The government’s drug strategy for 2008-18 has attracted plaudits and also criticism for the vision it puts forward to tackle the problems faced by families and communities affected by drug misuse.
There has been concern that “headline-grabbing” announcements, that drug users will face benefit sanctions unless they follow treatment programmes, overshadow the real issues at hand. Despite this, drugs charities and social care professionals have praised the strategy for breaking new ground in taking a family-centred approach to the problem of drug misuse in communities.
One of the strategy’s main aims (see box) is a promise to prevent harm to children, young people and families affected by drugs.
The strategy plans for interventions for families at risk to support them to stay together and break the cycle of problems passing between generations. It would also provide increased financial support for kinship carers, for example grandparents caring for the children of drug-misusing parents.
Harry Walker, senior policy and public affairs adviser at Turning Point, says he welcomes the plans: “The strategy is quite right to play out that there are intergenerational harms in terms of poor outcomes for children. Addressing the needs of parents in the first place is a way of preventing harm that may occur to families.”
Walker says Turning Point welcomes the focus on “wraparound” care which would provide support for drug misusers in areas such as education, housing and healthcare.
“It’s looking at all the needs of substance misusers which is at least making the right noises about joining up services,” he says.
However, Walker believes the strategy’s proposal to impose benefit sanctions on those who fail to attend rehabilitation sessions could have an ambiguous outcome.
“It could go either way but without financial support some drug misusers might be driven more towards the fringes of society and could end up on the streets,” he says.
Rhian Stone, independent public policy consultant, agrees. She says the government’s attempt to introduce a “punitive approach” by withdrawing payments such as incapacity benefits is risky.
“The solution is likely to exacerbate the problem,” she says. “Benefit sanctions will lead to poverty, crime and social exclusion and the government should think through the unintended consequences of this policy before putting it into action.”
Stone is well placed to comment. As the team manager for the substance misuse team in the Department for Children, Schools and Families between 2003-7, 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 says the radical move of such a punitive approach ignores other social, emotional and psychological problems that drug misusers could be experiencing as well as any possible mental health issues.
“People often relapse because they are not ready or it’s just too difficult,” she says. “What brings people into treatment and keeps them there is its effectiveness and the support they have around them.”
For Deborah Cameron, chief executive at Addaction, the concept of introducing benefit sanctions should not necessarily be dismissed without proper consideration.
“It’s not wrong to say we are spending more on incapacity benefit than treatment,” she says. “But if we are not careful the effect will not fall on the drug user. And if it’s rooted in a penalising approach it is likely to have an effect on crime.”
Cameron says the government’s strategy needs to address “deeply inconsistent” approaches within social work and improve the training of front-line social workers to deal with drug and alcohol misusers.
“There are some social workers who would let children live with Class A drug users while others – sometimes in the same team – have a different approach,” she says.
David Mackintosh, a policy adviser at the London Drug Policy Forum, agrees that non-specialists require more finely tuned skills in this area. “There is a lot of scope to provide those who come into contact with drug users with basic training and to know when people want referrals,” he says. “We shouldn’t make people feel that they can’t comment on cases because they are not drugs workers.”
Building on previous aims
From a social work perspective, Ivan Calder, group manager for Barking & Dagenham drug action team, says the new strategy contains marked differences concerning the protection of families and communities yet builds on the aims set out in the previous 10-year drug strategy in 1998.
“The last strategy was successful to a degree and delivered the opportunity for good outcomes,” he says. “But the new strategy keeps the issues on everybody’s agenda and shows where links need to be made. That work has already been happening and it means we will carry on linking in with schools, children’s trusts and police.”
Calder says the strategy will allow his team to work more closely with schools and intervene at an earlier stage. “It will help us to identify children of drug using parents and give them a mechanism to come forward,” he says.
In terms of ensuring a whole family approach is adopted in tackling the problems of drug misuse, the strategy aims to deliver an increased support package for kinship carers. On one level this could mean improved information for carers and guidance for local authorities while those looking after children classified as “in need” could receive increased financial support.
Jean Stogdon, chair of Grandparents Plus, is sceptical about the promise of extra funding but says the strategy’s inclusion of kinship carers is an important step in recognising the role played by thousands of grandparents. “At the very least it will give them more power,” she says.
Stogdon believes, however, there are still huge discrepancies over payments made to kinship carers, some of whom rely on little or no financial support.
“No kinship carer can say they are looking after their grandchildren and are going to get support as a given right. We do it if we have to because it’s natural to support our children.”