- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 21, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Department of Human Services caseworkers are taking a new approach to child welfare cases that emphasizes helping families deal with their problems.

The idea, called differential response, is to not launch formal investigations into parents when there are questions about a child’s well-being but no signs of abuse or imminent danger. Instead, caseworkers connect families with assistance to help them get their lives back on track.

Examples of minor concerns include a messy house or a child who wanders off and is later found by a neighbor, The Des Moines Register reported (http://dmreg.co/1t8zmEJ ).

During the first half of 2014, the department said that social workers have used this approach almost 40 percent of the time when looking into cases about a child’s welfare. Other U.S. states also have used the gentler approach, which became Iowa’s policy this year after state lawmakers approved it.

State officials said the new policy isn’t used when there are a variety of signs indicating child abuse, including physical or sexual mistreatment; illegal drugs being produced or sold inside of the home; or another child in the residence that’s being monitored in another state DHS investigation.

Social worker Sundi Smith said the program gives her a way to show parents she’s not a villain when she contacts them about their child. But some parents still need time to understand she’s not intent on taking away their children for small issues, she said.

“I think they’re still nervous until we get out there and have the opportunity to explain it to them,” Smith said.

Any allegations of abuse are still investigated, which can lead to a child’s removal from a home and an adult being listed on Iowa’s child-abuse registry, the state’s human services department said. Criminal child charges can also be filed if abuse is substantiated.

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Information from: The Des Moines Register, http://www.desmoinesregister.com

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