Balancing the rights and needs of both the children and adults in families where a parent has alcohol problems can pose difficult dilemmas. Most parents want to do their best and those with alcohol and mental health problems are at times acutely aware of the effect of their illness or alcohol misuse on their children. Research from Scie shows that adults’ and children’s services need to work closely together in order to ensure the best outcomes for families.
A significant number of parents in contact with social services have problems with alcohol or drugs, or both, and some of them are putting their children at risk. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs found that, on average, parental problem drug or alcohol use featured in a quarter of cases of children on child protection registers. Other research suggests “hidden” problems make this a far higher number.
Even though parents may be aware that they are in need of support, they can be reluctant to seek it. Parents receiving services through the care programme approach and their children said they feared and experienced “discriminatory responses from local and professional communities and agencies that may lead to family separations or child protection procedures.”
The researchers concluded that these fears can adversely affect parents’ mental health and well-being over time.
Children living with parental alcohol abuse told Childline that they were reluctant to share problems with adults who could help because of fear that they would be taken away from their families. The secrecy and stigma associated with alcohol and drug misuse can mean that parents are not getting the support they need and some children are living in situations where they may be at risk but they are not known to social services.
Most research shows that what upsets children most is not parental drinking, or even parental drunkenness, but the conflict between their parents that often results from drinking and disrupts family life. Physical abuse was identified as the main problem for four out of 10 children living with parental alcohol abuse who called Childline. The absence of a parent because of separation, divorce or a prison sentence is also a factor that will have a direct negative impact on children. So too does the poverty and poor housing that can accompany substance misuse.
The research also shows that a parent’s substance misuse may not be the most important factor affecting a child’s life. Other events, such as the death of a close relative or a serious family illness, may cause a child more worry than a parent’s alcohol problem.
However, where there is serious parental drug or alcohol misuse and children cannot remain with their parents, anecdotal evidence shows that they are increasingly being placed with friends and family, with grandparents often being the relatives who agree to take on the care of the children. In addition, arrangements are made privately between family and friends, although the number of these is unknown.
Although “kinship care” is associated with greater stability for children and better continuity in terms of family and cultural issues than foster care, there is also evidence that kinship carers are likely to experience greater economic difficulties and provide poorer accommodation than non-kin foster carers.
Research shows that there has been service development in supporting parents who have drug or alcohol problems over recent years, but, despite the policy framework provided by Models of Care and Working Together to Safeguard Children, many drug and alcohol treatment services still focus on individuals and not on the family context in which they are living. There needs to be a wider recognition of the role that families play in supporting individuals and their role in recovery and closer working between services that support adults and those that support children and families.
● Resource guide 1: Families that have alcohol and mental health problems: a template for partnership working
● Knowledge review 11: Supporting disabled parents and parents with additional support needs