Research into practice

In a new report from the Research in Practice project, Jo Tunnard1 provides a summary of key issues relating to the complex relationships between drug misuse, quality of parenting and family problems.

The report is an overview of the research literature in this area, encompassing 22 studies carried out in the UK and Ireland in the past 10 years or so, as well as drawing on other sources of information. An important message from this review is that we should not assume that parents who use illegal drugs are necessarily “bad” parents. As Tunnard says: “It is important to look at people’s behaviour, not the label that may have been applied to them.”

However, this is not to say that there are no circumstances in which children and their families are harmed by the misuse of drugs. The report makes the following points about the use of drugs and their effect on families:

  • The health and behaviour of parents can be adversely affected.
  • Children can be affected in all areas of their life – at home, school and in their community.
  • At least four times as many children are affected by alcohol misuse as by the misuse of other drugs, but government policy continues to focus on the misuse of drugs other than alcohol.
  • Practitioners have a key role in helping children and families.

The report provides details of factors that are relevant to working with children and families where drug misuse is an issue. The author relates these to the specific elements of the assessment framework, making this a helpful and user-friendly guide for practitioners in the field. The report also includes brief details about commonly used drugs and their effects, and therefore serves as a useful reference resource.

The research estimates that there are 266,000 adults who have drug-related problem in the UK, with heroin the main source of concern. The profile, however, is said to be changing, with more women involved. The important point is made that “considerable numbers of women who either get in touch with drug treatment centres or then go on to use those services have dependent children”.

A number of areas in which drug misuse makes a difference are identified and discussed. These include the living situation, family and social relationships, behaviour, health and education. Implications for practice are also identified, including: practical help with stresses on parents, the need to reduce isolation, the value of building on parental motivation and on existing services and undertaking direct work with children. The point is also well made that it is important not to leave fathers out of the picture.

The significant role of drug misuse as an underpinning factor in social problems (notably crime) is one that has long been recognised.
This report succeeds in not only emphasising the role of drug misuse in child care but also in providing a good foundation from which to develop a more in-depth understanding of these important issues.

Neil Thompson is an independent trainer and consultant with Avenue Consulting and a visiting professor at the University of Liverpool. He is the author of Building the Future: Social Work with Children, Young People and Their Families, Russell House Publishing, 2002.

1 Jo Tunnard, Parental Drug Misuse: a Review of Impact and Intervention Studies, Totnes, Research in Practice, 2002. Priced £5 from

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