LAWRENCE — When substance abuse necessitates the separation of children from families, the process of reuniting them while addressing the substance abuse issues is never easy. Researchers at the University of Kansas have partnered with the states of Oklahoma and Iowa on a series of grants totaling $5.75 million to evaluate the effectiveness of a system designed to help case workers reunite children and families affected by substance abuse and to bring new forms of therapy to the fight.
KU researchers partnered with the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to land a $3.25M grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The five-year grant will help continue work to implement a screening for families at risk of substance abuse in the state. The grant is a continuation of work begun by Jody Brook, assistant professor of social welfare, and Tom McDonald, professor and associate dean. The researchers helped implement the UNCOPE, a universal screening tool for substance abuse. The work is designed not only improve the well-being of kids in child welfare, but to increase success rates of young people being returned to their families. Oklahoma was the first state in the nation to implement the screen statewide.
"The purpose of a universal screen is to identify those at risk of substance use disorders," Brook said. "In this instance, substance abuse is a major problem in the child welfare system, and workers need ways to help them identify who should receive full assessments — the UNCOPE does this. Without tools to use, child welfare workers don't have the information they need to help them make appropriate referrals and treatment linkages."
Brook, Becci Akin, research associate; and Johnny Kim, associate professor of social welfare, are co-principal investigators for the grant.
The new grant will continue implementing the screening and give case workers new resources to help families who have children in child welfare services due to substance abuse. Researchers will work with Oklahoma state officials to implement two other practices into child welfare: the Strengthening Families Program, a 14 week family skills training program, and solution-focused brief therapy, a technique that focuses on positive attributes instead of negative issues to formulate a plan for recovery.
The Strengthening Families Program is an evidence-based family skills training program that was developed for substance abusing families, and it teaches the parents basic skills for parenting, teaches the children self-regulation and behavioral management skills, and helps to improve family functioning through improvements in attachment and communication. Additionally, since the children are in foster care placement at the time of Strengthening Families Program training, the group provides much-needed visitation between children and parents. The groups begin with family meals and are then broken out into parent and child groups, and the families practice what they have learned.
Prior research, conducted by Brook and McDonald, has shown that participation in the program by child welfare families reduced the time to reunification, and followup studies indicate the reunifications have been successful over the long term.
Solution-focused brief therapy
Kim will lead the effort to implement solution-focused brief therapy through the grants. Kim's research has shown the technique to be effective in schools. School social workers and educators have had success using the method to work with students who have exhibited problem behavior. Instead of focusing on the negative behavior, school personnel work with the student to focus on their positive aspects and set a course to reduce problematic behavior.
Kim will work with caseworkers in Oklahoma to bring the method to families dealing with substance abuse and removal of children from their household.
"We're trying to find new ways to engage families and help them with these problems," Kim said. "Rather than focusing solely on the problem, they'll recognize the things that have gone well, and small changes they've made and can continue to make that can turn into big changes. This approach helps to create positive emotions, and when you have positive emotions, you're open to new ideas, new approaches and behaviors."
Brook and Akin have also partnered with the Iowa Court Administration Children's Justice Division to secure a five-year, $2.5M grant from the Department of Health and Human Services to help families affected by substance abuse in Iowa.
"This initiative will work to improve child and family well-being for substance abuse affected families with children in foster care, or at risk of foster care placement," Brook said. "We will provide trauma-informed, child- and family-focused specialized care to these drug court-involved families, as well as work to build Iowa's collaborative capacity in the area of child welfare, substance abuse and court systems."
The program will use the Strengthening Families program as well as another evidence-based parenting program, Celebrating Families, to improve parent, child and family function as part of family drug court efforts to bring families back together after substance abuse threatened or necessitated the removal of children from a home.
Brook and Akin will provide technical assistance and evaluate implementation and outcomes of the programs in the state throughout the life of the grant.
Becoming models for the nation
The goal is not only to help child welfare social workers and families in two states, but to develop methods and practices that can become standards for people dealing with substance issues throughout the nation. By combining academic expertise with the experience of professionals in the field and closely evaluating the outcomes, the researchers believe they can do just that.
"We're bridging the gap between academic research and clinical practice," Kim said. "When we work together we can combine our knowledge to create new and effective services that has real public impact."
Akin echoed the sentiment.
"We will use this opportunity to build the evidence base for what works for substance-affected families and translate this knowledge into more effective practice and policy," she said.