Research in Action. This brief describes findings of that study and implications for practice and policy.






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College of Social Work

University of South Carolina

Research in Action

Collaborating aCross agenCies

for a Mother-Child residential

treatMent PrograM

study PurPose

Interagency collaboration is imperative to address the multiple and co-occurring needs of youth and families impacted by substance abuse. Mother-child

residential treatment programs represent a unique program model where success often hinges on collaboration between substance abuse agencies and a range of other service providers. Little is known, however, about the facilitators and barriers to implementing these service programs. Researchers at the University of South Carolina’s College of Social Work conducted interviews with stakeholders involved in mother-child residential treatment programs across South Carolina. This brief describes findings of that study and implications for practice and policy. Three key themes emerged from the data collected with stakeholders from

substance abuse agencies and their community partners, including: 1. Knowledge and Processes for Collaborative Work


Knowledge and ProCesses for Collaborative


Stakeholders described how professionals’ knowledge of and commitment to the client population, the need for training and skill building for professionals, and processes relating to sustainability can both positively and negatively influence these collaborative efforts.


“You have to deal with the entire family. You have to deal with the unit as a whole. So, that was part of what we anticipate. So, for me, I think one thing that comes from the [project] is simply this: we learn a better way to utilize the same resources to more effectively serve the clients that we want to serve.”

Stakeholders also described training and building skills of employees. For instance, one stakeholder described cross-training so that workers from different backgrounds would become familiar with the same terminology and concepts.


Agencies were sometimes frustrated with their own abilities or their

partners‘ abilities to work with new populations. One stakeholder described her agency’s own struggles, “We’ve met some challenges in doing this, more barriers than we really thought we might encounter when you’re dealing with a different population than the population we deal with.”

Challenges around funding and sustainability also were described,

particularly in relation to trying to make existing policies around billing and licensing work for the collaborative effort.


Continuity of Care aCross agenCies

Stakeholders described how coordination across agencies, addressing

disciplinary differences, engaging stakeholders, and partner conflict or resistance could influence interagency collaboration within the context of these programs.


Stakeholders described interagency protocols, engaging key stakeholders, and pooling resources and expertise as facilitators of interagency


“We certainly know [the] residential component very well...We can bring in a partner that handles their counseling, their rehabilitation very well. And then obviously, [social services]. That’s what they do well. So, I mean it’s a marriage of three organizations that do one thing very well.”


Barriers to inter-agency collaboration included disciplinary silos, failure to engage key stakeholders, and partner and stakeholder conflict.

“Everything was sort of siloed...So, if you had a medical problem, there was that silo. If you had a drug problem, there was that silo. If you had a psychiatric mental illness, there was that silo. And our clients would get sent back and forth between [the substance abuse agency] and mental health.”

Clarity, Credibility, and suPPort for the Model

Stakeholders shared various perspectives about the effectiveness of the model, comprehension of the model, and perceived support for the model.


“On the front end, we did bullets—this is what we would like for this to look like, and here’s where we would go. And then [our partner] got the blessing from his folks, and I got the blessing from my folks. And input—so like I got my regional team leader to say here’s what she would like, so then that kind of got me some buy-in. And then when we got further down...our partner came over and interviewed [co-located staff], like, ‘I think she would be a good fit for our team, because she is gonna spend most of her time in our office...’ We also had a very large group meeting…that included some state-level folks, some regional folks, and our local folks…So I think that that gave them buy-in, also they were able to ask questions and have input into what they would want [the program] to look like, and how they thought that that could best work.”


Barriers included lack of individual and agency familiarity with program components as well as uncertainty about the effectiveness of the model.

“I’m understanding a little bit more about the model, but I’m still not a

hundred percent convinced that this is something that’s going to be needed in every single county.”


Based on the findings of this study, it may be important to keep the following in mind when developing or implementing a complex type of program, such as this, that requires collaboration across agency settings:

• Appeal to partners’ shared commitment to serving the client population (e.g., families affected by substance use).

• Consider strategies such as cross-training to help providers gain knowledge and foster a shared vision for collaborative work.


• Engage key partners early in collaborative efforts and promote buy-in at all levels within and across partner agencies.

• Work with partners to define the program model early in the collaboration and assure that all partners understand their roles and responsibilities at the outset of implementation.

• Engage policymakers to assist in addressing issues that may impact sustainability, including billing practices, eligibility restrictions, and state policy.

• Share success stories as implementation progresses to promote a collective sense of accomplishment, to demonstrate viability to potential supporters, and to keep efforts visible to community stakeholders.


Interagency collaboration is imperative to address the multiple and co-occurring needs of youth and families impacted by substance abuse. While these efforts can be challenging, developing a greater understanding of the complexities of collaborative practice is critical to success of mother-child residential treatment for substance use. The findings of this study help illuminate key targets for individual, organizational, and systemic change. Organizational leaders and practitioners are encouraged to use findings of this study as points for discussion in interagency collaborative team meetings.





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