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Addressing the Needs of Families Affected by Substance Abuse in the Child Welfare System

Phil BreitenbucherPhil Breitenbucher, MSW, Program Director, Center for Children and Family Futures

Summary: The author reviews the performance of family drug courts from a national perspective and shares FDTC Guidelines, a resource that focuses on implementing evidence-based or evidence-informed practices in FDTC.

An estimated 60–80% of substantiated child abuse and neglect cases involve use of substances by a custodial parent or guardian; however, many traditional family courts and child welfare agencies often lack sufficient resources to address the multiple needs and complex risk factors of families in which parental substance use disorders contribute to child maltreatment.[1] Well-functioning family drug courts (FDC) bring together substance abuse treatment, mental health providers and social services agencies to meet the diverse needs of these families. 

FDCs seek to provide safe environments for children with intensive judicial monitoring and interventions to treat parental substance use disorders and other co-occurring risk factors.[2] Judges first created FDCs in 1995 to address substance abuse and parenting within the child welfare system, with a focus on abuse and neglect cases in the family dependency court. The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA) set forth goals of improving safety and permanency for children; FDCs are one method of meeting these goals.These children also have an increased risk of exposure to significant traumatic experiences that threaten their well-being and produce a likelihood of developing substance use and mental health disorders. FDCs provide developmental screening, assessment and treatment services to children to address these needs. Court appointed special advocate (CASA) volunteers often provide a valued voice and expertise to the FDC team to ensure the needs of these children are identified and met.

Currently there are more than 346 FDCs[3] serving more 19,000 families[4] annually across the nation. Compared to individual treatment systems alone, family drug courts’ positive outcomes include significantly higher rates of parental participation in substance abuse treatment, longer stays in treatment, higher rates of family reunification and less time for children in foster care.[5],[6],[7],[8] State, local and tribal jurisdictions often require comprehensive training and technical assistance (TTA) on implementing FDC practices that address the value systems and legal requirements of the child welfare, treatment and judicial systems. To achieve these outcomes, FDCs also require TTA on developing appropriate policies, procedures and performance measures.

The Center for Children and Family Futures (CCFF) is a small business devoted to improving the safety, permanency, well-being and recovery outcomes for children, parents and families affected by trauma, substance use and mental health disorders. CCFF’s delivery of training and technical assistance for FDCs is built on its current and past work with hundreds of courts across the nation.The center has delivered TTA to more than 300 FDCs and reached more than 14,000 family drug court professionals in the last four years.

CCFF engaged a team of expert FDC consultants along with federal and state stakeholders to publish Guidance to States: Developing Family Drug Court Guidelines with a focus on implementing evidence-based or evidence-informed practices in FDCs.[9] Released in May 2013, the purpose of the FDC Guidelines is to enhance and expand FDCs across the nation and provide information on best practices and principles for developing and sustaining FDCs. 

The framework presented in the FDC Guidelines publication is built on a foundation of a shared mission and vision, supported by client services and agency collaboration, to achieve shared outcomes and accountability. The system-wide approach described in the document is designed to improve outcomes for parents, children and families. A system-wide change has also demonstrated improved outcomes in the education system by decreasing the number of missed school days and increasing average daily attendance funds recovered.[10] Additional indirect benefits include reduced criminal involvement, reduced juvenile delinquency, improved social functioning and financial savings (from reduced use of emergency rooms, for example).[11]

Moving forward, FDCs need to respond to the most pressing issues and decisions, including:

  • Expanding the scale—the number of families receiving this approach and scope—and the range of comprehensive services provided by FDCs to respond to a wider segment of the population that would benefit from them
  • Linking with parallel reforms in courts, child welfare, treatment and other agencies, rather than operating as separate, isolated projects
  • Responding to fiscal strain at state and local levels with greater emphasis on FDCs because they are cost effective.

FDCs have expanded over the past two decades because they have demonstrated their ability to significantly improve outcomes for children and families. The success of FDCs is due, in large part, to their collaborative partnerships with community-based organizations to support the multiple needs of parents and children. As key champions for the well-being of children, CASA volunteers have a vital role in partnering with FDCs as they continue to expand and grow.

To find a family drug court in your area or for additional information about FDC training and technical assistance, contact Phil Breitenbucher or visit the Children and Family Futures website.


[1] Boles, S. M., Young, N. K., Moore, T., & DiPirro-Beard, S. (2007). The Sacramento dependency drug court: Development and outcomes.Child Maltreatment, 12, 161-171.doi: 10.1177/1077559507300643

[2] Wheeler, M., & Fox, C. L. (2006). Drug Court Practitioner Fact Sheet: Family Dependency Treatment Court: Applying the Drug Court Model in Child Maltreatment Cases. Alexandria, VA: National Drug Court Institute.

[3] National Association of Drug Court Professionals. (2013). US Drug Court Map. Retrieved from

[4] Delany, P.J., personal communication, August 28, 2012.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Green, B. L., Rockhill, A., & Furrer, C. (2007). Does substance abuse treatment make a difference for child welfare case outcomes? A statewide longitudinal analysis. Children and Youth Services Review, 29, 460-473. doi: 10.1016/j.childyouth.2006.08.006

[7] Worcel, S. D., Green, B. L., Furrer, C. J., Burrus, S. W. M., & Finigan, M. W. (2007). Family Treatment Drug Court Evaluation: Executive Summary. Washington, DC: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

[8] Worcel, S. D., Furrer, C. J., Green, B., Burrus, S. W. M., & Finigan, M. W. (2008). Effects of family treatment drug courts on substance abuse and child welfare outcomes. Child Abuse Review, 17, 427-443. doi: 10.002/car.1045

[9] Children and Family Futures (2013). Guidance to States: Recommendations for Developing Family Drug Court Guidelines. Retrieved from

[10] Chang, H. N., &Romero, M. (2008). Present, Engaged and Accounted For: The Critical Importance of Addressing Chronic Absence in the Early Grades. New York: National Center for Children in Poverty. Retrieved from

[11] Wang, C., &Holton, J. (2007). Total Estimated Cost of Child Abuse and Neglect in the United States. Retrieved from


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