Differential Response Built on Flawed Assumptions

Credit:  University of Michigan Law School Frank Vandervort
Credit: University of Michigan Law School
Frank Vandervort

By Frank Vandervort

Those who advocate for the wider use of Differential Response (DR) in child welfare do so from a flawed set of assumptions. The most common are that children’s protective services (CPS) professionals are hostile to families; that children are routinely removed from their parents’ custody without good cause; and that all families can safely provide for their children.

From their earliest days, proponents of DR have criticized CPS as a means of advancing their preferred paradigm.  But since 1980 our national policy has been to preserve families whenever possible. As a result, CPS has for a quarter century worked with families to identify and eliminate conditions that place children at risk of harm and removal from home, mostly successfully.

Indeed, in the fifteen years after the enactment of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 CPS agencies around the country were so loathe to remove children that many children were seriously injured or died while CPS essentially did nothing. This situation came about because Congress’s “reasonable efforts” requirement was interpreted on the ground as requiring “every conceivable effort” before a child welfare agency would remove a child. This overemphasis on family preservation led to the enactment of the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) in 1997 in which Congress clarified that children’s safety was to be the paramount consideration for CPS.

In that same law, Congress reaffirmed its intention that families be preserved when doing so is safe for children. The Children’s Bureau, which is charged with implementing federal child welfare policy, has continued its strong focus on family preservation, which, through federal regulations, is at work in the states.

A second inaccurate assumption forming the basis for DR, which is closely related to the first, is that CPS routinely removes children from their parents unnecessarily. The only way that a child can be removed from a parent’s custody involuntarily is through court action. However, in only about 21 percent of substantiated child maltreatment cases is court action ever taken to remove children from their parents. The vast majority of cases, then, are handled by CPS agencies without the involvement of courts and without any effort to remove children from parental custody. This hardly suggests wanton removal of children.

Indeed, CPS continues to focus on family preservation at the expense of children’s safety.

For years I have served on Michigan’s Citizen Review Panel on Child Death. Last year we reviewed a case in which a mentally ill mother was referred to CPS 16 times over three years because of concern about her ability to care for her four young children. Each time CPS put in-home services in place. After three years of near constant family preservation efforts, the 17th referral was made after a prematurely born infant died because the mother did not respond to a medical emergency. We review a dozen or more cases like this each year.

A third inaccurate assumption underlying the DR philosophy is that virtually every family is treatable and that when families fail it is because professionals simply haven’t worked hard enough or with sufficient acumen to engage the family. But we have long known that some families are so damaged that they cannot or will not be helped. ASFA recognized this by providing that in any appropriate case a CPS agency may seek and the court may find that “reasonable efforts” to reunify a family are not required, allowing the agency to seek an immediate permanency plan other than reunification. In the few states that have written these provisions into their laws, they are almost never used.

Before DR is expanded, its foundational assumptions should be carefully scrutinized.

Frank Vandervort is a clinical professor of law at the University of Michigan whose primary interests include juvenile justice, child welfare, and interdisciplinary practice. Vandervort is the president of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children and serves as a consultant to Trauma Informed Child Welfare Systems, a federally funded training and technical assistance program.

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  1. COURT PLACED MY GRANDCHILDREN WITH A CONVICTED FELON?~http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/resource/safe2010draft~
    (20)(A)6 provides procedures for criminal records checks, including fingerprint-based checks of national crime information databases (as defined in section 534(e)(3)(A) of title 28, United States Code), for any prospective foster or adoptive parent before the foster or adoptive parent may be finally approved for placement of a child regardless of whether foster care maintenance payments or adoption assistance payments are to be made on behalf of the child under the State plan under this part, including procedures requiring that—
    (i) in any case involving a child on whose behalf such payments are to be made in which a record check reveals a felony conviction for child abuse or neglect, for spousal abuse, for a crime against children (including child pornography), or for a crime involving violence, including rape, sexual assault, or homicide, but not including other physical assault or battery, if a State finds that a court of competent jurisdiction has determined that the felony was committed at any time, such final approval shall not be granted; and
    (ii) in any case involving a child on whose behalf such payments are to be made in which a record check reveals a felony conviction for physical assault, battery, or a drug-related offense, if a State finds that a court of competent jurisdiction has determined that the felony was committed within the past 5 years, such final approval shall not be granted; and
    (B) provides that the State shall—
    (i) check any child abuse and neglect registry maintained by the State for information on any prospective foster or adoptive parent and on any other adult living in the home of such a prospective parent, and request any other State in which any such prospective parent or other adult has resided in the preceding 5 years, to enable the State to check any child abuse and neglect registry maintained by such other State for such information, before the prospective foster or adoptive parent may be finally approved for placement of a child, regardless of whether foster care behalf of the child under the State plan under this part;
    (ii) comply with any request described in clause (i) that is received from another State; and
    (iii) have in place safeguards to prevent the unauthorized disclosure of information in any child abuse and neglect registry maintained by the State, and to prevent any such information obtained pursuant to this subparagraph from being used for a purpose other than the conducting of background checks in foster or adoptive placement cases; and
    (C) provides procedures for criminal records checks, including fingerprint-based checks of national crime information databases (as defined in section 534(e)(3)(A) of title 28, United States Code), on any relative guardian, and for checks described in subparagraph (C) of this paragraph on any relative guardian and any other adult living in the home of any relative guardian, before the relative guardian may receive kinship guardianship assistance payments on behalf of the child under the State plan under this part.

  2. I want every one to know that the government is lining their pockets and us tax payers are paying for it as this is a kids for cash profit and you do not hear about it because parents are silenced! Please look up you tube senator Nancy Schaefer who exposes what is going on this corruption goes deep! foster parents nor adopted parents know what is really going on they are lead to believe all children whom are in this system have been abused which is not the case and don’t get me wrong some are but not at the level they are claiming! Children whom grandparents and family wanted yet were denied! All for the adoption incentives title 4 funding! It lines the pockets of the judges to the attorneys to social services at the tax payers expense! It is destroying good loving families and yes some have had problems however not at the expense of losing their children then after traumatizing these children they are being medicated! I want cameras on these case workers and everything to be audio and video in all investigations with social workers and in the court rooms! please view https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_TcDTJlPWbE
    and retired social worker Julian Domingez https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BbQ-0KiqnpA
    If anyone wonders why this guy approves and supports its because it lines his pockets just as the other corrupt politicians and I don’t care if you like me or not buddy but I am no dummy and you my friend somewhere down the line is getting your grubby little hands on dirty money! I copied and pasted from his post above this: Frank Vandervort is a clinical professor of law at the University of Michigan whose primary interests include juvenile justice, child welfare, and interdisciplinary practice. Vandervort is the president of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children and serves as a consultant to Trauma Informed Child Welfare Systems, a federally funded training and technical assistance program. OK SO EVERYONE NOTICE PRSIDENT OF THE AMERICAN PROFESSIONAL SOCIETY AND SERVES AS A CONSULTANT WHICH IS A FEDERALLY FUNDED TRAINING AND TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE PROGRAM….NEED I SAY MORE?????

  3. you must are one of the problem Mr. Frank Vandervort as I am sure your wallet is filled with the dirty money from the adoption incentives you have a motive her Mr Vadervort and its called paying your paycheck you are one sick individual!

  4. Obviously the person writing this article was paid by cps. If Arizona cps was so successful then why was it just abolished? And if cps is really making changes then why is the new renamed cps being put together in secret by the same people that made it corrupt in the first place? The new cps system will remain just as broken as it is now.

  5. Studies as reported by the NCCPR show that CWs are at least twice as likely to take a case where no nglect or abuse has occurred than to miss a case. Give the great number of missed case one must assume the number of false cases is twice as great minimum and that the agency’s acts have abused those children.

  6. I 100% agree with Luci Wolf. Unaffected people would not believe it could happen. I never believed – until it happened to my family.

  7. This article is written from a perception of ignorance and bliss. CPS systems across the country are free to interpret federal programs, legislative language and exploite funding incentives in ways that are often harmful to patents and children and benefit state structures. The extremes of the power abuse pendulem permit states to jump from a DR to an eer on the side of safety and liability exposure with little regard for parent/ child connections, attachment, security, family bonding and appropriate, family centered access to care and services. Often parents of children with psychological conditions, families formed through adoption and children enduring parent divorce are the most at risk when CPS becomes involved. Facts are tossed aside. CPS winning its case becomes the goal and all elements of human courtacy, decentcy and family strengths are trampled upon.

    It is a candid flaw of our society to judge those who are coping with and living through situation for which we have no basis of understanding. And both society at large and low level, non clinical social workers of CPS appointment traumatize children and families in devestating ways each and every day because they have been given the power to judge without fact based oversight. Funding and agenda trump families with far more frequency than the untouched citizen could ever fatham.

    The DR approach combined with respectful, responsive, and comprehensive resourses is a far more helpful, healing and safe approach to be imparted on families brought to the CPS eye, as those families are being seen for the first time at their worst. Eer on the side of families, not protection from families, to achieve more healthy outcomes.

  8. The author of this article is living in a dream world. CPS is dangerous, and children are more often harmed than helped when they are removed from their families and placed into licensed homes. It happens all the time, without cause, without due process of law, and in the name of money. The entity is about to come undone as people across the country unite to bring about much needed change.

  9. I’m sorry, but Mr. Frank Vandervort is basing this article on “a flawed set of assumptions”. He must have just returned from a retreat with all the CPS workers who SWEAR they have NEVER removed a child without just cause and NEVER terrorized and lied to parents in order to coerce them into turning over their children without a court order. I’m sure he did yoga and breathing exercises with the poor social workers whose main focus was on family preservation. Let’s not forget the hours of sharing stories about how hard they work to get the families the best services available so that CPS’ main goal of reunification becomes a reality.

    It’s idiots like this who have allowed CPS to become the most corrupt governmental entity operating today. I think I’m going to make an anonymous report CPS charging them with child abuse!

  10. First of all CPS is different in each state, some are far worse than others. All it takes is for somebody to call in a false report for CPS to remove children from their families and it happens everyday in my state (Arizona). They don’t investigate first. Children are only to be removed if found to be in imminent danger of harm, few of these children are in imminent danger. CPS makes no effort at all to provide services first to the families, to enable the children to remain in their homes. Even when it has been proven the children shouldn’t have been removed it can take 6 months before they are returned home. They are supposed to be placed with family first, yet I personally know of numerous cases they never even attempted to contact the family. I also know of one they took a little girl from the mother (had no criminal record) and placed her with the father whom had an extensive criminal record, was an IV drug user and under investigation for allegations of molesting another little girl. The fact that case workers recieve a bonus for each child who’s parental rights are severed so they are adoptable, makes it difficult to believe their goals to ever be family reunification! They should be given bonuses instead, for keeping the family together!

    • Absolutely true. Those bonuses and other funding incentives are drafted to promote family disruption instead of placement preservation.

  11. The author misses the point of differential response. DR does not assume all families will keep their children safe from harm but it also does not assume that all parents are harmful to their children. DR proposes that services not fault finding keeps children safe. When parents don’t respond to safety and risk issues than DR would direct a safety intervention including the potential for out of home placement. Often poor practice in both investigations and differential response assessments is confused with a flawed practice model. This author seems to fall victim to the same gross over-generalizations he indicates are unhelpful.

  12. Article is totally biased. A group in WA state investigated and found that CPS was reporting to the public that it was returning a high number of children to their families, but a document found in the records revealed it returned NONE, so not only were they not returning children (most likely taken for no cause), they were lying and covering up. When reported to the senate, some children started to be returned.
    Children in need of removal (immediate harm, as ANY person off the street could assess the danger) are routinely left in dangerous homes (as in the case of the baby with broken legs & fractured skull, only to be returned THREE times until it was killed). Striking there is ALWAYS big news articles asking for more money & power after each death.
    Cps has the authority to remove ANY child for ANY made up reason at any time. ( I met a family once who were treated to cps intervention for a birthday spanking, as “reported” by the teacher). Organizations would not exist in ALL 50 states to fight this child snatching ring if it were abiding by the laws, but in fact, there are huge monetary incentives to remove children and as long as $$$$$ is the motivation behind cps, the kidnapping will continue.

    • Pam Newcomer – do you have access to the document that shows the false report of how many children are returned to the families? If possible, can you contact us at CPSdocumentary@gmail.com or on FB as CPSdocumentary?

      We would LOVE to see that.


  13. I’m a little concerned with the lack of data used to support the author’s arguments here – for example, there is nothing referencing the number of children in foster care (which would challenge the assumption that child welfare agencies nationally are erring on the side of family preservation). This op-ed is pretty anecdotal and biases by the author’s own experiences interacting with the system – which, it’s worth noting, don’t appear to be on the receiving end of CPS involvement. Families who have been subject to a CPS investigation may disagree with the author’s assumption that those investigations aren’t hostile. Whether DR is a worthwhile system reform is a debate worth having – but opinions without data and gross over-generalizations about how CPS functions nationwide aren’t helpful.

  14. Your info is incorrect and really needs to be updated with the harsh truth that cps typically places children with identified abusers, all while hiding the evidence that does not fit their political or financial agenda.

    Cps agenda appears to side with the identified abuser of either gender and perpetuate the court process with the new generation of abused, psychologically damaged people that were created because they were kept with the people abusing them.

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