Research Watch

Differential Response and the Reduction of Child Maltreatment and Foster Care Services Utilization in the U.S. From 2004 to 2017.

Year of Publication
Reviewed By
Alessia Petrella & Nico Trocmé

Johnson-Motoyama, M., Ginther, D. K., Phillips, R., Beer, O. W. J., Merkel-Holguin, L., & Fluke, J. (2023). Differential Response and the Reduction of Child Maltreatment and Foster Care Services Utilization in the U.S. From 2004 to 2017. Child maltreatment28(1), 152–162.


In response to a report issued by the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect in 1990, a record number of U.S. states implemented differential response (DR) within child protection systems with the goal of serving families of low-to moderate-risk for child maltreatment through a child-centered and neighbourhood-based approach. DR is a system policy that promotes family engagement and diversion from traditional approaches to child protection service provision by considering multiple factors such as type of reported maltreatment, child age, and level of risk when responding to a maltreatment report (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2019). Since the substantial uptake of DR in U.S. states in 2014, more than 40 articles and papers have been published to identify DR utilization rates and the potential impact on child safety; however, the effects of such programs on child welfare dynamics have yet to be evaluated.

Using a quasi-experimental design, the current study draws on data from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) from 2004 to 2017 to examine the effects of DR programs on changes in rates of child maltreatment reports accepted for investigation, substantiated reports of maltreatment, and the utilization of foster care services when compared to states that did not implement DR. As the largest proportion of child maltreatment cases assigned to DR involves neglect, the study specifically examined changes in investigations, substantiated reports, and foster care service utilization for child neglect.

The study employed difference-in-differences (DID) models to compare outcomes before and after the introduction of DR programs in treated states compared to control states that did not implement DR programming. Child files, which are case-level data that include reports of alleged child maltreatment that received child protection action through traditional or DR approaches, were used to analyze and evaluate DR in 23 states including the District of Columbia. Covariates were gathered from the Annual Social and Economic Supplement of the Current Population Survey (Flood & Pacas, 2017) and the University of Kentucky National Welfare Data (2018) to account for state level differences that could impact the utilization rates of DR and outcomes related to investigation during this period.

Outcomes were positive. The study found an increase in DR implementation across U.S. states from 2004 to 2015. Differential response programs were positively associated with a reduction in substantiated reports and foster care service utilization when compared to states without DR programs. Particularly, larger effect sizes were reported in cases of child neglect.

Methodological Notes

The current study had several strengths and limitations. The use of longitudinal data to create a quasi-experimental design allowed for the researchers to examine the relationship between DR utilization and child welfare outcomes over time across several U.S. states and the District of Columbia. Additionally, the inclusion of a broad range of state level covariates and use of robustness checks contributed to the rigor of the study. Study limitations included a lack of valid and reliable data in NCANDS, and a lack of information related to important state differences with regard to the implementation of DR systems and the availability of supports and resources for DR programming. Despite its’ limitations, the current study contributes to the modest evidence of the effects of DR programs on child welfare system dynamics and supports the effectiveness of DR programming particularly among children who are subjects of neglect reports.