Blending Perspectives and Building Common Ground. Collaboration Between Child Welfare and Substance Abuse Treatment Agencies is Challenging

04/01/1999

The complexities within child welfare agencies and substance abuse treatment agencies, coupled with different perspectives and world views, make cooperation and collaboration between service systems difficult to establish and harder to maintain.  But now more than ever, collaboration between these agencies is essential if families are to be given real opportunities for recovery and children are to have the chance to grow up in healthy family situations.  As will be discussed more fully in Chapter 6, the differences between agencies are real and there are good and important reasons staff find it difficult to work together.  Yet to the extent we let these differences block communication between agencies and prevent caseworkers and staff at all levels from working together, we cannot serve families effectively and we sabotage the goals both systems strive for:  healthy, well-functioning families.  Our clients come to us with needs for both substance abuse treatment and family intervention and are unlikely to succeed unless both are addressed.

Consider a typical case in which an addicted mother gives birth to a child who is soon taken into foster care.  Handed a list of local treatment agencies (whose programs are likely to be full), the mother is told to "get clean" if she wants her child back, but is given little or no further assistance in securing treatment.  Meanwhile, the child welfare agency places the child in a foster home with adoption potential.  If the mother happens to be successful (without help from the child welfare agency), reunification is a possibility.  If not, the child may be adopted relatively quickly.  Many would consider this standard practice and adequate performance.  Yet, while the child welfare agency may secure a permanent home for the child, the birth mother is likely to have received little or no treatment and thus may be reported again in 12 to 18 months with a new infant.  The problem has not been solved, for either the mother or her children, often because inappropriate or very short-term treatment was the woman's only option.  Unless we successfully intervene with the addicted parent (who may be a father rather than or in addition to a mother, although fewer addicted fathers are reported to child welfare agencies), we will never be able to make real progress.  Improved collaboration, as well as understanding and responding to the need for high quality and appropriate treatment, are essential to these efforts.