Featured Article: Drug Court Interventions to Improve Family Wellbeing

March 12, 2020: 

Kate GuastaferroWhen people become involved in the justice system, it disrupts their families’ lives. When those people are caregivers for children, the disruption of children’s lives can be profound. Additionally, caregiver substance use is known to put the wellbeing of children in jeopardy. In a recent article in Substance Use & Misuse, Methodology Center Assistant Research Professor Kate Guastaferro and a team of researchers examine whether drug courts can be used as an intervention point to improve the lives of these families.

Guastaferro explained the goal of this research. “When an individual becomes involved in one system—for example the criminal justice system—it offers the potential to address other needs in their life. For example, child welfare or trauma services are not universally or even typically handled by the court system, but people’s involvement in the courts might be the only access they have to services. From a public health perspective, this offers a way to maximize both the impact of and engagement in interventions that these families need.”

Children whose parents use substances and/or are involved with the criminal justice system are at an increased risk for child maltreatment, specifically neglect. The research team examined two questions. First, they wanted to understand the needs of parents in drug court and their families. Second, they hoped to determine how to design court-based interventions that could meet the identified needs to maximize public health impact.

This paper is part of an ongoing collaboration between Kate, a graduate school mentor, and, as you may have noticed if you read the author list, an immediate family member. Kate explained how this unlikely-seeming research team came to address this topic.

For as long as I can remember, my parents took me to work with them. In college I would often visit my dad and Wendy over spring break in Atlanta, and I’d occasionally tag along with Wendy as she was evaluating a metro-Atlanta area adult drug court. I loved hearing stories about the complicated lives of drug court participants, as hard as they were to hear. Later, as a graduate student at Georgia State, I focused on intervention science and the prevention of child maltreatment, and the stories of the drug court participants were often on my mind.

Over dinner, Wendy and I would talk about how parents in the drug court had likely seldom been sober around their children. I introduced Wendy to Dan Whitaker, one of my mentors, and suggested that we collaborate around that issue. This ultimately led to a grant from the Administration for Children and Families [ACF] to introduce and evaluate parenting, adult trauma, and child trauma interventions in the adult drug court.

This research was a cornerstone of my dissertation. Now with the large, quasi-experimental trial complete, we are working on outcomes papers. Excitingly, in 2019, Wendy and Dan were awarded a second grant from ACF to expand this research into family drug courts.

The researchers found that drug court participants displayed many unmet mental health needs and were at higher risk for child maltreatment. When compared to their non-drug-court-involved caregiving counterparts, drug court participants were significantly different across all measured aspects of mental health. The researchers concluded that drug court could potentially be an effective place to intervene on parenting and mental health issues in addition to substance use.

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