Cross-Systems Collaboration Between Child Welfare, Alcohol and Other Drugs, and Court Organizations: Perceptions of Parental Substance Use Disorders
Families involved in child welfare (CW) due to issues of parental substance use disorders (SUDs) face a myriad of challenges (Grella, Hser & Huang, 2006), including the increased risk for the termination of parental rights due to strict permanency timeframes (Adoption Safe and Family Act [ASFA], 1997; Green et al., 2007). Strategies for cross-systems collaboration between CW, alcohol and other drug (AOD), and court organizations show promise in addressing the needs of these families (Young & Gardner, 2002). However, emergent research suggests that differing disciplinary perceptions of parental SUDs may hinder the collaborative process (Drabble, 2010).
Utilizing a sequential explanatory mixed methods design, this study explored perceptions of parental SUDs among CW, AOD, and court staff. Implemented in two distinct phases, the sequential explanatory design allowed for the examination of how perceptions toward CW-involved parents with SUDS varied between these groups, but also provided explanations for why they differed. Quantitative data was gathered from 2004 to 2008 and consists of a purposive sample of CW (n = 1044), AOD (n = 276), and court (n = 299) staff from across the US (N=1619). Snowball sampling strategies were employed to recruit sixteen participants (CW = 6; AOD = 6; court =4) for in-depth qualitative interviews. Quantitative and qualitative phases of the study were connected through the interview protocol.
Controlling for demographic variables, results from logistic regression analyses indicated that, compared to CW respondents, AOD respondents were: 1) more likely to agree that parents with SUDs cannot be effective parents (OR=1.80, 95% CI: 1.34-2.44); 2) more likely to agree to full abstinence as criteria needed for reunification (OR = 2.28, 95% CI 1.68-3.10); and 3) more likely to agree that parents should receive jail time as a consequence for non-compliance of court orders (OR = 1.65, 95% CI: 1.23-2.22).
Thematic analyses of qualitative data identified two core themes that provided nuanced understanding of differences of perceptions. First, disciplinary focus on the primary client between CW/court and AOD participants influenced perceptions of parenting effectiveness and consequences for non-compliance. For example, conversations around parents’ capacity to care for their children (even while using substances), or perceptions of consequences as forms of child protection rather than punishment, reflected CW/court’s focus on the needs of the children. In comparison, AOD participants focused their discussion on parents’ treatment and recovery progress. Second, ASFA’s stringent permanency timeframes influenced AOD respondents’ perceptions of full abstinence and consequences for non-compliance. Indeed, AOD respondents expressed firm expectations for abstinence and compliance to court orders out of the concern that, if parents did not meet these recovery goals within ASFA’s timeframes, they would face the harshest consequence of all-- the termination of parental rights.
Collaborating CW organizations should provide anticipatory training for understanding differences in disciplinary focus of the primary client, as well as develop practices that promote the family unit as the primary client. Future studies should explore ASFA’s impact on families dealing with parental SUDs, particularly as it relates to reunification outcomes.