of Minnesota's alternative response system found similar results, concluding that the alternative response approach created more responsive and engaged families The Urban Institute Child Welfare 2 are Research Program and also positively affected the child's future safety (Loman and Siegel 2005). Finally, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' analysis of data from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) discovered that services are more frequently provided to alternative response families than families that have a traditional investigation, possibly because some investigated cases are not substantiated. The study also determined that families served through the alternative response are not necessarily at a greater risk for subsequent reports of child victimization than families that were investigated (HHS 2005).

One key unanswered question about the alternative response approach is how families connect to services in such a system. This study explored this issue in two states, Kentucky and Oklahoma. In Kentucky, low-risk reports of abuse and neglect are assigned as Families in Need of Service Assessment (FINSA) (box 1). The FINSA is one of four options Kentucky caseworkers have when receiving a report, including not accepting the report because it is inappropriate, providing resource links for reports on families that do not meet abuse or neglect criteria but might need services, and conducting a traditional investigation. In Oklahoma, lowrisk reports of abuse and neglect are assigned "family assessments" (box 2). The family assessment is one of three options that Oklahoma caseworkers have when a receiving a report, including a traditional investigation and not accepting the report because it is inappropriate.

Our study sought to provide a detailed description of how families do or do not connect to services in alternative response system in the two study states. We focused on the procedures, structures, and relationships that govern the process by which public child welfare agency workers identify service needs, make referrals to community service providers, and follow up on those referrals, along with the experiences of community service providers. Specifically, we interviewed child welfare agency administrators, conducted focus groups with caseworkers, and spoke with the different community providers to whom families were often referred for services: providers of substance abuse, domestic violence, family preservation, mental health, parenting, child care, welfare, and housing services. Finally, we spoke with a small number of families that had received the alternative response in each site. These interviews and focus groups were conducted in one rural and one urban county in both Kentucky and Oklahoma.

This study is exploratory and descriptive. It was not designed to include larger-scale data collection, such as a review of administrative data or a survey of families that needed services, were referred to services, or received services. Many other researchers have considered these questions and examined these types of administrative data. Instead, this study provides a framework for understanding the many different steps that seem likely to affect the connection of families to services.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in PDF Format.



Topics/Tags: | Children and Youth | Families and Parenting | Poverty, Assets and Safety Net


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