Vol. 7, No. 2• May 2003

North Carolina Embarks on Major Reform of Its Child Welfare System

North Carolina embarks on major reform of its child welfare system
Thanks to an effort known as the Multiple Response System (MRS) changes are afoot in North Carolina’s child welfare system. In the near future, MRS is sure to affect social workers, birth families and their children, foster parents—everyone involved with our state’s child welfare system. To help you understand and prepare, this article will provide you with an overview of MRS and explain how this new approach is likely to affect you as a foster parent.

Our Current System

The overarching goal of child welfare in the United States is to achieve safety, permanence, and well-being for children and their families. Until now, the child welfare system in North Carolina has attempted to achieve these goals through the use of what might be called a “single response system.”

In this system, county departments of social services (DSS’s) respond to reports of child abuse and neglect in the same way, regardless of the nature of the report. Whether the report is about a child who has been left alone for a short period of time or about a child who has been severely and repeatedly abused, policy and law dictate that the response from DSS be the same. This single response is very “investigative” and involves a comprehensive and intrusive effort to identify victims and perpetrators.

This approach has proven to be very effective in cases involving violence against children. However, each year, reports of child abuse account for approximately 10% of the reports of child maltreatment in North Carolina. The other 90% concern child neglect. In these neglect cases, which are often less serious, changes in family relationships and functioning are usually the best means of securing safety for children. In these situations, the investigative and labeling approach to child protection often alienates and discourages family members.

As a state, we have come to realize that our single response system is not as helpful as it could be for many of the children and families it was designed to serve. North Carolina has recognized that to achieve safety, permanence, and well-being for all children and families, it needs a child welfare system that more clearly demonstrates respect for families, acknowledges their strengths, and supports and empowers them to solve the problems they face.

The Multiple Response System

The Multiple Response System is an attempt to make our child welfare system more family-centered. By giving county DSS’s two ways to respond to reports of child maltreatment, MRS enables agencies to select an approach that fits with the level of risk to the child.

Under MRS, rather than treating every report as if it were potentially a serious case of criminal child abuse/neglect, intake reports are carefully screened into one of two approaches. The first, the investigative assessment approach, resembles the classic child protective services (CPS) response in which workers perform a rigorous investigation, using forensic interviewing techniques when appropriate. In the second, the family assessment approach, child safety is still the first concern, but the overall nature of the agency’s contact with the family is much more supportive.

MRS does more than change the way agencies respond to reports of abuse and neglect. Because the aim of this effort is to make the child welfare system as a whole more family-centered, MRS employs seven strategies for reform. These seven strategies, outlined in the sidebar on the front page of this issue, prescribe changes in the way social workers, foster parents, and others do their jobs throughout the entire continuum of child welfare. Two of these strategies in particular will have a definite effect on foster parents.


Potential Benefits of the Multiple Response System

  • Families may be more willing to engage with social workers and other community resources.

  • Children will be as safe or safer than with the current approach, since families will be more likely to accept and receive the services and support they need.

  • Foster parents will be in a better position to understand and support birth families, which can lead to speedier resolution of family difficulties and more timely permanence for children.

  • Social workers will have an alternative to the investigatory approach that will give them more opportunity to teach and support families, thereby addressing the root causes of maltreatment.

  • The child welfare system may do a better job preventing abuse and neglect and therefore come to be seen by families as a partner and friendly resource. With these changes, worker turnover may be reduced.


MRS and Foster Parents

The two MRS strategies that will most directly affect foster parents will probably be “shared parenting” and “child and family team meetings.”

Shared parenting meetings. Shared parenting is an approach designed to build a team focused on the welfare of the child: an alliance among birth parents, foster parents, and social workers. As with any team, trust will be the foundation of this alliance.

Of course, there will be barriers to this trust. Some foster parents, for example, are initially uncomfortable with the idea of helping or even meeting the parents of their foster children. First and foremost, they worry about their own safety and the safety of the children. For their part, some birth parents see foster parents as direct competitors for their child’s affection and usurpers of their parental authority. Clearly, ideas and assumptions such as these do not facilitate the building of trust.

That’s why, for shared parenting to work, foster parents must be clear about their role, which is to supplement and support birth families, not to substitute for them. Foster parents must see themselves as part of the team working to rebuild and reunite families, and they must be treated with respect by the other members of that team.

Some North Carolina foster parents already see themselves this way, and are fully integrated into the team serving the child and family. Others may not be there quite yet, and so may need support from their agencies and other foster parents.

The central mechanism for building trust and teamwork in the shared parenting approach is an agency-facilitated meeting that occurs as soon as possible after children enter foster care. In fact, under MRS agencies are asked to facilitate a shared parenting meeting within seven days after a child enters foster care. After this initial meeting, shared parenting meetings will occur regularly until the family can be reunited or another permanent plan is identified. (For more on this see the discussion of shared parenting in the article, Confidentiality and the Foster Parent’s Need to Know.)


Shared Parenting: Benefits

By encouraging birth and foster parents to share decisions and work together as a team, shared parenting:

  • Maintains the birth-parent/child relationship

  • Improves birth parents’ self-esteem

  • Gives foster parents a realistic picture of birth parents’ strengths and deficits

  • Gives birth and foster parents more information about the child

  • Allows the foster parent to model appropriate behavior and parenting techniques

  • Helps birth parents develop an understanding of the child’s needs

  • Facilitates eventual reunion

  • Promotes ongoing support for the family after the child returns home

Source: NYSCCC, 2002 <http://www.nysccc.org/linkfamily/Realities/sharedparent.htm>


To help agencies and foster parents prepare for shared parenting and shared parenting meetings, the N.C. Division of Social Services is offering two training courses. To learn about them, consult <http://ssw.unc.edu/fcrp/tm/tm_mainpage.htm>.

Child and family team meetings. Under MRS, county DSS’s hold child and family team meetings with families involved with child protective services. The primary function of these meetings is to engage the family and other interested parties in joint decision-making and to provide the family with support. These meetings address the family’s strengths and needs and how these affect the child’s safety, permanence, and well-being; the meeting also results in a plan that specifies what must occur to help the family safely parent the children.

Under MRS, child and family team meetings occur within seven days of the time the decision is made to substantiate or reach a finding of “services required.” Child and family teams are involved with the family throughout the life of the case, even if it is necessary to remove a child from the home due to safety issues.

For foster parents, child and family team meetings can serve several important functions. In some counties, agencies opt to use these meetings to fulfill the MRS requirement for shared parenting meetings. Even if a separate shared parenting meeting occurs, by being present at child and family team meetings foster parents have the chance to build a relationship with and obtain information from the parents of their foster children. Child and family team meetings, since they occur throughout the life of a case, also represent an important way for foster parents to stay up-to-date and to be active, contributing members of the team serving the family and child.


MRS is being piloted right now in 10 of the state’s 100 counties: Alamance, Bladen, Buncombe, Caldwell, Craven, Franklin, Guilford, Mecklenburg, Nash, and Transylvania. In the state’s other 90 counties, departments of social services are watching carefully to see what these lead counties learn, and they are preparing to engage in the seven strategies of MRS themselves. It is anticipated that MRS will become the new statewide standard for child welfare practice in 2005.

If you would like to learn more about MRS, consult <http://www.dhhs.state.nc.us/dss/childrensservices/mrs/index.htm>. If you have questions about how or when MRS will be implemented in your county, ask your social worker.

Copyright 2003 Jordan Institute for Families