Differential Response’s Misdiagnosis

By Frank E. Vandervort

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

Differential response’s (DR) proponents have established a goal of eliminating foster care placement of children. This would be a worthy goal if they directly confronted the cause of foster care placement— parental abuse and neglect of children.

Because DR’s proponents have misdiagnosed “the problem” of child welfare as foster care placement, they prescribe a remedy which is not suitable for keeping children safe or ensuring that those children receive the level of care necessary to develop into productive self-governing adults.

Foster care has a number of problems: children stay too long in what is intended to be a temporary safe haven until they move back home or on to other permanent homes; as time drags on, placement instability makes permanent placement increasingly difficult; too few foster homes to meet the need in some communities; high levels of caseworker turnover, so too many workers are inexperienced; high caseloads. These problems make foster care an easy target for its critics.

DR’s proponents have taken aim at that target. Shelia Evans-Tranumn, Chair of the Board of Trustees of Casey Family Programs, a major foundation that promotes DR, recently wrote that “If America is to achieve its goal of safe children . . . we must address the root causes of what debilitates and devastates families. We therefore must look beyond the narrow lens of foster care . . . including complex societal issues that preclude a community from thriving.”

Those “root causes” aren’t going away anytime soon. For all its ills, foster care provides essential, life-saving care for hundreds of thousands of children now, a fact too often overlooked in policy discussions.

Because DR’s proponents see foster care placement as a central problem of child welfare, they press to redirect governmental funding to an unproven program that places too much of the risk of error onto children. A number of leading scholars and major reports over the past couple years have called into serious question the effectiveness of DR as a means of ensuring children’s safety.

Rather than redirect funding to unproven programs, we can most effectively address child maltreatment by focusing more intently on the needs of children and families.

First, we must honestly confront the impact of neglect on children. In a recent online post for the Atlantic Monthly, Conor Friedersdorf noted that in most substantiated cases of child maltreatment the child “suffered mere ‘neglect’” rather than physical or sexual abuse. He questioned the need to remove these children from their homes. Casey reiterates this point in its recent report, “Moving Toward Hope.” But “neglect” causes more child deaths than physical abuse. Even when children do not die from neglect, it has devastating consequences for children’s long-term well-being, impacting virtually every dimension of their development. We tend to discount the impact of neglect because it is less intentional than abuse, and because it seems more treatable. But this is not necessarily true. Neglectful families are often more difficult to treat than abusive families.

Next, we must ensure foster care is truly temporary—from the child’s perspective. Too many children spend years in foster care. DR proponents suggest that we serve children best by eliminating investigations and serious assessments of familial functioning because they may be offensive to families. But well-designed research[1] suggests that more in-depth investigation, not less, provides the best opportunity to meet children’s needs for safe permanency while ensuring families get the services that they need.

To ensure maltreated children are safely cared for, we should further focus on their needs rather than on dismantling a program that has provided safety for so many of them.

Frank E. Vandervort is a Clinical Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School. 

[1] See, Faller, et al, Can Early Assessment Make a Difference in Child Protection

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