The GAINS Center’s Learning Collaboratives Recap Series

SAMHSA’s GAINS Center’s Family Treatment Court Learning Collaborative was an initiative designed to improve practice within existing Family Treatment Court programs through building collaborative cross-system strategies, institutionalizing best practices, and bringing the programs to scale. Special attention was given to the development of a family-centered approach within these courts. The GAINS Center, in partnership with Children and Family Futures, hosted all Learning Collaborative activities and provided virtual meeting coordination, conference calls, and in-person access to subject-matter experts free of charge.

The mission of the approximately 360 Family Treatment Court (FTC) programs across the United States is to provide the necessary support systems for families when a parent has a substance use disorder that has come to the attention of the child welfare system. Such support systems are designed with the aim of ensuring the safety and wellbeing of children and offering parents custody options or a path to eventual reunification with their children. Unlike other treatment court programs, FTC takes place in civil court.


FTCs often struggle with having all the proper stakeholders and partners, like child welfare, school districts, or hospital systems, engaged in the program to best meet the needs of participating families. Having adequate resources, treatment or otherwise, to support the program is also a challenge; one of the sites that participated had to close for lack of funding shortly after the virtual meeting. Other challenges include lack of leadership, either from the court or child welfare agencies, and having adequate coordination and training, especially cross-training. In addition, it can be difficult to change existing practices to comply with national standards. Oftentimes, these current practices were established many years ago, and their repetition over time has made it challenging to imagine doing things differently.

Gauging Success

Success in this Learning Collaborative was not universally quantifiable across all sites because they all have different needs according to their varying circumstances. Action plans largely focused on four themes:

  • Increasing family-centered practice by developing a mechanism for coordinated case planning and providing training on adopting family-centered language
  • Increasing the number and percentage of families served by beginning universal screening, addressing disproportionate rates of refusal by people of color, and increasing the availability and use of peer support specialists
  • Implementing more effective behavior responses by training teams and stakeholders on key skills like Motivational Interviewing
  • Collecting and using data more efficiently by determining what data is already being collected and what data is needed

Despite the many challenges FTCs face, each of the seven sites made progress on their action plans; examples include the following:

  • One site focused on identifying barriers to referral and admission and changed its name to “Family Recovery Court” to reflect its team’s commitment to a strengths-based and family-centered approach. It also communicated effectively with child welfare about reassigning a staff member who wasn’t a good fit for the team.
  • At another site, the coordinator began a practice of asking “What is keeping the children from being returned home today?” at the beginning of every pre-court staffing review.
  • One site developed a policy and procedure manual and parent handbook.
  • And at another site, staff created a more structured process to reduce the time it takes to get a referral and increase the total number of referrals being given.

Further Topics

There are many other important aspects of working to improve FTC programs. This article captures a few key takeaways from the GAINS Center’s 2019 Family Treatment Court Learning Collaborative. If you have additional questions regarding this topic, please reach out to us here at the GAINS Center with your inquiries.