Tuesday, June 4, 2013

When families face issues like divorce, child custody, juvenile delinquency, and drug or alcohol abuse, it is the children that often suffer. Sometimes these children have to be placed in foster care, while the issues get resolved. A new study finds that if these issues are brought before a specialty court, children spend less time in foster care and are more likely to be reunited with their parents or primary caregivers.

Specialty courts have emerged as a public policy response to complex social issues, and are valued for decreasing case resolution time – avoiding delays that can lead to uncertainty, stress and disruptions for all parties involved.

A new study conducted by Duke University researchers Frank Sloan, PhD, Elizabeth Gifford, PhD, and Lindsey Eldred, JD, assessed the effects of two types of specialty courts, unified family courts and drug treatment courts, on the resolution of cases involving foster care children. The study included all 23 unified family courts and 39 drug treatment courts across North Carolina from 1997-2008. To date, there has been little research on the role of courts on the well-being of youth in foster care, and few studies that use longitudinal data from an entire state.

Using data from all North Carolina counties, the researchers found that in counties with unified family courts, children spent an average of 29 fewer days in foster care per placement. These counties also increased the probability that a child would be reunified with a parent or primary caregiver by 11 percent.

The shorter time in foster care also translated into improved school performance, an indicator of better emotional health, according to the study released June 4, 2013 in Evaluation Review.

“The shortened time in foster care seen in this study can be attributed to the efficiency of unified family courts, which translates into savings for the court system and benefits to children seen through improved educational outcomes,” according to Sloan.

The study, “Do Specialty Courts Achieve Better Outcomes for Children in Foster Care than General Courts?,” also examined the impact of drug treatment courts on length of time in foster care and the type of placement a child receives after foster care. Drug treatment courts specialize in treating individuals charged with committing a crime or who are involved in child welfare hearings that are also addicted to, or have problems with drugs or alcohol.

The study finds that the presence of adult, family, and juvenile drug treatment courts in the county did not affect the length of time a child spent in foster care, however it did impact the possibility that a child would be reunited with a parent or primary caregiver. The presence of an adult drug treatment court in a county reduced the probability of reunification, whereas family and juvenile drug treatment courts in the county increased the probability of reunification.

The study examined in depth the school performance of children in third grade through eighth grades. Among those sampled, the youth spent nearly a fourth of their time in foster care while in third through eighth grade.

Children spending time in foster care during the school year performed less well on standardized reading and math scores than children not placed in foster care during the school year. School performance was also negatively impacted during the school years before and after a child was placed in foster care.


Dr. Sloan teaches in the Economics Department at Duke University, and is a faculty fellow at the University’s Center for Child and Family Policy. Dr. Gifford is a research scientist at the Duke University Center for Child and Family Policy.