Six Ohio Alternative Response Counties Project

Examining an alternative response to child abuse and neglect

Collaborating with six county child welfare agencies (SOAR) in Ohio, we evaluated the effects of Alternative Response, an innovative approach for serving child welfare-involved families and gauging child safety. The evaluation sought to confirm whether Alternative Response is as safe and effective as Traditional Response for lower-risk families.


As child welfare agencies around the country adopt Differential Response, routing families to either Traditional or Alternative Response, it is vital to understand how Differential Response is being implemented and its impact. Our research reinforced previous findings that Alternative Response keeps children as safe as Traditional Response, with no increased likelihood of re-reports of child abuse and no greater likelihood that the child will enter state care.

  • Process Evaluation
  • Outcome Evaluation
  • Cost Evaluation
  • Data Collection and Analysis

Defining the Differential Response system

Rather than responding to every child welfare case in the same way―with a formal investigation process and a designation of a victim and perpetrator―Differential Response (DR) allows staff to account for the unique circumstances of each case and assign certain low- and moderate-risk cases to an Alternative Response track.

The Traditional Response track is incident driven, resulting in a disposition: the language is more accusatory by design. Courts tend to be incident driven, so language (i.e. “disposition,” “substantiation”) is needed for court proceedings. 

The Alternative Response track provides a more holistic approach, focusing on family engagement and frontloading tailored services for the family, while at the same time protecting the safety of the children. The extended timeframes and frequency of contact for Alternative Response cases allow workers to gather more information, which may result in a better assessment of children’s safety.

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The experimental design for the evaluation

Collecting and analyzing the data  

Drawing data from county administrative systems, HSRI conducted a randomized control trial. Low- to moderate-risk families screened-in to child welfare and identified as eligible for Alternative Response were randomized to receive the traditional response investigation or the alternative response assessment.

The process evaluation examined staffing, case flow, family engagement, and service delivery through interviews and surveys of staff and families gathered at several points during the three-year project. The analysis offers insights into the impact of Differential Response on the child welfare systems and on families served by those systems. 


The evaluation found promising results for Alternative Response, including evidence that this intervention keeps children as safe as Traditional Response.

  • No significant differences emerged between tracks in the percentage of cases receiving a re-report of child abuse or neglect, the number of re-reports, the type of re-report received or the timing of the re-report.
  • No statistical differences were found in the way that Alternative Response and Traditional Response families were treated, helped, listened to, or understood by their caseworker, nor were there any significant differences in the degree to which the caseworker recognized the things the family did well.

And compared to Traditional Response parents:

  • A statistically higher proportion of Alternative Response parents thought they were better off because of their experience with the agency.
  • Alternative Response families were significantly more often linked to mental health services and concrete supports.

It allows us to make a decision; before it didn’t matter if your kid escaped out the door when you weren’t looking or if you shook your child to death [there was an investigation for both], but now we’re allowed to make a determination of how to handle a case instead of doing it the same way every time. And it’s given the agency a positive image in the community; they aren’t looking at CPS as baby snatchers. Now, we’re perceived as having services. Now I hear, ‘We’re glad you’re involved, now you’re here to help people and we could use some help.’

Alternative Response Worker


Six Ohio Alternative Response counties consortium (SOAR)

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