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March 2010Vol. 11, No. 2Screening and Responding to Prenatal Substance Exposure

Prenatal exposure to alcohol and other drugs can negatively impact infant and child development and lead to poor outcomes for the child and family. An article published in the journal Children and Youth Services Review underscores the importance of screening for prenatal substance exposure and reviews the role of the child welfare field in responding to this issue.

The authors reviewed a wide range of State policies and practices and found inconsistencies in the early detection of and response to prenatal substance exposure. Some factors hindering an effective response include the real or perceived costs of administering screening instruments, confusion over the responsibilities of different family-serving agencies, and disagreements regarding the appropriate response to parental substance abuse.

The authors suggest that States can overcome some of these barriers by increasing the understanding of substance abuse issues among professionals working with pregnant women and families and training workers to use screening instruments during normal client visits. Universal screening for prenatal substance exposure has several potential benefits:

  • Most instruments are free or low cost and require minimal training to use.
  • Professionals can identify risks quickly and make treatment referrals as needed.
  • Screening across race and socioeconomic groups reduces the potential for bias.
  • Early identification and intervention can lead to better child and family outcomes and reduce the need for future services.

The article reviews four common screening instruments and compares their effectiveness in detecting prenatal substance exposure. The authors make several suggestions to improve the screening instruments and advocate for their wider use across systems. By identifying prenatal substance exposure early and providing pregnant women and families with effective treatment options, child welfare agencies and related organizations can help improve outcomes for infants, children, and their families.

"Early Detection of Prenatal Substance Exposure and the Role of Child Welfare," Children and Youth Services Review, 32(1), 2010, was written by Elizabeth K. Anthony, Michael J. Austin, and Denicia R. Cormier and is available for purchase online:

Related Item

Read Parental Drug Use as Child Abuse, a State Statutes publication written by Child Welfare Information Gateway, for a review of State laws that protect children endangered by their parents' illegal drug use: