Iowa's differential response to child abuse allegations start Jan. 1

Published: Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013 10:51 a.m. CDT

The Iowa Department of Human Services soon will have two options for the way it responds to child abuse allegations.

The new system — which creates two pathways for Iowa DHS to respond — is intended to help individual families while also keeping the child safe.

When abuse is suspected and reported to DHS under the current system, DHS investigates whether child abuse occurred and renders a decision on whether the perpetrator should be placed on an abuse registry. Though that investigation includes an assessment of the child and his or her family, Amy McCoy, public information officer for the Iowa DHS, said the process often doesn’t work to support and strengthen the child and his or her family.

“Traditionally there’s been this emphasis on determining whether abuse occurred and that kind of overshadows being able to help the family meet their needs,” McCoy said.

“The new system has two tracks, where if a child is in eminent danger we focus on that the way we have in the past,” she said. “If the child is not in eminent danger, we are able to offer a wide variety of services and supports to strengthen that family and help keep that child safe.”

Differential response

The states new Differential Response System — which goes into place Jan. 1, 2014 — is supported by the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. Child protective systems in 23 states include some form of differential response, McCoy said.

The change comes after Gov. Terry Branstad signed a law requiring a differential response system be put in place during the 2013 legislative session.

In situations where an abuse is reported but a child is not in imminent danger, DHS will evaluate the child’s safety and assess the family in a way that does not lead to an abuse finding or putting a perpetrator’s name on a registry. After the assessment, the family has the option to receive a state-funded, voluntary service called Community Care, which provides services designed to empower families.

“The child’s safety is not compromised,” McCoy said. “If at any point it appears the child is in danger or in an unsafe environment, they’ll go back to that traditional path of assessment.”

In situations when abuse is reported and a child is considered to be in imminent danger, the case is handled traditionally in a way that evaluates the child’s safety, assesses the family to determine whether abuse has happened, and places the perpetrator’s name on a registry in accordance with Iowa Code.

The alternative path

A traditional path — where the child is in imminent danger — would be taken in a situation when, for example, a child has signs of physical abuse, such as a black eye from a parent slapping him or her across the face, or a child was allowed to play outside unsupervised and was seriously injured after being hit by a car.

A family assessment path — the alternative path — would be taken in a situation when, say, a child is in a house infested with cockroaches, or was found by police to be unsupervised and a block or more from home.

McCoy said studies have shown a differential response method can increase the legal pursuit of perpetrators of some of the most serious types of child abuse and neglect cases.

“Really what it does is, rather than set up an adversarial relationship, it is a cooperative relationship, and if you think of that in terms of any other situation, there’s more success when you can cooperate,” McCoy said.

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©2013 The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa)

Visit The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa) at thegazette.com

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