When Minnesota's child safety agency hears about a neglected child, it sends out a social worker to investigate--but with this difference: Instead of assuming the parents are purposely harming their children, the caseworker links the family to state services that can help meet its needs.

The agency has found that it is better able to protect children by separating child neglect from child abuse cases. The approach is based on research that indicated that 60 percent of the cases referred to the agency were child neglect not abuse, and yet the work revolved around the filing of "maltreatment" reports. "We started out with this negative system and wondered why it didn't work," says Erin Sullivan Sutton, director of the child safety division. The process ended up being too intrusive in some situations and not responsive enough in others.

In 1999, the legislature passed a law allowing alternative treatment when cases didn't involve substantial child endangerment, such as sexual or physical abuse. The agency followed up with a four-year pilot program that has tested its premise and found it to be successful.

Several other states, including Michigan, Missouri and North Carolina, are also moving toward the alternative approach. In North Carolina, a "multiple response system" connects parents with support systems to help improve interactions with their children. "It's a very different way of providing social services," says Joann Lamm, the state's child welfare administrator. "It's less adversarial." The state began with a pilot program in 10 counties and in January expanded it to all 100 counties in the state.