The Role of Lawyers in Family Drug Treatment Courts

Eva J. Klain Eva J. Klain, Director, Child & Adolescent Health, ABA Center on Children and the Law

Summary: The author relates how the center helps attorneys for agencies, children and parents to improve outcomes for the parties through their role as legal advocates in FDTC.

The American Bar Association (ABA) Center on Children and the Law addresses the issues faced by families affected by substance abuse through several of its programs, including child and adolescent health, trauma-informed legal advocacy, and parent representation. Comprehensive drug treatment interventions and programs such as family drug treatment courts (FDTC) can lessen the impact of parental drug use, help families heal and create nurturing environments that support the safety and healthy development of children.

The center helps attorneys working within the FDTC context improve outcomes for children and families through their advocacy. Research suggests the FDTC model is more effective than traditional child welfare involvement with substance abusing parents. FDTC cases have been shown to reach a conclusion faster than typical child welfare cases involving parental substance abuse. Studies also point to the heightened vulnerability of parents participating in FDTC as well as the value of the FDTC model in working with them.

Preparing to be an effective advocate in FDTC requires knowledge of the dynamics of addiction and recovery, as well as the fundamentals of effective advocacy, including ethics and rules of confidentiality. Knowledgeable lawyers can help the system focus on the parents’ recovery without losing sight of children’s safety, permanency and well-being. [1]

Each type of attorney—agency, child, and parent—can ensure the system works to promote the interests of their clients. Attorneys who represent the child welfare agency make filing and other significant decisions, and therefore need an in-depth understanding of addiction and its role in parenting and future risks to children. Attorneys for the child need to understand addiction and treatment in the context of a child’s healthy development. Parents’ attorneys must protect the legal rights of their clients, advocate for reasonable efforts to provide substance abuse and other indicated services, and encourage engagement in these services. Attorneys can seek appropriate screening and assessment for both parents and children, request indicated treatment and services to help address the impact of substance dependence on the family, and ensure safe and frequent family contact during dependency court involvement.

Lawyers knowledgeable about substance abuse issues can ensure drug treatment programs meet multiple family needs, help families prevent and deal with relapse, and promote substance-abuse treatment that also addresses medical needs. Because women and men respond differently to substance abuse interventions, advocating for parents to be placed in gender-specific programs can increase their chances of success, as can treatment specific to the parent’s addiction (alcohol, cocaine, heroin, etc.).

Parental substance abuse is also often a response to trauma suffered by birth parents. Parents may self-medicate to cope with the emotional pain of trauma. Assessing for both substance abuse and trauma can ensure that the two problems are treated through an integrated approach, rather than sequentially. [2]

In February 2014, the ABA House of Delegates passed a policy resolution on trauma-informed advocacy urging lawyers to collaborate with other professionals involved with children or youth in the child welfare or juvenile justice systems to facilitate and support recovery and resiliency of the child and family.

The policy urges legal professionals to work collaboratively across disciplines with experts in trauma-informed systems of care and to develop and implement training programs for judges, child welfare attorneys, prosecutors, defense counsel and law students that enables them to integrate trauma knowledge into daily legal practice and integrate and sustain trauma awareness, knowledge and skills in practice and policies.

Trauma knowledge is essential in representing either children or parents in substance-abusing families due to its intergenerational nature. Adverse childhood experiences can lead to struggles with depression and drug abuse as adults, and medical research has found a strong correlation between the extent of exposure to childhood abuse, neglect or family dysfunction and several leading causes of death in adults, including depression.

Parents involved in the child welfare system who have experienced posttraumatic reactions can feel overwhelmed, emotionally numb or disengaged, or powerless to make necessary changes. Trauma does not affect every parent in the same way, but it may interfere with a parent’s ability to react calmly or thoughtfully to a child’s behavior or make appropriate judgments about a child’s safety.[3]

Parent attorneys working within the context of FDTC can empower parents by asking what services they think might be helpful, identifying any mental health services the parent has already received (then encouraging or supporting an existing therapeutic relationship), and ensuring appropriate trauma-informed assessment of the parent and the parent’s relationship with each child. Substance abuse interventions that do not take into account parents’ underlying trauma issues may not be effective.

Lawyers representing parents and children within the FDTC context should consider the impact of parental substance abuse on both the development of children and the parents’ ability to safely care for their children. The ABA Center on Children and the Law provides numerous resources that can help attorneys work collaboratively while fulfilling their advocacy roles and adhering to rules of professional conduct.


[1] The ABA Center on Children and the Law partnered with the National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare to develop an online CLE tutorial, Understanding Substance Use Disorders, Treatment, and Family Recovery: A Guide for Legal Professionals, available at

[2]Birth Parents with Trauma Histories and the Child Welfare System: A Guide for Judges and Attorneys (2011). National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Available at

[3] Ibid.


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