The Role of Interagency Collaboration for Substance-Abusing Families Involved with Child Welfare

Article excerpt

Meeting the needs of families involved with the child welfare system because of a substance abuse issue remains a challenge for child welfare practitioners. In order to improve services to these families, there has been an increasing focus on improving collaboration between child welfare, treatment providers, and the court systems. This paper presents the results from qualitative interviews with 104 representatives of these three systems that explore how the collaborative process works to benefit families, as well as the barriers and supports for building successful collaborations. Results indicate that collaboration has at least three major functions: building shared value systems, improving communication, and providing a "team" of support. Each of these leads to different kinds of benefits for families as well as providers and has different implications for building successful collaborative interventions. Despite these putative benefits, providers within each system, however, continue to struggle to build effective collaborations, and they face such issues as deeply ingrained mistrust and continued lack of understanding of other systems' values, goals, and perspectives. Challenges that remain for successful collaborations are discussed.

There is little question that substance abuse is a major issue confronting families involved with child welfare services. Studies indicate that problems with alcohol and drug use are present in between 40% and 80% of the families known to child welfare agencies (Tracy, 1994; see also National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, 1999; Department of Health and Human Services [DHHS], 1999). According to a 1988 study by the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse, substance abuse was the dominant characteristic in the child abuse caseloads of 22 states and Washington, DC (Besharov, 1989). Further, alcohol and drug abuse is associated with more severe child abuse and neglect and is indicated in a large percentage of neglect-related child fatalities (Tracy, 1994).

With the passage of the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA; 1997), the complex issues involved in dealing with substance-abusing parents involved with the child welfare system have become the focus of increased attention. Under ASFA, substance-abusing parents have as little as one year in which to comply with reunification requirements, including attaining and demonstrating recovery from their addiction, or they face permanent termination of their parental rights. Given the historically low rates of reunification and extended duration of foster care placements for families with substance abuse issues, these families are likely to comprise the bulk of families affected by this legislation (Lewis, Giovannoni, & Leake, 1997; Walker, Zangrillo, & Smith, 1991).

In April 1999, the DHHS, in accordance with ASFA requirements, published a report to Congress that highlighted the difficult and complex issues facing child welfare and treatment systems agencies that work with these families. In this report, the tensions between these two service systems were highlighted:

While both the substance abuse treatment and the child welfare fields have the vision of healthy, functional families resulting from their interventions, in moving from the family's immediate situation to that end result, different perspectives and philosophies sometimes impede cooperation, engender mistrust, and can cause agencies to hamper one another's efforts and stymie progress. ... It becomes obvious to observers of interactions between service providers in the child welfare and substance abuse treatment fields that in most instances, agencies do not work well together and that truly collaborative relationships are rare (DHHS, 1999).

In the past, a lack of coordination and collaboration has hindered the ability of these systems to support these families (Arthur Liman Policy Institute, 2003; DHHS, 1999; Young, Gardner, & Dennis, 1998). …