Unified Family Courts: Treating the Whole Family, Not Just the Young Drug Offender

Development of unified family courts to assist families with substance abuse problems

From November 1996 through June 1999, the American Bar Association (ABA) developed six Unified Family Court (UFC) systems in three U.S. states and one territory and created a network of national groups to help educate the public about Unified Family Courts.

UFCs combine the functions of family and juvenile courts to provide a comprehensive approach to treating and educating young drug offenders and their families. This approach recognizes that substance abuse results from a combination of problems related to health, family structure, economics and community support. UFCs offer an effective alternative to a justice system that frequently treats substance abuse solely as a legal problem.

Key Results

  • The ABA provided technical assistance to help establish UFCs in six sites: Atlanta; San Juan, Guayama, and Aibonito, Puerto Rico; Seattle (King County); and Baltimore.
  • One other site, Cook County, Ill., moved closer to starting a UFC.
  • The ABA also established a network of national organizations to support UFCs, and it encouraged the Office of National Drug Control Policy and several other federally appointed entities to consider UFCs as an alternative tool to address substance abuse in the justice system.
  • Project results were disseminated through two major conferences, two dozen articles in legal journals, including two special issues on UFCs, and the ABA's Web site and other ABA publications.

After the Grant

The ABA continues to work with the six sites and has provided technical assistance to eight other states. It also is involved in a project funded by the Scripps-Howard Foundation to examine literacy as a way to address substance abuse in four family courts.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) launched a national program, called Reclaiming Futures: Communities Helping Teens Overcome Drugs, Alcohol & Crime®. It is building community solutions to substance abuse and delinquency by developing the systems infrastructure necessary to deliver comprehensive care within the juvenile justice system. See the program's Web site for more information.


RWJF provided a $481,605 grant to the ABA for its work on UCF systems.