The Road to Recovery: How CASA Volunteers Can Support People Struggling with Substance Use Disorder

Many of us working with children and families in the child welfare system see the prevalence of parental substance use in child removal cases. In fact, according to Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) data, in 2017, parental substance use was a contributing factor in 68% of child removal cases in Texas.

Something lesser known, though, is that the vast majority of CPS cases involving parental substance use as a factor are related to neglect, not abuse. 94% of these cases cite neglectful supervision as a reason for removing the child from home, while only 14% cite abuse.

The vast majority of parents struggling with a substance use disorder love their children and want them to be able to live with them safely—and while anything but easy, recovery is possible, especially when they have a CASA volunteer and a network of support by their side.

In this article, we’re shedding light on substance use disorders, the recovery process and how CASA volunteers can support parents in their recovery.

First off, let’s define what a substance use disorder is.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, defines a substance use disorder as a medical condition with the recurrent use of alcohol and/or drugs that causes clinically significant impairment, such as health problems, disability and failure to meet major responsibilities at work, school or home.

Anyone can develop a substance use disorder, whatever their circumstances, but there are some specific risk factors. These may include recent traumatic events such as separation, domestic abuse or other significant life stresses.

It’s important to note that there is a difference between substance use, abuse and substance use disorder (also known as addiction). Not everyone who uses drugs or alcohol becomes dependent or addicted. In fact, addiction typically follows a sequence of identifiable stages based on escalating use. Each stage entails some risk of progression to the next.

Stages of Substance Abuse:

  • No use
  • Experimentation
  • Regular use
  • Problem or risky use
  • Abuse
  • Dependence
  • Addiction (substance use disorder)

How does substance use disorder affect a person?

For many people, self-medicating with drugs or alcohol can serve as a coping mechanism to life stresses or events. However, the more a person uses a substance to induce feelings of pleasure, the more a person tends to repeat the substance-using behavior and the more the brain learns to depend on the substance. Eventually, the substance decreases the brain’s ability to experience pleasure without it and the person becomes addicted, literally changing the way their brain functions.

What does recovery from a substance use disorder look like?

The American Psychological Association also recognizes substance use disorder as a diagnosable mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Like any other mental illness, it can be treated, and like other chronic disorders, addiction cannot be treated without medical assistance.

Recovery looks a little different for everyone. What everyone’s path to recovery has in common, though, is that it is lifelong, non-linear and does not end once someone has completed a prescribed treatment or intervention.

One of the most important things CASA volunteers should know is this: relapse is not abnormal or an indication that treatment has failed. Relapse after a period of sobriety is a common occurrence, and can be triggered by emotional or environmental exposure to something that incites the urge to use again. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that between 40-60 percent of individuals in recovery relapse at some point. While relapse is certainly a safety issue, we must not see it as failure or not wanting to recover. This harmful thinking can worsen stigmatization and further deter people from continuing treatment.

How can CASA volunteers support parents who are struggling with and/or recovering from a substance use disorder?

The road to recovery can be incredibly challenging, often involving a lot of accountability. Even more challenging is navigating timely treatment through the public sector, especially for uninsured families. We’ve outlined some of the ways you can help and be supportive.

Educate yourself on the nature of drug abuse, and help normalize talking about substance use disorder and addiction. This article and the links throughout are great places to start. You can also find additional resources specifically on helping families coping with mental and substance use disorders on the SAMSA website.

Don’t expect immediate change. Instead, show compassion and empathy, and focus on building trust.

Understand their agreed-to treatment plan. Ask them how you can best support them in fulfilling it. With their consent, help with outreach to get them treatment.

Explore peer-to-peer support. Non-clinical support from people in recovery themselves, such as mentors and support groups, can be helpful for many.

Help create and strengthen a caring group of people that will support them in the recovery process and wants to see them happy and healthy. CASA and DFPS often do this with Collaborative Family Engagement. Check out Rachel’s true story for an example of this in action.

Remember, relapse is a common part of recovery. It’s not an indication that treatment has failed, or that a parent has “chosen” their addiction over anything or anyone. This kind of thinking is inaccurate, and worsens stigma around the issue.

Celebrate successes. Don’t just focus on the negative; instead, support parents in recovery by celebrating with them—nothing is too big or small! Anything from taking the first step and opening up to someone, to seeking treatment, to sober anniversaries to family reunification are all cause for celebration. People who are on their recovery journey deserve to be encouraged and supported at every step.

“It’s so easy to give up on somebody, because holding them up is much harder.”

Rachel, mother of three, who is in recovery and has been safely and permanently reunited with her children.

There are thousands of parents in the foster care system who are struggling with a substance use disorder, who love their children and who, just like Rachel, want to do whatever it takes to bring them home. By supporting parents in their recovery journey, CASA volunteers can make an incredible difference.

To learn more about how you can support someone struggling with a substance use disorder, visit the SAMHSA website.