If a child and family is to be monitored by or receive services from the child welfare system following an investigation, the child welfare agency opens a child welfare case with the family. About half the children with open child welfare cases are in foster care, while the other half receive services while remaining in their parents' care (HHS/CB, 1997). Most studies that look at children in the child welfare system look only at foster care rather than the broader population of children with open child welfare cases. The one recent national study that did look at a sample of open child welfare cases, the National Study of Protective, Preventive and Reunification Services Delivered to Children and Their Families, found parental substance abuse to be a problem in 26 percent of child welfare cases (see Figure 4-7).
An additional 5 percent of cases involved a child's own substance abuse (HHS/CB, 1997). This study looked at a representative sample of cases nationally and interviewed the child's caseworker about the family and provided services. There may have been additional substance abuse than is reflected in these data, but if so the caseworker was unaware of it.
This study found that the typical open child welfare case in which there was a substance abusing caretaker involves a young child (median age 5 years at case opening) probably being served in foster care (54 percent). The family is somewhat likely to be from a large metropolitan area (42 percent) and from a neighborhood with safety problems (63 percent). The caretaker is very likely single (71 percent) almost certainly a mother (95 percent) and probably over age 30 (median age 31). The family is probably enrolled in one or more government assistance programs such as Medicaid, welfare or food stamps. The typical child has been in foster care for almost a year (median time in care, 11 months) (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, unpublished tables produced for this report). As compared with maltreating families without identified substance abuse, families with substance abuse problems are much more likely to be from a large urban area and from a neighborhood with safety problems. Families with substance abuse problems are more likely on welfare, have child welfare cases opened at younger ages, are twice as likely to be in foster care, and have been in foster care an average of six months longer.