Foster Care:

Agencies Face Challenges Securing Stable Homes for Children of Substance Abusers

HEHS-98-182: Published: Sep 30, 1998. Publicly Released: Sep 30, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on: (1) the extent and characteristics of parental substance abuse among foster care cases; (2) the difficulties foster agencies face in making timely permanency decisions for foster children with substance abusing parents; and (3) initiatives that address reunifying families or achieving other permanency outcomes in a timely manner for foster children whose parents are substance abusers.

GAO noted that: (1) on the basis of GAO's survey, it estimated that about two-thirds of all foster children in both California and Illinois, or about 84,600 children combined, had at least one parent who abused drugs or alcohol, and most had been doing so for at least 5 years; (2) most of these parents abused one or more hard drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamines, and heroin; (3) substance abusers often abandon or neglect their children because their primary focus is obtaining and using drugs or alcohol; (4) they also place their children's safety and well-being at risk when they buy drugs or engage in other criminal activity to support their drug habit; (5) recovery from drug and alcohol addiction is generally a difficult and lifelong process that may involve periods of relapse; (6) parental substance abuse makes it more difficult to make timely decisions that protect foster children and provide them with stable homes; (7) foster care agencies face difficulties in helping parents enter drug or alcohol treatment programs; (8) in addition, foster care agencies and treatment providers may not always be adequately linked, and as a consequence, close monitoring of parents' progress in treatment does not always occur; (9) foster care agencies also face several challenges when trying to quickly achieve adoption or guardianship in these cases after family reunification efforts have failed; (10) to accommodate children's need for timely permanency decisions, some locations have launched highly collaborative initiatives, involving drug treatment providers and sometimes the courts and other organizations, to help parents obtain treatment; (11) in addition to maximizing the prospects for reunification, these initiatives may produce the detailed information about parents' progress in treatment that judges need to make timely permanency decisions; (12) some locations are undertaking other efforts to better enable foster care agencies to quickly achieve other permanency outcomes for children who cannot be safely returned to their parents in a timely manner; (13) while not designed specifically for foster care cases involving parental substance abuse, such efforts may be useful in these cases; (14) for example, concurrent planning is being used to reduce the time it takes to achieve permanency by simultaneously working to reunify the family and planning for some other permanency outcome should family reunification efforts fail; and (15) some locations are also implementing programs to encourage relatives of children in foster care to adopt or become the legal guardians of these children.

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