Blending Perspectives and Building Common Ground. Substance Abuse is a Critical Child Welfare Issue


Parental substance abuse, with its related physical and mental health problems and its social and economic facets, is a critical factor in many families who come to the attention of the child welfare system.  While data will be discussed in detail in Chapter 4, it is clear that throughout the child welfare system, but especially with respect to children in foster care, alcohol and other drug abuse is recognized as a major contributing factor to child neglect and abuse and as one of the key barriers to family reunification.  Parental substance abuse is among the factors that have fueled the rising number of abuse and neglect reports and has contributed to the rising number of children in foster care.  It remains a key barrier to reunification for many of the children who reside in foster care for extended periods.

Because substance abuse is so often intertwined with a family's maltreatment of their children, the availability of effective, substance abuse treatment must become a priority for child welfare agencies seeking to address families' needs.  When substance abuse treatment includes a well-coordinated service delivery system designed to address the variety of family needs, it does work for many families, allowing the addicted individual to regain control over his or her life and keep his or her family intact.  Providing effective substance abuse treatment services will be discussed in Chapter 7.  While child welfare agencies are rarely the providers of substance abuse treatment services, they must become knowledgeable about treatment and recovery (including its potential and limitations), should be active referral sources for treatment programs, and must be active partners in the treatment process.

Furthermore, while substance abuse treatment is often effective, appropriate, high quality treatment designed for parents, especially women with young children, is not easily available in many communities.  Most providers are not prepared or equipped to address the complex physical, mental, social, and economic issues facing these women and their children.  Moreover, they often lack the resources to provide the level of comprehensive, gender-specific care that is required.  Even where such programs exist, child welfare agencies too often have not established effective links with treatment providers that facilitate referral and follow up.  Until treatment access for child welfare system clients is ensured, it is difficult to argue that parents are being afforded the opportunity to address the barriers to successful family life.  Child welfare agencies must become advocates in their communities for the establishment and provision of the types of services their clients need.

Even with adequate treatment services, not all substance abusing parents will be able to improve sufficiently to function in their parental roles.  In order to make appropriate and realistic decisions about child safety, reunification, and family preservation, and termination of parental rights, increased attention must be given to appropriate assessment of the family's needs, to individualized treatment plans for these parents and their children, to the progress clients make in treatment, and to the length of time required in treatment to address major issues -- all of which relate to effective parenting.  In addition, if new time lines are to be adhered to while providing realistic opportunities for recovery, it will be important to provide joint parent-child services that address parenting and other priority issues while working on recovery.  Recovery is a lifetime journey, not an event.  As a result, success in treatment is not likely to mean complete, permanent abstinence immediately, though progress in treatment can be observed and documented.  Child welfare staff and judges, however, often do not know how to identify whether or not such progress is taking place, nor do they have the skills to determine the extent to which progress on substance abuse treatment goals is likely to translate to children's safety.