New approach to child abuse cases discussed

Clark County played key role in study. Short-term costs may put pressure on program believed to provide long-term benefits.

A new, less confrontational approach to working with families on child neglect and abuse cases may help build stronger families and avoid expensive out-of-family placements in the long run.

But a preliminary report presented here Monday also indicates short-term costs might be higher, a reality that could put budget pressure on the emerging approach that soon will be practiced in all 88 Ohio counties.

Two representatives from the Oregon-based Human Services Research Institute (HSRI) reported their findings of Ohio’s Six County Alternative Response Project during a meeting a the Courtyard by Marriott.

Their presence in Springfield recognized the lead role Clark County’s human services community has played in the past five years in advancing national research and development of the the so-called Differential Response program.

Nancy Mahoney, whose local career has spanned 40 years, was individually recognized for her role.

The study discussed Monday was one of three conducted nationwide. In it, Clark County took the lead in working with Champaign, Madison and Montgomery counties. The study also included Richland and Summit counties.

HSRI’s Linda Newton-Curtis said the so-called Differential Response model consists of two approaches.

The first, called the Traditional Response, is to view child welfare cases as investigations in which social workers “really go out to see who the perpetrator was (and) who the victim was.”

The second, termed the Alternative Response, focuses instead on what services social workers can provide to families “so the partnership between the worker and the family might be helpful to the families.”

A Traditional Response is legally required in more serious cases involving allegations of suspected fatalities, homicides, sexual abuse or other serious harm to the child.

For the purposes of the 18-month study, counties added their own criteria for deciding which cases should be handled traditionally and which were low risk enough to qualify for the Alternative Response.

The ones qualifying for Alternative Response then were randomly treated in the traditional or alternative and researchers tried to look at any differences in the final outcome.

HSRI found no statistical difference in the family’s reports of how they were treated nor a difference in the protection given a child.

The one significant difference the study found was that families said they’d be more likely to call a social worker for help in the future if a need arose.

“As you spend more time with families, they’re opening up,” suggested Stefania Falke, intake supervisor in Clark County.

The study reported specific costs of the traditional and alternative approaches for just two counties, rural Champaign and urban Stark, where Akron is located.

Although the Champaign County costs actually were lower for the alternative than traditional cases, the Stark results showed the opposite.

HSRI’s Julie Murphy warned the results should be “viewed with caution,” and it’s presumed that longer case times reported in the combined results of the six counties will result in higher costs for the alternative approach.

The median average showed that alternative cases last 59 days to the 40 of traditional cases, a result that was statistically significant.

Clark County was the outlier in the study. Perhaps because of its greater experience with the new approach, its case workers spent essentially the same time on either kind.

Jennifer Justice, deputy director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services’ Office of Families and Children, said longer studies show what the shorter study does not: “Costs up front may be slightly higher, but over the long term, there’s a cost savings. It’s not a ton, but it’s a cost savings.”

She said that follow up studies also showed “statistically significant lower levels” of serious problems and “significantly fewer” reports of new problems of any kind.

“That’s huge for us,” she said.

In addition, she said, “The removals (of children from families) and out of home placements were lower.”

That’s important because those are the most costly methods of treatment.

The Differential Response model will be in place in all 88 Ohio counties by June.

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