LAWRENCE — When children are removed from the home or face the risk of removal because of parental substance abuse, the experience can be traumatic and have long-lasting effects on both the children and parents. A federally funded project designed to reunify and strengthen families in these situations throughout Kansas has shown success in reducing the traumatic effects substance abuse can have, and it is beginning to show progress in boosting reunification of families over traditional services.
Kansas Serves Substance Affected Families is a federally funded program now in its fourth of five years. The $2.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families is part of a national effort through public-private partnerships to improve well-being, safety and reunification outcomes.
In its fourth year, the partnership served families with children from birth to 47 months who had either been removed or were at risk of being removed from the home because of parental substance abuse. Families throughout Kansas were randomly assigned to either a treatment group to receive services, including a parenting skills training called Strengthening Families Program Birth to Three, or to a comparison group that received services as usual. The program was able to serve more families than originally planned.
“We’re implementing more groups than we originally intended. As long as we have the families and the fantastic partners, staff and site coordinators — the backbone of our intervention — we’ve been able to serve more families than we originally thought we could,” said Susana Mariscal, research project director at KU’s School of Social Welfare and KSSAF principal investigator and lead evaluator. “These children are going through a traumatic experience not only because of the risk of maltreatment associated with parental substance abuse but also because of the separation from their parents. Given their developmental stage, young children are particularly vulnerable – yet resilient — to the negative consequences of interpersonal trauma. By implementing this program with young children, we are capitalizing on their neuroplasticity and enhancing their social and emotional well-being.”
Evaluation of the treatment program has revealed that not only have more families than originally thought been able to take part but that parents and children have experienced tangible benefits. The children showed statistically significant improvement in areas such as gross and fine motor skills, communication, problem-solving and social-emotional development. In terms of family functioning, parents showed significant improvement in realistic expectations of children and empathy.
“Empathy is an important indicator of effective parenting, and the lack of parental empathy is a strong predictor of child abuse and neglect,” Mariscal said. “It’s such an important indicator.”
Parents also showed improvement in traumatic symptoms, including statistically significant reductions in rates of depression, anxiety, loss of sleep and others. Thus far, KSSAF has served 239 families and 322 children at six sites across Kansas, with high retention rates; 81 percent of families who start the program finished it. Family reunification and permanency outcomes are moving in the right direction in the treatment group, but the team will continue to collect data to achieve the necessary statistical power, Mariscal said.
Strengthening Families Program is an evidence-based, 16-week program that brings families together for a meal and weekly training in areas such as family communication, parent supervision, family attachment, child development, parental substance use and understanding risk and protective factors to avoid substance abuse.
“Providing encouragement and hope to families empowers them to have confidence to practice new skills,” said Bo Self, KSSAF site coordinator (St. Francis Community Services) in Wichita, Salina and Hutchinson.
Site coordinators, child welfare agencies, community partners and social welfare students deserve the bulk of the credit for the program’s success, Mariscal said.
“I love my team, my partners and especially my site coordinators. It is wonderful to work with such an amazing group of passionate individuals,” she said.
KVC and Saint Francis Community Services implement Strengthening Families Program, identify financial and community resources, recruit families and more, while KU researchers oversee evaluation and overall program implementation.
“Something else our teams are doing well is they’re making local connections,” Mariscal said. “They’re inviting volunteers, making connections with churches and organizations who can provide support like meals, meeting spaces or transportation and so much more.”
Some of the participating families experience homelessness, unemployment or incarceration during the program, but the majority have seen the benefit of Strengthening Families Program and continued to take part each week, have a meal as a family, receive the training and put the skills to practice.
“The Strengthening Families Program requires a significant commitment of time from the family participants, but they seem to value the program because they do commit to it and complete the program, which is impressive,” said Melinda Coffman, program coordinator for KSSAF at KU’s School of Social Welfare.
The fifth year of the grant will provide the training to more eligible families while simultaneously working to identify staff, agencies, resources and funding to continue to provide the service after the end of the grant.
“The Strengthening Families Program is an invaluable program for communities seeking to find ways to support and equip at-risk families. The greatest value for this program in our community is the ability for lay people to implement an evidence-based program with fidelity,” said Lee Jost, KSSAF site coordinator (KVC) in Kansas City, Kansas. “By engaging qualified and trained facilitators in a multisector approach, Strengthening Families is able to be implemented with low budget and little human resource strain on any given agency.”
The program and KU’s evaluation are part of a cross-site national evaluation conducted by the Administration for Children and Families, Children and Family Futures and Mathematica. Key partners in KSSAF are the Kansas Department for Children and Families, Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, Kansas’ two foster care agencies, KVC Kansas and Saint Francis Community Services Inc.; Ahearn Greene Associates and Kansas Head Start Association.