Research Watch

A mixed methods evaluation of a differential response system in North Carolina

Year of Publication
Reviewed By
Jennifer Nutton

Lawrence, C. N., Rosanbalm, K. D., & Dodge, K. A. (2011). Multiple response system: Evaluation of policy change in North Carolina's child welfare system. Children and Youth Services Review, 33(11), 2355-2365.


Beginning in the 1990s, child welfare systems in the United States began implementing policy and practice changes in their response to reported cases of child abuse and neglect. A few states began implementing multiple track systems in which low risk cases were handled using a non-investigative assessment track commonly known as differential response (DR). Since the 1990s, many states have implemented various forms of DR approaches.

This study evaluated North Carolina’s version of DR called the Multiple Response System (MRS). The MRS, which was mandated by the North Carolina General Assembly, was first piloted in 2002 in 10 purposively selected (based on size and geographic location) counties. The goal of this new family centered approach was to increase family involvement in the assessment and planning process, address the broader issues and needs of the families that impact a caregiver’s ability to parent effectively, and to create a more transparent system than is typical of traditional chid protection systems. North Carolina’s MRS outlined seven key policy strategies for implementing DR: (1) choice between two tracks to report child abuse and neglect; (2) use of Child and Family Team (CFT) meetings; (3) collaboration between Work First (welfare assistance) and child welfare; (4) implementation of a strengths based, structured intake process by recognizing the strengths and cultural backgrounds of families; (5) re-design of in-home services to allow for more intensive services and contact with families and less intensive voluntary services to meet the unique needs of each family; (6) implementation of Shared Parenting meetings with both birth and foster parents; and (7) coordination between law enforcement and child welfare agencies to share information regarding investigative track cases.

The authors used a mixed methods design to evaluate the impact and process of the key strategies of North Carolina’s MRS. The impact evaluation compared 9 of the 10 pilot counties (the tenth pilot county could not be matched due to its large population) with matched control counties based on total population, child population, past child maltreatment assessment rates and past child maltreatment substantiation rates. The evaluation included the following variables: safety, timeliness of response, timeliness of case decision, and frontloading of services. Administrative data were analyzed using regression-based interrupted time series (ITS) for the 9 pilot and control counties for the period from July 1996 to December 2005, which was prior to the implementation of MRS in control counties. Results showed that compared to the matched control counties, MRS had a positive impact on child safety, no effect on time to case decision, and an increase in the number of upfront services provided to families. The process evaluation of the implementation of the MRS in the 10 pilot counties included documenting case distribution, use of CFTs, collaboration with other providers (namely Work First), and Shared Parenting activities. Qualitative data were collected through focus groups with service providers (a total of 30 focus groups with workers, supervisors and community partners) and phone interviews with service users (a total of 223 caregivers). Findings from the process evaluation provided useful information on the quality of implementation of the MRS. For example, the implementation of Shared Parenting was perceived as a positive strategy for engaging both foster and birth parents by facilitating long-lasting relationships and reducing time to reunification. Participants also shared barriers to implementing the Shared Parenting program including resistance on the part of foster and birth parents as well as the seven-day time frame for implementation, which some participants indicated created a challenge in terms of “readiness” of either foster or birth parents to engage.

Methodological Notes

Although the results of this study are promising, there are limitations worth noting such as the lack of random assignment. The authors also note that the measure of substantiation in the Family Assessment track in MRS counties meant that the worker assessed the family required services which is different than the traditional finding of substantiation in the control counties which refers to a substantiation of child maltreatment. While the meanings are similar, workers may implement them differently. A limitation of the process evaluation was that caregivers were selected by their caseworker, who also collected the consent forms. Caseworkers may have avoided asking families with which they had challenges in case they provided negative feedback.