Summit Child Welfare adopts “kinder, gentler” approach to investigating abuse and neglect

Jack Queen
The Summit County Child Welfare department got approval from the state in February to impliment a new, family-centered approach to abuse and neglect reports. Front row (from left): Julia Lizardo, Nicole Bortot, Ashley Merrill. Back row (from left): Kelly Keith, Wendy VanAntwerp, Mickey Beller, Krysta Kolbe
Courtesy of the Summit County Child Welfare department |

Social Services can sometimes have a bit of an image problem. Seen as the agency that swoops in and shuttles kids off to foster care, in the past it has had difficulty getting parents to cooperate with its investigations into possible child abuse and neglect.

That has started to change, however, with a paradigm shift gradually sweeping across the state that emphasizes a more flexible and collaborative approach to reports of abuse.

In late February, Summit ­— with the Summit County Child Welfare Department — became the 20th county in Colorado to be approved for the new method, dubbed differential response, or DR.

“The simplest way to describe DR is that it’s a strategic approach to working with families that emphasizes family engagement strategies, transparency and behavioral changes while maintaining child safety as a primary goal,” said child welfare manager Nicole Bortot.

In the long term, another objective of the program is to reduce the hostility that often enters into child services investigations.

“What the research says and what other counties have seen is that over time, this approach reduces the stigma of our interventions,” Bortot said. “It makes the process much more of a collaboration than an ‘us versus them.’”

Under the old method, every case was treated as high-risk, making investigations seem more like inquisitions; caseworkers interviewed children separately from parents and were required to issue official findings on the allegations.

Differential response, however, establishes a second track for low-risk cases called the Family Assessment Response, or FAR. Through that process, caseworkers sit with children and parents together to talk through their needs and possible solutions.

There’s also no requirement through FAR to issue official findings, which are entered into a social services database and can cause problems for people who work with kids, like teachers and child care workers.

“In reality, those findings meant so much less than people tended to think, but their presence automatically made the relationship feel negative,” Bortot said.

Summit Child Welfare receives roughly 250 reports annually. Less than half of those lead to investigations, but sifting through them all requires caseworkers to examine myriad mitigating and aggravating factors.

That makes the job highly subjective, and the introduction of the FAR as another tool is a welcome departure from the previous one-size-fits-all approach.

“We can start FAR on any case, but if at any point we have to switch (to high-risk) we can,” Bortot said. “My philosophy is when it’s unclear, start with FAR and give the family the benefit of the doubt.”

Differential response was first rolled out in Colorado as a pilot program covering eight counties in 2010. After four years, they all reported “a shift in practice throughout their agencies which positively impacted children, youth, families and caseworker satisfaction,” according to a 2014 legislative report.

Now, counties that want to opt-in to the new system must be approved by the Colorado Department of Human Services after demonstrating that they’ve conducted all of the necessary training and implementation procedures.

“This is a kinder, gentler, more family-centered way of doing child protective services, but counties have to earn it and demonstrate they are prepared,” CDHS executive director Reggie Bicha said. “Summit County has earned it.”

That required over a year of reorganization and training with state officials, including firming up new procedures for handling reports.

Under the differential response model, for instance, the entire child welfare staff reviews reports of child maltreatment and decides how to proceed. In the past, that burden was shouldered by a single caseworker.

Just more than a month after DR was fully implemented in Summit, child welfare has already used the FAR system several times.

“I think the feedback from our caseworkers has been, ‘Wow, this is different,’ but it’s such a good different,” Bortot said. “It’s much more in line with our values of wanting to help families and not be so punitive.”

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