Teens in welfare system at particular risk for drug, alcohol abuse

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Teens who have to navigate the child welfare system have a much higher risk for developing drug abuse problems, according to a new study from researchers at the University of California, San Diego.

Using data from two national surveys, the researchers found that this vulnerable population is more apt to abuse marijuana, inhalants and other types of drugs, but that parental guidance and involvement can also help them avoid these types of behaviors.

"Youth who feel supported by parents tend to have a better sense of self and better mental health and, in this case, are less likely to engage in high-risk behaviors – which is important for this already high-risk population," lead researcher Danielle L. Fettes, Ph.D., said in a press release.

Hard data

While it's known that young people in the welfare system are vulnerable to drug use, actual rates of substance abuse haven't been studied very much, Dr. Fettes said.

The findings showed that 18 percent of teens in the welfare system admitted to using marijuana, compared with 14 percent of other teens. Twelve percent said they have abused inhalants, compared with 6 percent of other U.S. teens.

Use of "harder" drugs, like cocaine or heroin, was less common, but abuse rates were still higher for welfare-system teens (6 percent) than in teens who weren't in the welfare system (4 percent).

Delinquency a key factor

The researchers found that delinquency among teens in the welfare system was strongly associated with a higher risk for drug and alcohol abuse. Teens who had engaged in shoplifting, theft, using a weapon or running away were more likely to have a substance abuse history.

Interventions for these teens need to involve the collaboration of many different service systems, like mental health, alcohol and drug counseling and the criminal justice system, said Dr. Fettes. Yet these systems often don't work together effectively, she noted.

"Given the increased risk, the child welfare system may be an ideal venue to incorporate proven prevention and intervention programs for youth substance use," Dr. Fettes concluded. "Drug abuse screening and treatment, or referrals for treatment, should be a regular part of kids' case management."

The study is published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

Source: Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs

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