Sid Gardner, President of Children and Family Futures

An evolution is underway in adult drug courts (ADCs) that are moving toward serving children and families affected by their relatives’ substance use disorders.

Many drug court clients have children. When a parent experiences physical, mental, or other disabilities, their family is impacted. Nationwide, approximately 8.7 million children live with one or more parents dependent on alcohol or needing treatment for illicit drug use.[1] These children can experience behavioral issues, school difficulties, and developmental delays. The entire family is also touched when a dad or mom is threatened with criminal charges. The family’s financial well-being is threatened, their stability may be jeopardized, and their housing may be affected. Nationwide, approximately 8.7 million children live with one or more parents who are dependent on alcohol or need treatment for illicit drug use.[2]

But at present, few drug courts provide services for family members. The good news is that model programs and new practices are emerging that demonstrate that services for children and families can be added to the ingredients of drug courts in ways that make them more effective.

One study found that ADCs providing parenting classes achieved a 65% greater reduction in criminal recidivism and 52% greater cost savings than ADCs that lack such programs.[3] A recent study of family drug courts demonstrated that child, parent, and family well-being outcomes improved when a comprehensive, family-centered approach was used to address specific needs of children and families in addition to the parent’s recovery.[4]

The challenge is not to persuade ADCs to serve children with their own resources; the challenge is rather to tap the resources of agencies already helping children and families. More than $470 billion is spent annually by the federal government to help children, with hundreds of billions more from state, local, and private sources. With effective outreach to local agencies, drug courts can take advantage of these resources to help their clients.

Drug courts transitioning from a focus on the participant to a focus on the entire family can organize their efforts into three key tasks, summarized as the 3Ns: numbers, needs, and networks.

Numbers: Courts need to add information about clients’ children to their intake forms.

Needs: Courts and their agency partners should use appropriate screening and assessment tools to determine the service needs of the children of their clients.

Networks: Courts need outreach to develop current inventories of family-serving agencies and resources in their community and to effectively connect children and families to such agencies and resources.

With these efforts in place, the effectiveness of drug courts will be enhanced, and so will the lives of the hundreds of thousands of children in their caseloads.

[1] Lipari, R.N. and Van Horn, S.L. Children living with parents who have a substance use disorder. The CBHSQ Report: August 24, 2017. Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Rockville, MD.

[2] Ibid

[3] Carey, S. M., Mackin, J. R., & Finigan, M. W. (2012). What works? The 10 key components of drug court: Research based best practices. Drug Court Review, 8(1), 6–42. Retrieved from

[4] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014). Grants to expand services to children affected by methamphetamine in families participating in family treatment drug court: Children affected by methamphetamine (CAM) brief. Rockville, MD: Author. Retrieved from https://ncsacw.