LAWRENCE — The number of children in foster care in Kansas has hit a new record, and one in five of those children are there because of issues related to caregiver substance abuse. Researchers in the University of Kansas School of Social Welfare have secured a five-year, $2.9 million grant to help agencies across the state serve the youngest, most vulnerable children and strengthen families affected by substance abuse.
The grant, from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families, will allow KU to partner with state agencies and Kansas’ two foster care agencies and service providers throughout the state to focus on improving safety, well-being and permanency for children up to age 3. Kansas Serves Substance Affected Families is a research project funded through the third round of Regional Partnership Grants from the Children’s Bureau at DHHS, which seek to promote interagency collaboration to enhance services for substance-affected families. In the first two rounds of this funding, KU researchers Tom McDonald, Jody Brook and Becci Akin focused on enhancing services for children ages 3-12 who were affected by caregiver substance abuse in Kansas, Oklahoma and Iowa. This new project, led by McDonald, Susana Mariscal, and doctoral candidate Kaela Byers, expands on this earlier work and shifts the focus to young children who are especially vulnerable.
“Kids, especially young children, are present in homes affected by substance abuse. These children are at a greater risk of experiencing the negative impact of complex trauma on their development, and thus it is essential to provide an early intervention,” said Mariscal, research associate in the social welfare school and KSSAF co-principal investigator and lead evaluator. “We seek to improve family functioning in order to enhance the children’s well-being, safety and permanency.”
Children up to age 3 are in a crucially important phase of neurobiological and psychological development. Suffering neglect, abuse and other negative experiences as a result of parents’ or family members’ substance abuse can have long-lasting psychological, emotional and health consequences, the researchers said. To prevent these consequences, researchers will begin an evidence-based intervention, the Strengthening Families Program, targeting children in the target age range. The goal of the program is to strengthen families to increase children’s safety and well-being in the home, thus increasing the likelihood of reunification and permanency. The program works with parents and children, teaching parenting skills, helping them set goals and meet childrens’ needs.
“It’s about improving parenting skills, coping abilities and functioning better together as a family,” said Byers, project coordinator in the social welfare school. “Strong relationships between parents and children promote healthy child development and serve as a protective factor against future maltreatment and substance use.”
Kansas Serves Substance Affected Families will collaborate with the Kansas Adoption Permanency Project, an effort led by the social welfare school to put in place trauma screening and functional assessment for all children who enter foster care in Kansas. The project will also train providers across the state so they are able to continue enacting the Strengthening Families Program beyond the life of the grant.
Work on the project began this month, and the timing is vital, researchers said. Parental substance abuse is the No. 1 reason children enter foster care in Kansas, including 29 percent of children up to age 3 who are in out-of-home care. Children in this age range are 60 percent more likely than their older peers to be removed from their home because of parental substance abuse. Additionally, 7 percent of all foster care cases were related to methamphetamine use in 2014, nearly double the 3.9 percent in 2010. For infants to 3-year-olds, 11 percent of the cases were associated with caregiver methamphetamine use in 2014.
The Kansas Serves Substance Affected Families program is a partnership between the social welfare school, the Kansas Department for Children and Families, Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, and the state’s two foster care agencies: KVC Behavioral Health Inc. and Saint Francis Community Services Inc.