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March 01, 2012

Family Drug Court Helps Families Reunify, Saves Money

Claire Chiamulera

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

A new study adds to the growing body of research showing family drug courts improve treatment outcomes for parents and promote family reunification. The study also found the courts save money in the long run.

The researchers tracked families involved in the Baltimore City Family Recovery Program (FRP) in Baltimore, Maryland. The FRP began in 2005 and serves families involved in the child welfare system due to parental substance abuse. It helps parents achieve sobriety through regular judicial monitoring, team support, comprehensive case management, and prompt access to substance abuse treatment.

The Study

The study followed 400 child welfare cases. Half of the cases involved parents referred to the FRP. The other half comprised a comparison group of families not involved in the FRP. The comparison group was matched to the demographic characteristics of the parents in the FRP group based on gender, race/ethnicity, allegation, and age of youngest child on the petition.

The FRP sample included all cases admitted to the FRP program within six months of the date of the shelter care petition. These cases entered the system between August 2005 and December 2006 and were followed for 12 months. One parent was followed per case, usually the mother unless the father was the only parent named in the petition.

The researchers reviewed child welfare and treatment data to gather information on:

  • Parent demographics
  • Family history of child welfare system involvement
  • Date of entry and exit into substitute care
  • Permanency decisions, including reunification
  • Time to achieve permanency
  • Time in treatment
  • Treatment modalities
  • Treatment completion

The cost-savings of the FRP program were determined by analyzing costs of the program itself (drug court staff, operating costs, treatment costs, wraparound services, etc.) compared to costs of non-FRP cases. The researchers also factored in avoided costs, such as costs associated with long-term foster care/guardianship and adoption subsidies.


The study showed positive results in three areas:

Treatment outcomes improved.

  • FRP parents entered treatment sooner than those not in the program (57 days vs. 88 days after the petition date).
  • FRP parents stayed in treatment longer than those not in the program (138 days vs. 82 days).
  • FRP parents had higher treatment completion rates than those not in the program (64% vs. 36%).

Child welfare outcomes improved.

  • Children of FRP parents spent less time in nonkinship care placements than children in the comparison group (252 days vs. 346 days).
  • Non-FRP program cases reached permanency faster than FRP cases (249 vs. 325 days)(possibly explained by longer time in treatment).
  • FRP cases resulted in significantly more reunifications than comparison group cases (70% vs. 45%).

The FRP saved money.

  • FRP cases cost less to the child welfare system than other child welfare cases since families used less foster care and were more likely to reunify.
  • The FRP was estimated to produce a cost savings of $5,478 per family (cost savings are partly attributed to future realized cost savings).
  • The FRP creates “opportunity resources” by freeing money in one area that can be used in another (e.g., reducing time in care results in an opportunity for a foster care placement to be filled by another child).

The study reaffirms the benefits of family drug courts for families and the child welfare system. Positive treatment and child welfare outcomes mean more families stay together. The researchers noted other potential benefits include promoting improving quality of life and attachment between parents and children, and reducing traumatic disruptions for children in the child welfare system.