Abstract: Connection Not Consequences: Parent Perspectives on Compliance in Family Treatment Court (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Connection Not Consequences: Parent Perspectives on Compliance in Family Treatment Court

Friday, January 22, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Robert Haswell, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Connecticut, Hartford, CT
Margaret Lloyd Sieger, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, University of Connecticut, Hartford, CT
Background/Purpose: As child welfare systems throughout the United States continue to seek out innovative and holistic approaches to address parental substance use, there has been increased focus over the past 25 years on judicial interventions that focus on treatment rather than punishment. Family treatment courts (FTC) have become an increasingly more common path towards reunification and recovery for parents involved in the child welfare system. FTCs employ two primary theories aimed at increasing compliance, operant learning theory and relational procedural justice. While these two theories (operant behavior theory and relational procedural justice) appear seamlessly integrated in the FTC Standards, limited research in the FTC setting has explored the mechanisms by which application of these theoretical approaches shape client experiences. Given past empirical findings regarding the importance of compliance for ensuring reunification among families with parental SUD, the relative success of FTC at reunifying families with parental SUD, and the limited understanding of the mechanisms by which the two noted theories effect parents’ compliance in a FTC setting, this study sought to begin filling this gap using qualitative methods.

Method: In-depth interviews with 17 currently or recently FTC-involved parents in a Midwestern FTC were conducted and analyzed using constant comparative coding. Analysis began with review of field notes and development of initial codes by the authors. Open- and axial-coding was conducted during the course of reading study transcripts. To investigate whether important concepts in a later interview were overlooked in earlier sections, or subsequent interview were missed in previously analyzed transcripts, a process of constant comparative coding was utilized. Identified codes were reviewed for relevance to the research question and redundancy, and deleted or collapsed into the final 17 codes. Ongoing reflection and revision across and between interviews continued throughout analysis.

Results: Five themes reflecting factors that motivated compliance were identified. Compliance was enhanced by FTC relationships and internal structure, changes in internal perceptions of substance use and self, a perceived sense of accountability, the court’s tiered intervention style, and external supports. This study found that the structure of family treatment courts creates a critical interplay between these two theoretical frameworks which may result in increased compliance by participants and that interpersonal connections over punitive consequences may do more to increase and sustain compliance within these models.

Implications: The results of the current study illuminate how the structure of family treatment courts creates a critical interplay between operant behavioral theory and relational procedural justice. The quality of the relationships developed between the participant and the FTC staff, treatment providers, and peers appear to be critical to positive outcomes in this model and provide the foundation required for operant behavioral interventions to have their desired effect. Further inquiry exploring cases where compliance is not achieved may further inform our understanding of the true nature of the relationship between these two theoretical perspectives within family drug court models. This may lead to structural changes that result in higher rates of reunification and improved rates of permanency for family drug court participants.