Strengthening Families

At the Drug Policy Alliance we are committed to ending the drug war’s assault on families.

One out of every 14 children in this country has had a parent imprisoned. This is in large part due to the mass incarceration of people convicted of drug law violations. Even parents who avoid criminal punishment for drug use risk losing custody of their children. Almost 31% of all children placed in foster care in 2012 were removed from their homes because of “parental alcohol or drug use.” In several states that percentage surpassed 60%.

Current practices in the child welfare and family court systems make many families feel frightened and ashamed rather than supported. Punitive approaches have been shown to disproportionately impact low-income families and communities of color. 

Supporting Children, Parents, and Communities

DPA believes that effective drug policy reform must include reform of child welfare policy and practice.We advocate for humane policies that protect the health, safety and rights of children and families. We fight against policies and practices that contribute to the mass criminalization of people based on their race, class and gender identities.

DPA champions the following principles when it comes to child welfare:

  • The ideal way to support the best interests of children is to keep families intact, while providing adequate supportive resources to caregiver(s). Child welfare policy should reduce punitive practices, prioritize family preservation and extend more rights and protections to parents.
  • Drug consumption or exposure alone is not child abuse or neglect. Non-problematic drug use and parenting can co-exist.
  • When problematic parental drug use is an issue, the state should take into consideration the potential harms of investigations and interventions. Those harms should be mitigated whenever possible and not cause more harm to the family than the drug use itself.
  • The positioning of physicians and other health care providers as mandated reporters can prevent pregnant and postpartum parents from seeking appropriate care. Decisions related to the health of a parent and child should be confidential and free from the threat of criminal action. Parental and fetal health are better served by making prenatal care a welcoming service. This includes offering non-judgmental, non-stigmatizing conversations about drug use and making drug treatment available if needed.
  • Parents struggling with problematic substance use can recover. Recovery is best facilitated with adequate time and supportive resources promoting family unity.
  • Holistic, community-based treatment models for parents with problematic substance use should be a priority for child welfare systems. Treatment should include wraparound care, which is a structured, individualized, team-based approach to coordinating services for people with complex needs.

DPA’s Work

DPA’s Colorado office has co-founded the Colorado Coalition to Protect Children and Family Rights.

DPA’s New York Policy Office has been organizing with parents and children impacted by child welfare services because of drug use.

DPA has represented leading medical and public health organizations in amicus briefs in state and federal cases opposing the criminalization of drug use during pregnancy.

Collateral Costs: Incarceration's Effect on Economic Mobility

September 23, 2010
jointly authored by The Economic Mobility Project and the Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Charitable Trusts

Collateral Costs: Incarceration's Effect on Economic Mobility is a collaborative effort between the Pew Charitable Trusts' Economic Mobility Project and its Public Safety Performance Project (PSPP). The report examines the impact of incarceration on the economic opportunity and mobility of former inmates and their families.

A Mother Speaks Out

On June 13, 1971, I became a mother when my first son was born. Five days later, President Nixon declared the "war on drugs." Little did I know then that this war would be waged against families like mine for the next four decades.
Read Gretchen's story.

Federal Activist Toolkit

We can make a powerful impact by urging our members of Congress to end failed drug war policies. They care what their constituents have to say.

Tips for Talking to Congress

Legislators appreciate hearing from their constituents, and they are elected to represent our views. Always give your legislator your name, address, and telephone number so that they know you are one of their constituents. Be sure to include this information whether you visit in person, call, or write.

When you contact your legislators, a short sentence or two about why you personally support or oppose a certain proposal is fine. 

Most importantly, always be courteous and clear when communicating with your legislators. Remember, legislators are people, too!

Testing for Drugs of Abuse in Children and Adolescents: Addendum—Testing in Schools and at Home

March 1, 2007
American Academy of Pediatrics

The AAP explains its opposition to involuntary drug testing of adolescents at school or at home, and encourages parents who are concerned that their child may be using drugs or alcohol to consult their child’s pediatrician rather than rely on school or home-based drug testing.

Policy Statement: Testing for Drugs of Abuse in Children and Adolescents

September 1, 2006
American Academy of Pediatrics

This policy statement outlines the American Academy of Pediatrics’ opposition to random student drug testing and its position that the appropriate response to the suspicion of drug abuse by a young person is the referral to a qualified health care professional for a comprehensive evaluation.

Every Life Matters

A young woman struggles to cope with the death of her father, who was infected with AIDS as a result of injection drug use.

Read Michele's story.


Youth R.I.S.E. (Resource. Information. Support. Education) is an international, youth-led network of young people committed to confronting the reality that young people today live in a world where drugs are more accessible on the street than the education and resources needed to reduce their harm.

A Victim Becomes an Activist

The life of a nurse and devoted mother of three was changed forever when Alabama state police raided her home for drugs.

Read Dorothy Gaines’ story.

Making Sense of Student Drug Testing

January 6, 2006
Drug Policy Alliance and ACLU Drug Law Reform Project

The experts agree, and the evidence is clear! Random drug testing does not reduce drug use among young people. Spending extra millions on testing students' urine will only destroy relationships between youth and adults. This booklet demonstrates the key flaws in random student drug testing and outlines promising alternatives to the invasive and expensive practice.

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