The new drug strategy for England 2008-11 begins with an acknowledgment that previous drug strategies have focused too much on the individual drug user and not enough on the family and wider community. Families are now at the centre of the approach which will address the needs of parents and children as individuals, as well as working with families to prevent drug use, reduce risk and get people into treatment.
This new family focus will be welcomed by professionals, policy makers and families themselves, who have long raised this as a serious gap in the prevention of long-term, intergenerational drug related harms.
So how is the government planning to place families at the centre of policy and what difference will it make to professionals working with these issues and to children and families themselves?
Key pledges within the strategy include – additional support for grandparents, ‘packages of support’ for families most at risk (based on the Respect Family Intervention projects), quicker access to treatment for parents with drug problems and improved information sharing between adult and children’s services.
While on the face of it there is merit in each of these commitments, a closer look at these key strategy actions raises questions as to how they will address the central challenge of a growing problem that is so detrimental to delivering good outcomes for children, families and communities.
Many local authorities now cite between 60-70% of their child protection cases involve parental substance misuse. The problem has become so acute that three London boroughs – Islington, Westminster and Camden have formed a partnership to deliver a Family Drug and Alcohol Court specifically to deal with these cases.
If ever there was a cross-cutting issue it is this one. For too long the issue has been without clear leadership from the government. They now need to provide the direction and leverage to all those agencies that have key roles and responsibilities in this area. Responding to parental drug and alcohol misuse is a complex challenge that involves a range of services and professionals. From health – child health, primary care, maternity services, and mental health; children’s services – schools, early years, social work, fostering and adoption, local safeguarding children boards; the police; courts, probation and prison services; adult treatment, domestic violence and housing services and the voluntary and community sector.
It is primarily through existing mainstream services that the response needs to come. This can be achieved by coherent partnership arrangements providing effective early identification, quality assessments, multi-agency care planning, information sharing and effective evidenced based interventions.
The Department for Children, Schools and Families with the support of other key departments should develop a strategy for parental drug and alcohol misuse that sets out how all these services can work together and address the long-standing issues which prevent this happening now – clarity of role and responsibility, working across professional boundaries; accountability; common assessment and information sharing; skills, confidence and support; joint commissioning and a clear performance management framework with levers over agencies to fulfil their responsibilities.
This is not solely a child protection issue. Much more can be achieved by professionals working coherently together to provide the right support to families to prevent problems escalating into the safeguarding realm.
Significant improvements in integrated working have been seen as a result of the Every Child Matters agenda but ECM in itself hasn’t been enough to support an effective partnership approach to this issue. A strategy for parental drug and alcohol misuse would build on and be consistent with the progress made so far through these reforms, not seek to develop a separate approach.
The Social Exclusion Task Force ‘Families at Risk Review’ raised this key point:
“There are significant opportunities to extend the logic of integration of Every Child Matters beyond children’s services to better co-ordinate all of the services – including adult services working with families at risk.”
The problem is a growing and ever more complex one. Now at the start of a new spending review and drug strategy period, is the right time for the government to provide real leadership on this issue. This should start with a real evidenced based understanding of the enormity of the problem and provide the support to local areas to develop effective strategies to prevent the very serious harms this causes to an increasing number of children and young people.
Rhian Stone was the team manager for the substance misuse team in the Department of Children, Schools and Families between 2003 -2007. She had lead responsibility for delivering the PSA target on young people and drugs and for the DCSF’s involvement in the Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy. She is now a public policy consultant and can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org