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SAMHSA News - July/August 2007, Volume 15, Number 4

Keeping Children Safe, Helping Families Recover

Creating a Holistic Approach to Child Welfare

A child’s welfare and a parent’s recovery from substance abuse go hand in hand.

But finding effective ways to screen parents for substance use disorders and get them into treatment has been an ongoing challenge for caseworkers at child welfare agencies across the Nation. Similarly, treatment agencies may be challenged to identify and assist families whose children may be at risk of child abuse or neglect.

To help, the National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare (NCSACW), jointly funded by SAMHSA and the Administration on Children, Youth and Families, recently developed a new guidebook. Titled Screening and Assessment for Family Engagement, Retention, and Recovery (SAFERR), the guidebook offers a framework for collaborative action. And family members are encouraged to be active participants in the process.

SAFERR is based on the premise that when parents abuse drugs or alcohol and mistreat their children, at least three systems—child welfare, alcohol and drug treatment services, and family courts—should collaborate to resolve the problem.

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Putting Families First

The SAFERR model seeks to transform the way public and private agencies respond to help families affected by substance use disorders. Just as the President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health called for mental health care across the Nation to be consumer-driven and recovery-based, the SAFERR model focuses on a family’s recovery as a whole.

SAFERR emphasizes that collaboration and communication across systems is the key to positive results. By collaborating strategically, agencies can reduce duplication, simplify work, save time, and streamline the process.

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A Model for Change

The guidebook is organized in 3 sections and 10 appendices. To create an initiative for change in a state or county, the SAFERR program recommends an incremental, step-by-step process.

The first step is for the leaders of child welfare, alcohol and drug services, and the courts to form an oversight committee, a steering committee, and several subcommittees. Individuals who have received services from the child welfare or alcohol and drug treatment systems should also serve as members of the steering committee.

Developing and sustaining effective collaborations is difficult. Each agency has a different focus. Child welfare focuses on children. Alcohol and drug services focus on parents. Family courts focus on the statutory timelines to be met in cases of child abuse or neglect. Common ground must be established before actual changes can happen.

Committee members need to learn what each separate system does, then work to develop a shared mission, common language, goals and timetables, a training curriculum, and other key elements.

The SAFERR guidebook offers specific ways to move toward collaborative exchanges. Appendix A is an 86-page “Facilitator’s Guide” that contains templates for a kickoff meeting and worksheets for creating a collaborative plan of action and completing a “collaborative values inventory,” among many other tools.

The guidebook also addresses state-level policies and recommends screening and assessment tools for use in daily practice.

When the SAFERR program model is used, substance use disorders among families reported for child maltreatment can be identified more efficiently. Once a problem is brought to light, then families can begin to heal with appropriate treatment and services.

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To Order

For a free print copy of the SAFERR manual, contact SAMHSA’s Health Information Network at 1-877-SAMHSA-7 (1-877-726-4727) or 1-800-487-4889 (TDD). Request inventory number SMA07-4261.

The full-text guidebook also is available online in PDF format at

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