2.3 Children of parents who misuse substances
Substance misuse refers to the misuse of illegal and illicit drugs and/or alcohol. Whilst there may be different treatment methodologies for adults with these problems, they are considered together because the consequences for the child are quite similar. Substance misuse refers to illegal drugs, alcohol, solvents and the misuse of prescription and over the counter medications, the consumption of which is either dependent use, or use associated with having harmful effects on the individual, other members of their family or the community.
Many adults misusing substances often have a range of complex needs including mental health problems, criminality, and have experience of adverse child trauma and there may be several agencies, from both adult and children’s social care, who are working with the family.
National Serious Case Reviews and Domestic Homicide Reviews have identified domestic abuse, parental mental ill health, and drug and alcohol misuse as significant factors in families where children have died or been seriously harmed. Where all three issues are present, they have been described as the ‘toxic trio’, which practitioners should be alert to and consider in any assessments.
Substance misuse can consume a great deal of time, money and emotional energy, which will unavoidably impact on the capacity to parent a child. This behaviour also puts the child at an increased risk of neglect and emotional, physical or sexual abuse, either by the parent or because the child becomes more vulnerable to abuse by others.
Children’s physical, emotional, social, intellectual and developmental needs can be adversely affected by their parent’s misuse of substances. These effects may be through acts of omission or commission, which have an impact on the child’s welfare and protection.
Children may be introduced to drug and alcohol misuse at an early age by the behaviour of the parents/carers and the availability of the substances within the home.
All agencies need to work together in tackling the problems caused by substance misuse in families in order to safeguard children and promote their well-being. It is important not to generalise or make assumptions about the impact on a child of parental/carer drug and/or alcohol use; parents/carers who misuse drugs and/or alcohol may be good enough parents who do not abuse or neglect their children. It is, however, important that the implications for the child are properly assessed having full regard to the parent’s/carer’s ability to maintain consistent and adequate care. Equal regard should be given to each and every child's level of dependence, vulnerability and any special needs.
Where there is concern that a parent/carer is involved in substance misuse, the impact on the child needs to be considered, including:
- the child’s physical safety when the parent/carer is under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol
- children can suffer chronic neglect, from before birth and throughout childhood
- possible trauma to the child resulting from changes in the parent’s mood or behaviour, including exposure to violence and lower tolerance levels in the parent
- the impact of the parent’s/carer’s behaviour on the child’s development including the emotional and psychological well-being, education and friendships
- the impact on newborn babies who may experience foetal alcohol syndrome or other drug withdrawal symptoms
- the extent to which the parent’s/carer’s substance misuse disrupts the child’s normal daily routines and prejudices the child’s physical and emotional development
- the impact on the child of being in a household where illegal activity is taking place particularly if the home is used for drug dealing and the children may come in to contact with risky adults
- how safely the parent’s alcohol and/or drugs and equipment are stored as children can be at risk of ingesting substances or injuring themselves on drug paraphernalia
- children are particularly vulnerable when parents/carers are withdrawing from drugs
- dangerously inadequate supervision and other inappropriate parenting practices
- intermittent and permanent separation
- inadequate accommodation and frequent changes in residence
- children being forced to take on a caring role and feeling they have the responsibility to solve their parent’s alcohol and drug problems.
The circumstances surrounding dependent, heavy or chaotic substance misuse may inhibit responsible childcare, for example drug and/or alcohol use may lead to poor physical health or to mental health problems, financial problems and a breakdown in family support networks.
If any practitioner believes that a child or young person is at immediate risk from a parent or carer who appears to be incapacitated by substance abuse and they cannot otherwise safeguard them, this should be reported without delay to the police as a 999 emergency. They should make a note of their actions and record this on file.
Because substance misuse affects an individuals cognitive functioning and behaviour the impact on the capacity to parent and meet the child’s needs are compromised. Practical skills, perceptions, control of emotions, judgement, attention to basic physical needs, attachment to or separation from a child are all behaviours that may be present when a person is misusing substances.
To be healthy and to develop normally, children must have their basic needs met. If a parent is more concerned with funding an addiction, or is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, they are unlikely to be able to achieve this consistently. A disorganised lifestyle is a frequent consequence of substance misuse, parents may fail to shop, cook, wash, clean, pay bills, attend appointments etc.
Substance misuse can affect a parent’s ability to engage with their child. It may also affect a parent’s ability to control their emotions. Severe mood swings and angry outbursts may confuse and frighten a child, hindering healthy development and control of their own emotions. Such parents may even become dependent on their own child for support. This can put stress on a child and mean they miss out on the experiences of a normal childhood.
Other consequences of substance misuse include unemployment, poverty, unsafe homes, severed family ties and friendships. Families affected by substance misuse may also try and disrupt efforts made by a local authority to help.
Any professionals, carers, volunteers, families and friends who are in contact with a child in an environment where there are indications of substance misuse must ask themselves: ‘What is it like for a child in this environment?’
Protection and action to be taken
Where there are concerns by practitioners involved with a family about a child living in an environment of substance misuse this will always override legal, professional or agency requirements to keep information confidential. An assessment of the parent’s capacity to meet the child’s needs should take place to establish the impact on the child of the parent’s lifestyle and capacity to place the child’s needs before those of their own. A referral to children’s social care in line with the Referrals Procedure should be made and the practitioners from adult services, or other relevant agencies, should work in collaboration with children’s social care.
Where any agency encounters a substance user who is pregnant and whose degree of substance misuse indicates that their parenting capacity is likely to be seriously impaired, they must make a referral to children’s social care.
Consideration must be given to the impact and harm continued substance misuse has on the unborn child, and a failure to engage with services designed to support her viewed as a potential risk to the unborn baby. Such referrals should be fast-tracked for immediate support to the mother and her baby. Where appropriate, the partner should also be fast-tracked.
The majority of pregnant substance misusing women will have been identified by maternity services and referred to the Substance Misuse Team. The Care Planning Approach/Care Co-ordination Approach will apply, including input from the link midwives and a social worker from children’s social care, who will be invited to any meetings taking place in respect of the child/ren.
Where a newly born child is found to need treatment to withdraw from substances at birth, a referral to children’s social care should always be made in line with the Referrals Procedure before the child is discharged home.
Specialist substance misuse services should be invited to and should attend and provide information to any meeting concerning the implications of the parent/carer’s substance misuse problems for the child, including Child Protection Conferences and Child in Need meetings.
The need to focus on the child’s welfare is a priority and the impact of the behaviour on the child, as well as the wider family and community context, should be assessed. Workers should build up a picture of the child based on cumulative information.
Substance misuse can often be triggered by underlying issues and to successfully obtain this information may require professional curiosity. Some adult services may be reluctant to share information because of concern about confidentiality. However, the need to safeguard children should be paramount and agencies with information regarding the parent will have a valuable contribution to make. In these circumstances practitioners should seek advice from the safeguarding leads in their organisation if they are unsure as to what information should be shared, or what action should be taken.
If the child is to remain with a substance-misusing carer, the lead professional working with the family should coordinate the production of a plan to minimise risk to the child and to support the parents/carers. This should be agreed by both children’s services and substance misuse treatment services, and should include a clear statement of:
- what the intervention intends to achieve with regard to the child and to the parents/carers, and how progress will be measured
- the expectations of practitioners and of parents/carers, expressed as targets and timescales and what will happen if the targets are not met
- the arrangements for child care should the parents/carers be unable to care for their children at any time; treatment programmes may be very demanding.
When practitioners make a decision to end their involvement with a parent/carer with substance misuse problems, or a child who is living with a parent/carer with substance misuse problems, they should always discuss their plans with the other services who are working with the family before the case is closed. This is to ensure that any ongoing needs can be addressed.
Parents’ own needs will need to be addressed and supported. This can be achieved through appropriate treatment to meet their needs accessed through the local drug and alcohol treatment service. Whilst the parent(s) are being assessed to avoid any delays in providing services the child’s needs must not be put on hold without a contingency plan.
Confidentiality is important in developing trust between drug-using parents and staff in agencies working with them in relation to their substance misuse, however, practitioners must always act in the best interests of the child and not prioritise their therapeutic relationship with the adult.
When a woman with a substance misuse and/or alcohol problem attends for antenatal care, she should be encouraged to contact the local drug and alcohol service for assessment and advice on the treatment options available to her.
Professionals should be aware that there are factors that reduce the risk of harm to the child. The adverse effects of parental substance misuse on children are less likely when:
- the misuse is not associated with violence, family discord, or disorganisation in the family’s day-to-day living
- the household includes a parent/carer or family member who does not have a problem with alcohol or drugs, and is able to respond to the child’s developmental needs
- there are good physical standards in the home
- the family has sufficient income to cover household necessities
- the substance-misusing parent/carer acknowledges the problem and engages with services to address the issue
- the child attends nursery, day care or school regularly
- the extended family is aware of the substance misuse and is able to provide effective support in maintaining adequate child care standards.
- Hidden Harm: Responding to the Needs of Children of Problem Drug Users
- Safeguarding Children affected by Parent alcohol and drug use A guide for local authorities and substance misuse services
- Adfam (support to families affected by drugs and alcohol)
- Coap (Children Of Addicted Parents and people - the young people living with a family member with an addiction)
- Dual Diagnosis Toolkit
- NHS Choices Care Programme Approach
- NSPCC Learning from Serious Case Reviews
- Think Child, Think Parent, Think Family
- Children’s Needs – Parenting Capacity