There is a new study out from the federal government, another in a long line documenting that an approach to child welfare known as “differential response” is, in fact, safe.
Under differential response, some cases that formerly were subject to a full-scale investigation instead are assigned to caseworkers who “assess” the family and offer voluntary help.
The latest “revelation” that differential response (DR) is safe comes on top of many others. A 2011 literature review, looking at 23 studies, found none concluding that differential response compromised child safety.
Three more studies, all using random assignment and designed specifically to deal with alleged flaws in earlier research, have been published. Two found no indication that children in differential response were less safe; one found worse safety outcomes by one measure.
Of all these 26 studies, guess which was the only one to be the subject of a big story in the Chronicle of Social Change complete with the headline “Differential Response Dealt Heavy Blow.”
The Chronicle took a more low-key approach to the latest study. This one examined the six states that have used DR the longest. Once again, the review found no compromise of safety. It also found that states making more use of DR had lower rates of re-reports of maltreatment and lower rates of “substantiated” re-reports than states using it less.
But instead of gushing, The Chronicle story declares, “It is worth noting that in January of 2015, Minnesota — one of the six states focused on in this study – moved toward discontinuing the use of DR.”
It is “worth noting” only in the sense that, once again, we see how scapegoating efforts to keep families together in the wake of a high-profile child abuse death – as happened in Minnesota – trumps research every time.
It’s been much the same in Massachusetts. There, re-abuse of children and deaths of children “known to the system” declined during most years DR was in effect. But deaths may have spiked in one year. (Even that isn’t certain; there are a lot of questions about data, definitions, and causes of death.) That was enough to get the program killed. It is worth noting that, in contrast, no one ever concludes that the death of a foster child means we should abolish foster care.
Opponents of DR have another answer to all those inconvenient studies. They say, in effect, all the studies we don’t like are biased! They say this in an article that is, in itself, striking for its intemperate, defensive tone.
The authors seem to have quite a chip on their collective shoulder. They spend much time bemoaning the way proponents of DR characterize the traditional, investigative approach. In that approach, caseworkers investigate a family, pry into the most intimate aspects of their lives, may strip search the children and/or subject them to traumatic medical exams, and then may, if they so choose, walk out with the children. The authors are deeply offended by the fact that backers of DR refer to this as “adversarial.”
The ironies don’t stop there. I am aware of only one systematic experiment to actually test the bias of researchers in the child welfare field. It found a profound bias in favor of publishing articles purporting to show benefit to removing children.
And now, we have the so-called American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children presenting a “special issue” of one of its publications devoted to DR – or rather, devoted to bashing DR. Every article is from a DR critic, and the guest editor of the issue, Judith Rycus, is a co-author of the all-the-studies-we-don’t-like-are-biased article noted above. Another co-author of that article is a former APSAC president.
APSAC’s track record for getting child welfare issues right is less than distinguished. As Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker explain in their book, Satan’s Silence, APSAC was formed in the 1980s largely by well-meaning “professionals” who promoted claims of a supposed epidemic of mass molestation and satanic ritual abuse in day care centers.
“From its inception,” Nathan and Snedeker write, “APSAC’s leadership roster was a veritable directory of ritual-abuse architects.” Kee MacFarlane, who led the questioning of children in the notorious McMartin Preschool case, served on APSAC’s board – and received the group’s “Outstanding Professional” award – a decade after McMartin. And in 1997, three years after writing an article promoting the idea that there really were secret tunnels under the McMartin Preschool, Roland Summit, another former board member, received the group’s “Lifetime Achievement” award.
For those who are not familiar with McMartin, this New York Times video is an excellent primer:
Given that track record, anything APSAC says about differential response should be taken with at least a shaker of salt.