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Child Protective Services takes new approach to keep kids safe

Washington state's Child Protective Services agency is taking a new approach to make sure no children go under the radar when it comes to abuse or neglect. (AP file)

Washington state’s Child Protective Services agency is taking a new approach to make sure no children go under the radar when it comes to abuse or neglect.

There’s a revolution happening right now in the way that we care for kids who are at risk of being neglected or abused. It involves getting rid of the “one size fits all” model of child abuse investigations.

The Department of Social and Health Services has begun integrating the Family Assessment Response Program across the state.

“It is a CPS response, but it’s a very different way of responding when we get a call alleging abuse or neglect,” says Jennifer Struss, Assistant Secretary for the Children’s Administration.

Rather than sending every incoming case to an investigator, some of the less serious cases are now being treated by a FAR manager.

FAR workers try to identify a family’s strengths and asks the parents where they think they could use a little extra help.

“In a traditional CPS investigation, it’s much more adversarial,” Struss says.

They still have certain requirements, like meeting face to face with the child, but in FAR they don’t have to meet with the child alone, or as quickly. They are also focused on building a safety plan with the parents while the child remains at home.

Because there’s no forensic investigation into a particular incident of abuse, the social workers can take a softer approach which benefits everyone in the end.

“Kids are nervous. They think they’re going to get their parents in trouble,” says Struss. “The approach to FAR is so different, people feel more comfortable talking openly about. These are the issues we’re struggling with.”

She says the idea for FAR came from differential response programs that have been put into place in a few other states like Minnesota. It’s also backed by the American Humane Association.

The response uses a series of questions to assess the child’s risk of harm and the family’s ability to keep them safe.

If the family is screened into FAR, the case manager tries to keep the conversation positive. The premise is that every parent really wants to do what’s best for their child.

“We don’t show up unannounced. We ask them when would be a good time to meet with them. It is a strength-based assessment. We look at, what are their strengths? What can we build on to help them to address the issues that brought them to our attention?” says Struss.

The legislature passed a bill in 2012 requiring the Department of Social and Health Services to integrate the FAR program. Since then, Struss says they’ve been working hard with other community organizations to make it happen.

The case workers handling these new types of cases have undergone special training, and they’re working on a lower caseload right now as they get up to speed.

It will take another two-and-a-half years before the entire CPS system uses the differentiated response system.

Struss says the biggest changes other states have seen with differentiated response is fewer kids being re-referred to CPS and fewer kids in foster care.

“We wouldn’t do it if it weren’t going to help the kids. The best thing you can do, if you can manage it and keep kids safe, is keep kids with their families,” says Struss.

For now, FAR is up and running in Aberdeen, Lynnwood and in two zip codes in Spokane. More state offices will come online this summer.

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