Family Drug Treatment Courts

Scope of the Problem

There are approximately one million child abuse and neglect cases investigated in the United States each year involving nearly 250,000 children. An additional 2.5 million children are being raised by grandparents or other relatives. They are currently referred to as “Opioid Orphans.” The genesis for most of these cases (estimated to be between 70-90%) is the misuse of alcohol and other drugs. It’s not just illicit drugs that endanger children; it is estimated that in alcohol abusing homes children are four times more likely to be victims of maltreatment. With the growing opioid addiction epidemic, it could get even worse.

Why Family Drug Treatment Court?

Even after court intervention, an untreated substance use disorder is associated with longer out-of-home placement; a greater likelihood of termination of parental rights; and, higher rates of child re-victimization.

In 1997 Congressed passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act that created a presumption favoring reunification with a child’s family of origin but also put those parents on a short leash in order to get back their children. Placement – either through reunification or by “permanency planning” to free up the child for adoption – must take place within 12 months after the child is placed in foster care. Prior to the advent of Family Drug Treatment Courts (FDTCs), the typical first review was in 6 months and more than 60% of parents in child abuse and neglect cases did not comply with treatment; 80% failed to complete treatment; and, few families were reunited. FDTCs have changed all that.

What is a FDTC?

“A FDTC is a juvenile or family court docket for cases of child abuse or neglect in which parental substance use is a contributing factor. Its goal is to provide safe, nurturing and permanent homes for children while providing parents with the support and services they need to become abstinent.

The Court aids parents to regain control of the lives and promote long-term, stabilized recovery to enhance the possibility of family reunification.[1]

There are approximately 300 FDTCs in the United States and one international court in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

The model is very much the adult drug treatment court model with the Court and collaborative agencies addressing the holistic needs of the parents.

Are FDTCs Effective?

Current research shows the efficacy of FDTCs. In a report published last year, researchers found:

  • Parents in FDTCs were 25%-35% more likely to complete treatment than in traditional dependency proceedings.
  • Children spent 3-6 fewer months in out-of-home placement than traditional courts.
  • Loss of custody of their children is the norm in traditional proceedings but in FDTCs children were 15%-40% more likely to be reunified.
  • Some studies show lower rates of re-victimization but too few studies have been conducted to make the claim overall.
  • Additional research is also needed to confirm studies that suggest parents in FDTCs have fewer arrests than in traditional courts.[2]

Best Practices in Family Drug Treatment Courts

Below are a few “Best Practices” that should be implemented in any Family Drug Treatment Court:

  1. Quick entry (within 30-60 days) into substance use disorder treatment
  2. Retain in treatment at least 15 months
  3. Deliver weekly individual counseling for a minimum of Phase I
  4. Use evidence-based family counseling such as Strengthening Families; Celebrating Families!; Engaging Moms; Functional Family Therapy; and, Multisystemic Therapy
  5. Deliver counseling/case management in participants’ homes
  6. Schedule frequent status hearings
  7. Insure judge uses Procedural Fairness 
  8. Perform weekly alcohol and other drug testing
  9. Provide parenting classes including disciplinary skills
  10. Provide specialized services for families affected by methamphetamine
  11. Ensure staff received annual training on neuroscience, evidence-based family interventions and specialized services for children who have been abused, neglected and traumatized.[3]


Below are useful resources for any FDTC team member or person working with these courts.


1 Marlowe, Douglas B., et al., “Painting the Current Picture: A National Report on Drug Courts and Other Problem-Solving Courts in the United States,” National Drug Court Institute (June 2016)

[2] Id.

[3] Id.