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Substance Abuse Specialists in Child Welfare Agencies and Dependency Courts Considerations for Program Designers and Evaluators

Substance Abuse Specialists in Child Welfare Agencies and Dependency Courts Considerations for Program Designers and Evaluators (PDF 299 KB)
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 2010 (SMA) 10-4557

Cover page of a guidebook This document focuses on one particular model of collaboration, the placing of substance abuse specialists in either child welfare offices or dependency courts. The purpose of co-locating substance abuse specialists is to ensure that parents are assessed as quickly as possible, to improve parent engagement and retention in treatment, to streamline entry into treatment, and to provide consultation to child welfare and dependency court workers. In addition to briefly describing substance abuse specialist programs and their various components, this paper includes findings from eight qualitative interviews of programs that place substance abuse specialists in child welfare offices or dependency courts.

Case studies include:

    Two women discussing
  • Connecticut: Substance Abuse Specialists
  • Delaware: Substance Abuse Counselors Program
  • Illinois: Recovery Coach Program
  • Massachusetts: Substance Abuse Regional Coordinators Program
  • New Hampshire: Project First Step
  • Sacramento County: Early Intervention Specialists and Specialized Treatment and Recovery Services
  • Washington: Substance Abuse Services Initiative

Commonalities Matrix of Substance Abuse Specialist Program

Lessons Learned include:

  • Training: Understanding How to Use the Specialist
    Child welfare offices and courts use the substance abuse specialist in a number of ways. In each program, the teams have determined the community’s specific needs for the program.
  • Training: Cross-Training Multisystem Staff
    Cross-training the multisystem providers (child welfare professionals, court staff, and substance abuse coaches and counselors) is of vital importance to the success of the program. Cross-training supports team building, sets the context within which the providers are to operate, and establishes mutual expectations. This is separate from training child welfare and court professionals on the mechanics of how to use the specific services of substance abuse specialists.
  • Specialists’ Background and Expertise
    In addition to their high level of commitment to the position and to the multidisciplinary team, the skill set and attributes of the specialist are critical to the success of the program. It is important that each specialist have knowledge about, and respect for, the child welfare system and the court, including the institutional history and the core values of both partners.
  • Support of Leadership Across Systems
    Program success and sustainability requires that buy-in for the cross-system collaboration occur at all levels of each department and organization. This requirement was noted as especially important in the child welfare system. In most sites, the system administrators worked together to develop an overall framework for their staff to build on during program development, including a set of shared outcomes.
  • Collaborative Relationships
    Interviewees also stated that it is imperative that the systems involved in operating and monitoring a substance abuse specialist program develop a set of joint values and principles to formalize and guide the collaborative relationships. They found these joint values and principles were essential to the ongoing planning and implementation of the programs.
  • Space and Location of the Specialist
    The multisystem program development team often decides on the space and location of the substance abuse specialist. In many situations, the substance abuse specialist is co-located in the child welfare office and strategically placed in a visible location. In other situations, the specialist is co-located in the court and has a visible presence in the child welfare office on a regular basis.
  • Two people conversing
  • Communication and Information-Sharing Protocols
    Regular and effective communication between the substance abuse specialist, the child welfare staff, court staff and attorneys, and the other community providers is essential to the success of the program.
  • Sustainable and Flexible Funding Sources
    It is important to ensure that there are adequate and reliable resources to operate the program and to create a strong sense of ownership in its ongoing success. Budgeting and sustainability planning for this type of collaboration should include representatives and funding from each of the systems involved.
  • Evaluation
    Interviewees noted the importance of evaluation in two key ways. First, evaluation is critical to understanding the successes and challenges of the substance abuse specialist program and allows for program revisions as needed. Second, positive evaluation results justify the existence of the substance abuse specialist program and generate continued and additional support for the program.
  • Access to Treatment Services
    Access to treatment services after the initial evaluation or assessment is a critical component for success. Interviewees described access as the general availability of appropriate treatment services in the community, and emphasized the role that substance abuse specialists can play in directly or indirectly facilitating parent screening, assessment, and engagement in services. In at least one program, eligibility periods for accessing the services of the specialists were extended from the first 90 days of the case to 6 months to allow for the establishment of relationships between the parent and the caseworker, and with multiple systems.

This publication may be downloaded or ordered at the SAMHSA publication store. Or call SAMHSA’s Health Information Network at 1-877-SAMHSA-7 (1-877-726-4727). In addition, this publication can be ordered from the Child Welfare Information Gateway at 1-800-394-3366.


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