• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Friday 18th May, 2012

Radically re-thinking the child welfare response to substance-abusing families

In the US, roughly half of all foster care cases involve children from substance-abusing families. The standard child welfare service response is to protect the child from abuse or neglect by placing them in foster care and referring the substance-abusing parent for drug treatment. New research from the state of Kansas, however, suggests that a radical rethink on services for these families could have significant benefits for outcomes and not only increase the likelihood of children being reunited with their families, but speed up the time it takes for that to happen. How? By focusing on the quality of the relationship between children and their parents, rather than on parents’ sobriety. Social welfare researchers Jody Brook, Thomas McDonald, and Yueqi Yan, from the University of Kansas, studied whether the well-known Strengthening Families Program (SFP) which focuses on parent, child and family skills training and only minimally addresses parental substance abuse, affected the chances of fostered children being reunited with their families.SFP is a weekly program for children and their parents. They are divided into separate groups in the first part of each session, and then reunited in the last part to practice the skills they have learned in their respective child and parent training groups. Modules in the 14-week program include child development, behavior management techniques, attachment and bonding, and psycho-educational material targeted at improving the relationship between parent and child. Only one of the 14 sessions focuses on substance abuse.The research team compared just over 200 families receiving SFP to about 400 similar families in the system who were not receiving SFP, though both groups were receiving standard child welfare reunification services. The analysis revealed that there was a significantly higher rate of reunification among families receiving SFP compared to matched parents who did not receive the intervention.The findings suggest that addressing parenting directly has an impact on family reunification even in the absence of treatment for substance use and abuse, or a requirement for parental sobriety. “We are not suggesting that parental sobriety is not a worthwhile goal. Nor are we suggesting that implementing a parent/child skills training program will provide a panacea for working with this complex service population. However, our experience with SFP indicates that, for the families involved in this program, participation in SFP led to higher rates of reunification,” the researchers argue.Study limits: comparing like with like?Further research is needed before policy-makers, service directors, and practitioners can be confident that shifting the focus from parental sobriety to parent training is the right thing to do for the vulnerable children and families that are currently served by the child welfare system. One limitation of the Kansas study is that the families were not randomly assigned to receive SFP or services as usual. By using statistical matching techniques – matching children on the basis of age, gender, race, and time in placement before comparing the two groups’ outcomes – the researchers aim to ensure that the data are really comparing “like with like.” However, the two groups could differ in ways that are not measured.One particular concern is that families may be referred to SFP “as families were close to reunification.” In other words, it is possible that the families in SFP were selected for the program because they were already thought to be ready to work toward reunification – a selection bias that the matching procedure would not have been able to catch. **********Reference: Brook, J., McDonald, T.P., and Yan, Y. (2012). An analysis of the impact of the Strengthening Families Program on family reunification in child welfare. Children and Youth Services Review, 34, 691-695.

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