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The Policy Perspective on Why Services for Children and Families are Excluded from VTC Legislation: Sherlock Holmes and the Missing Children

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Sidney Gardner and Larisa Owen
October 26, 2017

In our work with veterans and their families, we encounter agencies that serve primarily parents, agencies that serve primarily children and agencies that serve veterans — without ever asking if they have children.

The question that recurs in these discussions—though often unasked because it seems confrontational—is why wouldn’t they want to know? Why wouldn’t veteran-serving agencies and courts want to know if their veteran clients have children, and how those children are doing?

Because veterans’ children also served. For about a third of them, their veteran parents came back from deployment with trauma and substance use problems, both of which affect the whole family.

In working with several of the more than 150 veterans’ treatment courts, when we provide technical assistance and evaluation services, we (politely and respectfully) ask judges how many children are in the caseloads of their VTC. The typical response is a quizzical look and the response “We don’t really count that,” or “Maybe it’s in our data; I don’t really know.”

But imagine the son or daughter of a veteran who knows his or her parent is in court for an offense that has something to do with their military service and the trauma or substance use problems they brought back from deployment. That event affects the whole family, just as the underlying trauma does.

One study found that when Adult Drug Courts (ADC) provide parenting

classes, they see a 65 percent greater reduction in criminal recidivism and 52 percent greater cost savings than ADCs that don’t provide parenting classes. A recent study of family drug courts across the nation demonstrated that child, parent and family well-being outcomes improved when a comprehensive, family centered approach was used to address specific needs of children and families in addition to the parent’s recovery.

So why does policy making for VTCs focus only on the veteran? Families are acknowledged to exist, but they have never become the focus of any legislation or policy on VTCs. No apparent consideration has been given to the literature on trauma, substance use disorders and mental health conditions that document the widespread direct and indirect effects on family members and the higher likelihood that family members will develop similar disorders.

One state in which we work has for several years operated a broad-based effort to expand health coverage and enroll lower-income families in Medicaid and the state’s own health exchange. Millions of dollars were spent on outreach to different ethnic and geographic groups likely to need coverage. But none of this was allocated to outreach to families of veterans, despite data from the Urban Institute that indicated a significant segment of formerly enlisted personnel had family members with no health coverage. But when we asked how many children of veterans were enrolled, we were told that that data is not collected.

To fully respond to families, three changes are needed in legislation and future policy: 1) formal identification of children and family members, 2) assessment of the needs of those family members using appropriate screening and assessment tools and 3) providing services that respond to those needs. VTCs need to reach out beyond their own resources to tap into the more than $470 billion annually spent by the federal government to support services to children.

If the current research shows we can’t successfully treat veterans without also including their family as part of the treatment, and a growing number of judges that preside over Adult Drug Courts agree these families need services, and the children’s treatment agencies understand this need – how can the legislative actors be so out of touch?

All of this reminds us of the Sherlock Holmes story in which the clue to the perpetrator was a dog that didn’t bark — which proved that the dog knew the criminal. The broad principle of public policy and administration that we extract from this story is that sometimes the missing data—what didn’t happen or information that isn’t collected—may be the most important piece of the puzzle.


Author: Mr. Gardner is President of Children and Family Futures. He has over 50 years of experience working in and with local, state and national government agencies, educational institutions and public policy organizations. He graduated from Occidental College and received a Master’s degree in Public Policy from Princeton University and a Master’s degree in Religious Studies from Hartford Seminary. Sidney Gardner, MPA [email protected]

Author: Dr. Owen is a Program Director with the Center for Children and Family Futures (CCFF) since 2004. Dr. Owen serves as a Veterans and Special Projects Program Director who works on several programs including leading the Veterans and Military Families (VMF) projects within the organization in addition to research and evaluation of VMF projects. Dr. Owen received her Bachelor of Science in Criminology and Legal Studies, holds a Master’s degree in Business Administration, and has a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Law. Larisa Owen, PhD, MBA [email protected]

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One Response to The Policy Perspective on Why Services for Children and Families are Excluded from VTC Legislation: Sherlock Holmes and the Missing Children

  1. Nathan Myers Reply

    October 27, 2017 at 1:03 pm

    As someone who has been working on a project with a VTC to improve the program, this piece provided a lot of good possibilities to think about.

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