The word “pathway” refers to the two possible paths that CPS can take when responding to allegations of child abuse and neglect. If CPS makes an initial determination that the allegations are “low to moderate,” the parent can agree to take the FAR pathway. For more serious allegations, or where the parent does not consent to FAR, CPS will go down the “investigative” pathway.
The cornerstone of FAR is parental consent. No one can be forced to participate, and parents are not required to accept any services. State workers do not make unannounced visits, and they do not make official findings such as whether a child was abused and by whom. Instead, FAR aims to connect families with concrete resources such as counseling, training, and vouchers for housing, transportation, food and clothing.
FAR is a type of "differential response," which is a term that refers to collaborative interactions between CPS and families. Washington's use of differential responses reflects the growing opinion that traditional, investigative CPS responses can be unhelpfully adversarial in nature. Differential responses are more comprehensive than the traditional model, because CPS engages the family to help identify their own issues and solutions. In DSHS’s own words, “the current CPS system is ill-designed to serve the FAR target population.” (2).
A clearly-defined target population is essential to FAR’s safety and effectiveness. Whether a case is eligible for FAR depends on the seriousness of the allegation in the CPS report, as determined by DSHS intake screeners. Allegations of sexual abuse are always referred down the investigative path, as are other cases of physical endangerment. And if serious risks are discovered during FAR, the state worker will refer the case back to CPS for investigation. DSHS estimates that 60 to 70 percent of all CPS reports will be referred to FAR. (3).
What are the risks of FAR?
According to an August 2015 study by the University of Connecticut School of Social Work, the percentage of reports referred to that state’s FAR increased from 36 percent in January 2014 to 44 percent in June 2015. (4). The Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF) has faced severe scrutiny from the public and state lawmakers this year, due to concerns that DCF was improperly referring high-risk cases to their FAR program. In December of 2015, the Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate released a scathing 34-page report implicating DCF’s improper risk assessment in the death of a 2-year old girl, Londyn. (5). In the wake of that tragedy, the Connecticut General Assembly unanimously approved a bill increasing oversight within FAR, requiring DCS to follow up on families that have been referred to third-party service providers, and more clearly defining the guidelines for risk assessment. (6).
In 2015, the Minnesota Legislature was also compelled to pass laws strengthening investigative requirements, and requiring consultation with county attorneys before closing FAR cases. This came in response to investigative news reports that Minnesota CPS was improperly referring to FAR – and closing – cases where serious child abuse was taking place. There, FAR was used in about 75 percent of cases in 2014, a number that has fallen to under 65 percent in 2016 (7).
FAR is an opportunity to make CPS more effective, and to reduce the traumatic impact of CPS interventions. However, Washington must continue to roll the new model out slowly, and with considerable oversight available to the public.
2. Title IV-E Waiver Demonstration Project Initial Design and Implementation Report, State of Washington Department of Social and Health Services Child Welfare (January 8, 2013).
4. Family Assessment Response, Connecticut Department of Children and Families (August 28, 2015).
5. Child Fatality Investigative Report, Londyn S., State of Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate in Consultation with the State Child Fatality Review Panel (December 22, 2015).
6. State passes bill to put stricter regs on DCF, Justin Muszynski, The Bristol Press (May 6, 2016).
7. Despite abuse reports, Dakota County left children with parents, Brandon Stahl, Star Tribune (June 4, 2016).