Social Services embraces family-friendly model for Moffat County

Lauren Blair
Moffat County Social Services Child Welfare team gathered this week to complete the final training required to transition to a new two-track system for addressing reports of child mistreatment. Known as Differential Response
Lauren Blair

— Social Services is making a break from stigmas of the past with a switch to a more family-friendly approach for Moffat County families.

Perceived too often as an agency that swoops in and takes children away, the Moffat County Department of Social Services is hoping to change that with a new system that prioritizes family partnership, collaboration and inclusiveness.

Known as Differential Response, Moffat County became the 24th county in the state to formally adopt the new system when it went live this week.

“Differential Response is really focused on engaging the family and making sure that families have a voice in the decisions that are made about them,” said Child Welfare Supervisor Nicole Shatz. “They are the experts of their family and know… what does and doesn’t work better than anyone else.”

The agency has been implementing bits and pieces of the new approach since 2014, when it first decided to make the switch.

“The old philosophy of casework was really not as family-oriented,” Shatz said. “It was basically, you go in, you identify the safety concerns and you tell the family how to fix it and when to fix it instead of having them at the table for that process.”

In other words, under the old system, prescribed services are mandatory and often perceived as punitive.

There also has been only one pathway for caseworkers to use when addressing reports of child mistreatment, regardless of severity. For the sake of comparison, a child could be locked in a cage or could simply be left unsupervised in an inappropriate manner, and caseworkers would have to follow the same procedures in how they assess the cases.

“Right now, it’s like we send in the SWAT team for everything, but with this, we’ll be able to determine what really needs the SWAT team and what doesn’t,” said Moffat County Social Services Director Dollie Rose.

Differential Response creates a two-track system, wherein some cases can be assigned “High Risk Assessment” status and will follow the current, more stringent procedures, and other cases will receive a “Family Assessment Response,” or FAR.

Under the FAR approach, caseworkers can sit down with parents and children together and talk through their needs and possible solutions. In a High Risk Assessment — or in all assessments previously — children had to be interviewed separately. Moreover, FAR doesn’t require issuing a finding of abuse or neglect, though it remains an option if warranted.

“It’s less punitive,” Shatz said. “Those findings can really impact people — (like) teachers, health professionals, therapists, or anyone who works with children — if they have found report of child abuse or neglect, they can lose their job.”

Child safety is still the first priority, Shatz emphasized, but the end game is to reduce stigma and fear of the agency and get parents and caretakers invested in creating safer, healthier environments for their children.

“Engagement is crucial for change. We’re not looking to punish people, we’re looking to get to the root of the problem and to fix the issue in the family,” said School Resource Officer Norm Rimmer with the Craig Police Department.

Rimmer often works closely with social services.

“People tend to back off and shy away from social services, because social services is known for taking kids,” he added. “They want to be known for supporting families and getting families the help they need.”

In addition to the more collaborative option for dealing with low and moderate-risk situations, the agency has also offered a preventative program — including counseling services, parenting classes, substance abuse treatment and equine therapy — to families on a voluntary basis since March of 2016.

“It allows families to access those services and prevention services without having to deal with us,” Rose said.

The agency used to have to open a formal case for anyone who utilized services — which deterred some because of stigma or fear attached to having a “case.” Now, parents can pro-actively and voluntarily request specific services.

Statewide, the need for the new method came from an increasing number of child abuse reports that child welfare agencies simply didn’t have enough resources to respond to; less than half were being accepted and offered services, according to a training presentation from the Colorado Office of Children, Youth and Families.

Ultimately, the changes could lead to lower caseloads, quicker response times, more sustainable changes for families and less taxpayer money required to ensure child safety.

“My hope is that families will benefit and we’ll see families that we see often maybe not come around so much,” Shatz said. “Reducing recidivism is a big thing for us. And really, just making sure kids are safe is the bottom line and letting families be a part of that decision-making process.”

Moffat County’s full transition to Differential Response was made official Wednesday with the sign-off by Colorado Department of Human Services Executive Director Reggie Bicha. He lauded the agency for its nearly 100 percent performance in both timeliness of initial response and assessment closures for the past six months.

“Moffat County has consistently been a leader among other Differential Response Round Three small and mid-size counties,” Bicha said in the letter. “This leadership is essential in ensuring momentum toward statewide expansion.”

Contact Lauren Blair at 970-875-1795 or or follow her on Twitter @LaurenBNews.

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