Differential Response: Definition & Model

Instructor: Briana Frenzel

Briana has master's degrees in criminal justice and social work, including teaching college level criminal justice coursework and experience as a social worker in the field.

This lesson outlines the differential response model as it is used in the investigation of child welfare cases and explains what happens when someone reports suspected child abuse.

Vicky, a 7-year old child, has been having trouble keeping up in school. She has been getting into fights on the playground, pushing classmates and arguing with her teacher. When her teacher talks to Vicky, he discovers that she has been fighting to get lunch money and reports that school meals are the only food she has had in the past month. Concerned with the potential neglect Vicky is experiencing, her teacher contacts the child welfare agency to file a report.

Day care workers, law enforcement officers, teachers, school nurses and other helping professions are considered to be mandated reporters. As mandated reporters, it is each person's responsibility to report potential child abuse or neglect situations. Once a report has been filed, child welfare agencies must determine how to respond appropriately.

What is Differential Response?

Not every report of child abuse and neglect requires that children be removed from the home of their parents. A system called differential response evolved in the early 1990s as a way to better meet the needs of families without causing additional harm to children by removing them from their homes. Differential response is designed to better meet the needs of the families so that children can remain with their parents while addressing concerns. When reports of child abuse and neglect are made, child welfare organizations have to determine which calls require an immediate response and which are not as urgent.

How Does Differential Response Work?

In states that have adopted differential response, there are two main categories of reports. The first category, which requires an investigation (information gathering), includes the most serious threats of physical and/or sexual harm to a child. Investigations are reserved for cases of suspicious child deaths, serious bodily harm, sexual abuse, as well as cases of abuse by childcare providers or teachers.

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