KU researchers using $5.75 million in grants to help reunite parents, children affected by substance abuse

By Matt Erickson

If a child is in foster care, odds are at least one of his or her parents has abused drugs or alcohol.

Substance abuse is involved in about 60 percent of all foster-care cases, said Jody Brook, an assistant professor of social welfare at Kansas University. And in cases where a parent's rights are completely terminated? About 80 percent of those families have dealt with substance abuse.

Numbers like these are a reason why researchers in KU's School of Social Welfare will focus on families touched by substance abuse with two federal grants totaling $5.75 million. The grants, awarded last month from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, will help them work with the states of Oklahoma and Iowa to put in place new ways to help children in the child-welfare system come back home to their families — and stay there.

"It's a problem that's pervasive in child welfare," Brook said.

Not only is substance abuse predominant among families involved with the child-welfare system, she said, but also families with that problem are more likely to never reunite with their children who've entered the system. Children from those families tend to stay in foster care longer. And they're more likely to re-enter foster care a second time after they've gone back home.

But the good news is that Brook and the other researchers will be putting in place a program that's already been able to help such families in Kansas. It's called "Strengthening Families," and it's unlike other child-welfare programs in that it was developed specifically for families that have struggled with substance abuse.

A similar grant in 2007 helped KU researchers put the program in place in the Kansas child-welfare system, and the results they measured show clear success, Brook said.

Children from families that participated in the intensive 14-week training program spent about six months' less time in foster care than those from other similar families, she said.

Becci Akin, a KU research associate who will help put in place and monitor the programs in Oklahoma and Iowa, said that's exactly what the grants are aimed to do.

"Foster care is supposed to be a temporary solution when families face crises or have difficulties," Akin said, "and so our goal is to shorten the time that they spend there."

Families who took part in the "Strengthening Families" program also used drugs and alcohol less afterward, Brook said.

As part of the program, families spend 14 weeks undergoing sessions that start with a family meal, followed by separate training sessions for parents and children. Then the family comes together to practice family functions: communications, problem-solving, reducing conflict.

"When you increase family functioning, you're improving child well-being," Brook said.

The two grants — $3.25 million for the state of Oklahoma, and $2.5 million for Iowa — will also help incorporate other family programs to help substance-abusing parents reunite with children.

Johnny Kim, an associate professor of social welfare at KU, will work in Oklahoma to put in place a kind of therapy that will shift focus from parents' problems to the solutions that could help them turn things around.

It's called "solution-based brief therapy." Kim said the idea is to avoid dwelling on problems and what might be causing them, as other forms of therapy might do, and instead talk about potential solutions so that parents might be more energized to make things better.

"If they're happy and experience positive emotions, they're more willing to listen to new ideas, try different things," Kim said.

The therapy has been shown to work in other contexts, he said, including with children exhibiting behavior problems in schools. Now he'll help to see if it can also work for parents with substance-abuse problems who've had their children removed from their homes.

In Oklahoma, KU researchers will work with the state's Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. In Iowa, they'll work with family drug courts.

Brook said the goal is to test the effectiveness of these programs and, if they're effective, to help spread them around the country, as the "Strengthening Families" program is spreading through the Kansas child-welfare system right now.

"We're looking for new and innovative ways to improve child-welfare system outcomes," Brook said.

Tagged: Research, substance abuse, KU, Department of Mental Health, Grant, Foster Care


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