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Research partnership supports NYS families fighting opioids

Analyzing the effectiveness of their community’s Family Treatment Court, a joint team of Cornell researchers and local service providers discovered a “remarkable” outcome.

In Tompkins County, New York, children and caregivers were reunited at higher rates than usual for families in the courts and child welfare system due to substance misuse. An evidence-based parenting education program offered by Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) appeared to have played an important role, with participants significantly more likely to complete court obligations and achieve family reunification.

The team’s composition and findings reflected the dual goals of a grant awarded in 2018 to Rachel Dunifon, the Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Dean of the College of Human Ecology (CHE) and professor in the Departments of Policy Analysis and Management and Human Development, and Anna Steinkraus, family and community development program coordinator for CCE-Tompkins County, an independent nonprofit.

Cornell impacting New York State

Recently extended for two years, the William T. Grant Foundation’s Institutional Challenge Grant seeks to foster sustained partnerships between researchers and practitioners to reduce inequality in youth outcomes – in this case related to opioid abuse and child maltreatment. It also challenges universities to build support for research engaged directly with partners to address community needs, a shift from scholars’ more traditional emphasis on publishing in academic journals.

“Our faculty are eager to do community-engaged research and understand its importance, but need some time, resources and knowledge to be able to do that fully,” Dunifon said. “We just need to support it more.”

Toward that end, CHE is collaborating with the Office of Engagement Initiatives as an “engaged college,” and Dunifon has created a new leadership position focused on community-engaged projects. Anthony Burrow, associate professor in the Department of Human Development and director of the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, is the college’s first associate dean for extension and outreach.

Dunifon and Steinkraus said their research-practice collaboration has strengthened relationships between local partners and identified opportunities to better support families struggling with opioid misuse.

“We’re able to really look at what we’re doing, find out what the research is telling us and share it with stakeholders in the community,” Steinkraus said. “It directly impacts families.”

Laura Tach, associate professor in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management and recipient of the Evalyn Edwards Milman Faculty Fellowship in the Bronfenbrenner Center, and a grant fellow along with Juliana Garcia at CCE-Tompkins County, said the grant has provided resources, visibility and validation to “this approach to research that’s deeply connected to the community.”

Tach’s research team first analyzed data about the opioid epidemic’s impact on families in New York state, finding it affects 1 in 12 New Yorkers directly or indirectly through their immediate family members. Increases in both opioid misuse and child maltreatment from 2006-16 were geographically concentrated in western and central New York, the Finger Lakes region and the Southern Tier, which includes Tompkins County and Cornell’s Ithaca campus.

The researchers conducted a systematic review of substance misuse intervention programs and produced a database of the most promising ones. Evaluations of the Family Treatment Court found evidence supporting the Strengthening Families Program, in which caregivers and children ages 6-11 meet over several months with peers, eat meals together and design a family shield and motto. Participants reported improved communication skills and discipline practices and reduced family conflict.

“It was nice to be able to hang out with [my son] and learn … what works for children, just the parenting tools that are available out there,” one participant told the researchers.

In-depth interviews also revealed challenges: After reunification and graduation from the court, some caregivers struggled to maintain authority and routines, suggesting a need for more support during that transition. Parenting education curricula also could benefit from greater racial and cultural awareness and diversity, the team learned.

The partners plan to address those concerns during the grant’s next phase and work with CCE in New York City to assess programs in a more urban and diverse community, sharing lessons learned with extension educators across the state. The team will continue evaluations of virtual parenting programming and Family Treatment Court proceedings that became the default during the pandemic. Despite some disadvantages, virtual court sessions can ease transportation and childcare challenges and help some families feel more comfortable than in a courtroom setting, initial research has found.

Based on the partnership’s findings, CCE-Tompkins County plans to offer hybrid meeting options moving forward and to survey families more frequently for feedback.

“The pandemic has been an incredibly stressful time, and that makes it difficult for people to focus on their recovery,” Dunifon said. “The needs are probably even greater now than they were.”

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Gillian Smith