Alternative Response

A growing number of child welfare agencies are utilizing some form of Alternative Response also known as differential response (in California and elsewhere), multiple track response, or dual-track response. Through Alternative Response, lower risk cases receive a more supportive, service-oriented, and strengths-focused approach, as opposed to the traditional assessment and intervention process. Given limited resources, child welfare services have typically focused on the families at greatest risk, resulting in families at lower risk being screened out of services altogether or receiving limited services. Evidence is clear, however, that even low-risk families have unmet needs and that families who are screened out of services at one point in time often come into contact with child welfare services again at a later time.

The ways in which Alternative Response is delivered varies between the different states and counties that are utilizing it, but in general, high-risk families continue to receive the traditional child welfare investigation, while lower risk families with no immediate safety concerns receive an alternative family assessment to examine the family's needs and strengths and engage them in services, typically delivered by community partners, in a non-adversarial, non-accusatory manner.

In 2006, the Child Welfare League of America and the American Humane Association identified a set of common core elements across the agencies delivering Alternative Response:

  • Use of multiple, discrete tracks of intervention when screening in and responding to maltreatment reports; these tracks are codified in statute, policy, and/or protocols.
  • Determining track assignment by one or more the following:
    • Presence of imminent danger
    • Level of risk
    • The number of previous reports
    • The source of the report
    • Presenting case characteristics, such as the type of alleged maltreatment and the age of the alleged victim.
  • The ability to decrease or elevate original track assignments based on additional information gathered during the investigation or assessment phase.
  • Providing voluntary services for families who receive a non-investigatory response, meaning families can accept or refuse the offered services without consequence.
  • No identification of perpetrators and victims for the alleged reports of maltreatment that receive a non-investigation response.
  • No entry of the name of the alleged perpetrator into the central registry for those individuals who are served through a non-investigation track.

Several evaluations have been conducted of statewide and pilot Alternative Response programs. Overall, the evaluations demonstrated positive outcomes in terms of child safety, family engagement, community involvement, and worker satisfaction. When the CEBC first looked at Alternative Response as a program in 2008, Minnesota's Alternative Response model (now named Family Assessment Response) had been researched and had a published, peer-reviewed outcomes study and it was added as a program at that time. Click on the following link to go to Minnesota's Family Assessment Response model:

Additional resources:

Differential Response: A Primer for Child Welfare Professionals (2020) -

Alternative Response in Child Protective Services -

  • General information on Alternative Response
  • Links to State and Local examples of Alternative Response

National Quality Improvement Center on Differential Response in Child Protective Services

  • Publications and research on Differential Response
  • Information on the large scale evaluation of Differential Response

Map of Differential Response Implementation in the US: