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Differential Response
Supporting Families in Crisis
Kevin M. Ryan
By Kevin M. Ryan
Commissioner, New Jersey
Department of children and Families

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DCF recently announced the availability of funding for up to four counties to submit proposals for the development of a coordinated, community-based family assistance and service delivery system.

Providing for the safety and well-being of kids and families is one of government’s most important responsibilities. I know that, as mayors, each of you takes on this important work every day, lending assistance to children and parents in need.

I believe we can do a much better job of helping families prevent child abuse and neglect.

At New Jersey’s new Department of Children and Families (DCF), we are striving to develop systems of care that strengthen families and prevent harm to children. I want to let you know about a particular pilot initiative, the Differential Response Program.

Families in Crisis
In 2006, New Jersey’s Statewide Central Registry (SCR), commonly known as the child abuse hotline, received approximately 54,000 reports concerning active child abuse or neglect, or risk of future harm to children. These calls required a Child Protective Services (CPS) investigation by the Division of Youth Family Services (DYFS) within DCF. Another set of calls, totaling approximately 12,000 during 2006, did not involve abuse or neglect, but rather were calls received directly from families, or on behalf families, to request services or assistance from DYFS to address a current or developing need that affects family stability.

The calls that comprise this latter category often give us a terrific opportunity to assess families’ needs and promote access to support services, interventions and assistance that can help families to achieve, enhance or maintain strength and stability.

Like many of you, I continually question how DCF can better engage vulnerable families who could benefit from supportive, prevention services before the onset of child abuse or neglect. Does the intervention have to be delivered by DYFS when there is no child abuse or neglect involved? I think not.

A New Approach

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Each year, child protection systems across the country interact with families who have not abused or neglected children, but nevertheless need assistance

Each year, child protection systems across the country interact with families who have not abused or neglected children, but nonetheless need assistance: consider the family without heat in the wintertime; the family with multiple jobs and no reliable child care; the family that has become ineligible for public assistance and needs job training and income security. Many parents – including our families in New Jersey – may reject voluntary, continued association with child protection systems because they are worried about being labeled abusers and they fear losing their children. Child welfare reform is, in part, about improving the ways in which public agencies like DYFS engage families and demonstrate respect for their circumstances. But even so, many families will close the door because of the persistent stigma, and children may eventually be put at risk of harm. This is why we are about to pilot a new approach in New Jersey known as Differential Response.

DCF recently announced the availability of funding for up to four counties to develop and implement a Differential Response Pilot Initiative and invited counties—or lead agencies selected by counties—to submit proposals for the development of a coordinated, community-based, family assistance and service delivery system for families who request and are willing to receive services to address a current or developing need that threatens family stability. Families may be more willing to access the care and services they need if the service delivery system is embedded in their communities, is culturally competent and is not part of the traditional child protection system.

Given the variations in the nature of reports to the SCR, Differential Response embraces the idea that a traditional investigatory approach is not an appropriate response in many cases. Differential Response can assure children’s stability and well-being in their own homes, promote healthy family functioning, prevent child abuse and prevent the need for more intrusive child protective service interventions. Successful Differential Response intervention leaves the family with an established network of formal and informal supports to which the family will have continued access when formal intervention is terminated.

To give an example of how this Differential Response system will work, let’s assume a parent who is feeling very stressed in caring for a child with emotional problems calls the state hotline. Since there is no abuse or neglect, the Differential Response pilot agency is given the referral. The lead agency in the county is then required to make contact with the family within 72 hours and, when appropriate, provide an assessment so that a family service plan can be created.

Building upon existing county-based collaborations and expertise, the Differential Response system seeks to provide services that will promote the safety, permanency, well-being and self-sufficiency of families and children. Our idea is not to create new bureaucracies, but rather to maximize the use of community resources and enhance existing services (such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, housing assistance, family health insurance) with investments that target families’ unique needs.

I encourage you to reach out to your county human service directors to help support their efforts to better support families in municipalities throughout New Jersey. The total amount of funding available, subject to appropriations, for both family case management and direct services is up to $6.2 million, to cover up to 4 pilot counties for 12 months of operations. Each county’s plan will need to be supported by the county’s leadership, including the superintendent of schools, the Human Services Advisory Committee and the lead domestic violence agency.

Consistent with a new DCF model, we will establish a Differential Response system rooted in family-centered case management and service. Each county’s lead public human services entity (for example, a county department of human services) will work collaboratively with DCF and community organizations that have the knowledge, expertise and resources to strengthen families and achieve positive outcomes for children and families. We will watch outcomes closely and, together, make adjustments to the program as necessary to build a stronger safety net for vulnerable families.

We anticipate that the families involved in the pilot program will need child care; mental health and emotional services; housing; emergency financial assistance; employment and training; utility assistance; family respite care and transportation.

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Requests for services through the Differential Response system can be made by helping professionals who have obrtained their client's permission to seek services on their behalf.

In addition to parents, caregivers and immediate household members, requests for services through the Differential Response system can be made by helping professionals who have obtained their client’s permission to seek services on their behalf. Helping professionals are doctors and other healthcare providers, therapists, counselors, school or child-care staff, and family support and advocacy organizations.

The designated Differential Response agency is expected to ensure that the family is engaged in services after the referral. When families are voluntarily seeking services, they may decline services or limit their participation in therapeutic interventions or programs. It is expected, however, that counties and their collaborating service providers will employ supportive, creative and respectful multi-cultural approaches.

The Scope of Services
These families will have access to services including, but not limited to:

  • Coordinated in-home visitation and center-based services;
  • Parenting education and life skills development;
  • Mental health services
  • Coordinated referrals, linkages and follow-up with health care providers, New Jersey’s child behavioral health system, Medicaid providers, care management organizations and other relevant health resources;
  • Referrals to family and pediatric physicians. Enrollment in appropriate health care insurance programs. Referrals to dental care providers;
  • Screening for drug or alcohol abuse; drug abuse counseling and/or coordinated referrals and follow-up to residential and outpatient treatment programs.
  • Domestic violence services, including emergency shelter services, legal referrals, counseling, personal safety planning and housing;
  • Respite care;
  • Emergency services, including financial assistance, financial advocacy, food, clothing and other basic needs; and
  • Transportation assistance to ensure access to needed services.

The Key is Service Coordination
The agency selected as the lead in each county must have a solid leadership and management capacity to ensure that families and children have timely access to services that are coordinated and delivered to them effectively. It is not uncommon for families to have multiple service needs that require connections to several agencies. The lead agency must ensure that agencies work together as a coordinated service network in which there is effective communication, responsible sharing of case information and coordinated referrals to services and follow-up with families.

Because the Differential Response strategy is viewed as an important prevention aspect of the child welfare system, the lead agency is expected to organize local discussion forums or strategy sessions among the participating agencies to monitor and further refine the targeting of prevention services for families and children. DCF’s strategy of partnering with counties and community-based organizations has the potential to make services much more accessible to families in need. Identifying issues and providing services early, before a crisis develops, produces both better outcomes for families and reduces the need for more expensive interventions.

We want to create this new system in coordination with municipalities and hope to partner with you in this new effort and approach. I look forward to continuing to work with all of you on behalf of New Jersey’s kids and families.


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