Blending Perspectives and Building Common Ground. How many of the families involved with the child welfare system have substance abuse problems?


For decades child welfare staff have recognized that substance abuse is common in the families they serve (Fanshel, 1975).  Studies have long shown that parents with substance abuse problems are more likely than other parents to maltreat their children (Famularo et al, 1986; Jaudes et al, 1995; Kelleher et al, 1994).  The wide variety of figures cited in the literature, however, makes it difficult to sort out how the numbers fit together.  Several issues drive the differences in the statistics:

  • The point in the child welfare system being studied.  Numbers differ depending on whether what is being counted is substance abuse among families with child abuse reports, open child welfare cases, or children in foster care.  For the most part, substance abuse prevalence has been found to be greater the "deeper" into the system one looks (i.e. greater prevalence is found among parents of children in foster care than among parents of children reported to child protective services).
  • How the study defines what counts as substance abuse.  Numbers differ depending on whether the study counts any family suspected of substance abuse, families with clinically diagnosed conditions, parents who have tested positive for drugs, or some other threshold.  Most studies include both alcohol and illicit drugs, but numbers are smaller if only illicit drug abuse is counted.
  • How the information is collected.  Studies surveying administrators about how many families in an agency's caseload have substance abuse problems routinely generate higher figures than do studies interviewing caseworkers about specific children or looking at case files to determine whether substance abuse is noted.

Despite these issues, it is clear that substance abuse is a significant factor in the lives of families served by the child welfare system.