Blending Perspectives and Building Common Ground. Balancing Competing Time Lines


Families involved with the child welfare and substance abuse treatment systems, and who are often involved with other service providers as well, face a variety of time constraints that may be at odds with one another and that may frustrate interagency cooperation.  These time lines have been referred to as "the four clocks" (Young et al, 1998) and include: 

Child welfare mandates for decisions regarding permanent placements for children who are in foster care.  Federal child welfare law now requires that permanency hearings to determine the long term plan for a child be held within 12 months of a child's entry into foster care, and that a petition to terminate parental rights be filed after a child has resided in foster care for 15 of 22 months, unless there is compelling reason not to do so, or other specific circumstances exist, such as that the child is in the care of a relative or the family has not received planned services.

The pace of recovery from addiction.  Addiction is a complex illness and multiple treatment attempts over a period of time may be required before significant improvement is seen.  Relapse is common, particularly in the early stages of recovery.  The long term needed for recovery for many women with multiple problems may conflict with shorter time lines associated with child welfare decision making.

Time limits associated with welfare receipt.  Some parents in substance abuse treatment are welfare recipients and subject to Federal and State work requirements and time limits on cash assistance.  The majority of female parents in publicly funded substance abuse treatment programs, for example, are welfare recipients (64 percent according to one study of California treatment clients) (Gerstein et al, 1997).  As these clients reach their time limits and can no longer depend on welfare income, or are required to participate in extensive work activities, treatment programs will need increasingly to accommodate clients' other activities.

Children's developmental time line.  Children grow up quickly and need consistent parental attention.  While several months or years is a short period to parents and service providers, to a child that time is essential developmentally.  A child cannot be put on hold during a parent's addiction and recovery without serious developmental consequences.  Children's developmental time frames are the rationale for speedy child welfare mandates discussed above.

The differences in perspective between a substance abuse treatment program's attention to the relatively long time frames of addiction and recovery and the child welfare agency's shorter time line to be attentive to children's developmental need for permanency and statutory time lines for service delivery, further sets the stage for difficult interagency relationships.