Effective Family Drug Courts should develop joint policies and practice protocols among substance use disorder treatment, child welfare and the court to standardize screening and assessment of substance use disorders and risk to children among families in the child welfare system
For families involved in child welfare services with parental substance use, an effective response starts with a timely substance use disorder screen and then assessment for those with a positive screen. Under the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA), parents have limited time to comply with reunification requirements, including attaining and demonstrating recovery from their substance use disorder and safely caring for their children. Given these time mandates, FDCs must ensure that assessments are conducted at the earliest possible point following contact with child protective services, ideally near the time of the first court hearing and prior to the dispositional hearing.
The use of standardized and validated assessments to match clients to the appropriate level of care is far superior and yields significantly better results than relying on professional judgment (Andrews & Bonta, 2010; Babor & Del Boca, 2002; Karno & Longabaugh, 2007; Viera et al., 2009). The best approach is to administer a structured interview that is congruent with the diagnostic criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Fifth Edition (DSM-V) (Marlowe, 2012). The FDC should ensure that staff members who are conducting the clinical assessment are properly trained in the administration of the interview and are well-versed in the DSM-V criteria.
Assessments to make these determinations must be timely and integrated with the child welfare case plan so parents receive the appropriate level of services based on their identified risks and need for treatment. Ideally these assessments should be conducted as early as possible, preferably before the Detention Hearing (see above Graphic). Some jurisdictions postpone the clinical assessment and referral to the FDC until after the Jurisdictional-Dispositional Hearing. Other jurisdictions do not conduct the clinical assessment until after the client is referred into the FDC. When these scenarios occur, valuable time is lost to demonstrate readiness for reunification and valuable resources are expended on families who may not need this level of intervention.
This underscores the critical need for FDCs to understand how to appropriately assess parental substance use and how it relates to the safety of children and capacity of parenting. In most FDCs, the assessments of child risk and safety are conducted by child welfare staff and the clinical assessment for substance use disorder and the need for treatment and type of treatment placement are determined by a substance use disorder treatment professional. Although the use of validated tools are important, the important task of sharing of assessment results is also critical so that each parent can be assigned to the appropriate level of both treatment and child welfare supervision.
This level of collaborative practice requires FDCs to ensure cross-training to build interdisciplinary skills and communication protocols for child welfare and substance use disorder treatment systems. A helpful resource entitled Screening and Assessment for Family Engagement, and Recovery (SAFERR) developed by the National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare provides further discussion on cross-system collaboration and coordinated system response.
For additional resources on Screening and Assessment, visit the NCSACW website.