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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.
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.
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