Drugs versus children

Media reporting of cases of parental neglect or abuse brought about
by drug dependence and the growing prominence of such families on
child protection registers points to a problem that is seemingly
escalating, and one that we have woken up to late. In retrospect it
was obvious that the young people caught up in the heroin epidemics
of the 1980s would go on to have children of their own and many
would continue to have a drug problem long after the birth of their

But having a drug problem does not necessarily mean an inability to
parent. A recent Glasgow study of drug-dependent parents and their
children confirms the dangers and risks children can be exposed to
where a parent’s attention is diverted by their drug needs. The
children of drug-dependent parents can face many extreme risks as
in two situations described here. A 15-year-old boy, David,
described a violent incident that arose out of his mother’s and
uncle’s drug dealing from the house. In his words: “That was scary
cos these guys who used to buy stuff off ma uncle they all burst in
and were holding knives to our throats and that, asking for the
drugs and the money. And they were saying they would cut our
throats if they didn’t give ’em it.”

On another occasion a mother recounted how her 18-month-old toddler
had been at extreme risk through the inattention of the also drug
dependent partner. “He says ‘Jan, I was too scared to tell you, but
when I woke up this morning she was at the top of the stairs and
she had an eighth (of heroin) in her hand and she was biting it’.”

The episodes described here were dramatic and acute and had social
services known about them would have prompted urgent intervention.
Such incidents are at the extreme end of the spectrum. At the other
end is the more chronic, perhaps less visible experience of need
where children are swept along in the wake of their parents’ drug

Children ideally need parents who can provide and care for them in
a safe and nurturing environment. The problem with drug dependence
is that it takes parents’ attention away from their children. Lack
of parental attention leaves children chronically vulnerable to not
having their emotional, physical or social needs met and may mean
they are exposed to risk. To return briefly to David, the backdrop
to the episode he described was a household in which his mother’s
time, money and energy were focused on drugs leaving little spare
capacity to care for him or his sister. Routines like eating and
sleeping were wholly unpredictable. It was also difficult to
anticipate parental mood swings that often oscillated violently
between a heightened irritability during drug withdrawal and
well-being or incapacitation when intoxicated.

David’s childhood was marked by so many changes of address and so
many schools that he cannot recall them all. He was so distressed
by the drug dealing in his house and having to witness his mother’s
drug use that for a period he used to sleep during the day. He
says: “I preferred that cos that way I never saw much, I just
stayed up all night watching telly.” This meant that he did not go
to school or go out to play, further compounding the social
isolation he suffered through moving so frequently. It is this less
dramatic but no less serious undermining of these children’s
welfare and development needs that has to be brought firmly into

These young people present a picture of households whose rhythms
are dominated by the uncertainties of their parents’ drug habits.
Finding drugs often means traipsing about with children in all
weathers and at all hours. As this parent acknowledges: “I used to
take ma kids with me to score and we’d stand out in the rain for
three hours waiting on somebody coming back with drugs. But I was
still a good parent cos I had ma children standing beside me. It
didnae matter that it was eleven at night and they were soaking and
they were hungry and they were tired.”

Not finding drugs often spelled trouble for children. Parents would
be irritable and sometimes aggressive: “I remember mornings when
they didn’t have anything. My mum’d be sitting and you knew not to
talk to her and the house’d be still, we’d all be waiting for my
dad to wake up, you could hear every creak, every tiny noise cos
when he did wake up you knew there’d be trouble. See, drugs made my
dad terrible.”

Amanda said of her mum: “She was just always dead moody, she was
always in her bed and she would never go out and buy food and she
would never have money to go out and get it.” These young people
had a fundamental sense that drugs were more important to their
parents than they were. If it came to a choice between meeting
their needs or those imposed by the drugs the children felt pretty
certain that their needs would come second. One says: “I knew they
loved me but they just didnae care that I was there and I needed
stuff as well. I needed things and they were just away taking drugs
and stuff.”

Elise as a young child struggled to come to terms with what drugs
meant in her mother’s life “because she was never there for me, it
must’ve been a bad thing cos she was never there”.

These were lives often burdened by responsibilities to look after
parents, siblings and the house. The price they paid was anxiety,
anger, powerlessness, profound sadness and disappointment and in
some of the older children a strong sense of a lost childhood. “It
was as if she was the child and I was the mum,” one young woman
says. Looking back she adds: “It was a nightmare, an absolute
nightmare, I don’t think I had a childhood at all.”

The strains imposed by living with a parent’s drug problem were
made more burdensome by the secrecy and shame associated with drug
dependence. Children understood from an early age the importance of
keeping the family secret. To deflect attention away from the home
they invented Christmas presents that were never received and made
up family outings that never happened. In their efforts to prevent
ridicule and bullying from peers or attention from outside agencies
like social services these young people were isolated and seldom
found an outlet for the expression of their feelings.

What are the lessons that have come out of this research? First and
foremost that we have a clear responsibility to recognise and
respond not just to the extreme risks these children face but also
the ways in which their lives are deprived of many of the normal
and valued aspects of childhood. We have a statutory duty to meet
children’s needs with services and good sense ought to convince us
of the importance of taking a preventive stance. These children are
at elevated risk of developing drug problems themselves, of
antisocial behaviour and poor school achievement. Preventing the
predictable means finding effective and meaningful ways of
supporting children and compensating for family environments
stressed by drugs. This process should begin by listening to the
voices of children growing up with drug-dependent parents.

Marina Barnard is a researcher at the Centre for Drug
Misuse Research at the University of Glasgow.

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