Parental Substance Abuse:

Implications for Children, the Child Welfare System, and Foster Care Outcomes

T-HEHS-98-40: Published: Oct 28, 1997. Publicly Released: Oct 28, 1997.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed the implications of parental substance abuse for children and the child welfare system, and permanency planning for foster care cases involving parental substance abuse, focusing on reviews of the substance abuse histories and drug treatment experiences of parents, as well as initiatives that might help achieve timely exits from foster care for cases involving parental substance abuse.

GAO noted that: (1) for many children, it is parental substance abuse that brings them to the attention of the child welfare system; (2) when a newborn has been found to have been prenatally exposed to drugs or alcohol, this often triggers an investigation of suspected child abuse and neglect; (3) in some states, prenatal substance exposure itself constitutes neglect and is grounds for removing a child from its parents; (4) substance abuse can damage a parent's ability to care for older children as well, and can lead to child abuse or neglect; (5) as a result, some of these children are removed from the custody of their parents and placed in foster care; (6) once a child is in the system, parental substance abuse is a significant hurdle in their path out of the system--a hurdle that requires drug or alcohol treatment for the parent in addition to other services for the family; (7) the nature of drug and alcohol addiction means a parent's recovery can take a considerable amount of time; (8) other problems these parents face, such as mental illness and homelessness, further complicate these cases; (9) foster care cases that involve parental substance abuse, therefore, place an additional strain on a child welfare system already overburdened by the sheer number of foster care cases; (10) child welfare agencies are charged with ensuring that foster care cases are resolved in a timely manner and with making reasonable efforts to reunite children with their parents; (11) ideally, both of these goals are to be achieved; (12) however, even for parents who are able to recover from drug or alcohol abuse problems, recovery can be a long process; (13) child welfare officials may have difficulties making permanency decisions within shorter time frames before they know whether the parent is likely to succeed in drug treatment; (14) so, when parental substance abuse is an issue in a foster care case, it may be difficult to reconcile these two goals; and (15) the foster care initiatives and laws that some states and localities are instituting may help reconcile the goals of family reunification and timely exits from foster care for the cases involving parental substance abuse.

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