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Selected Readarounds in Child and Youth Care

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Parental drug abuse

Wendy Cousins and Sharon Milner

In spite of the popularly held negative view of drug users, many parents who use drugs maintain a caring and organised household (Tunnard 2002); the use of illegal drugs does not necessarily equate to problem drug use/ drug abuse. According to the Standing Conference on Drug Abuse (1997), problem drug use is defined in terms of the negative effects that usage has on families, i.e. social, financial, relationship, psychological, physical or legal problems. This study concentrates on drug use by parents which social work professionals consider to be having an adverse impact, not just on the health and behaviour of parents, but also on the lives of their children.

There is considerable research evidence to suggest that drug abuse is associated with poorer parenting skills. For example, apathy and listlessness as a result of drug misuse may mean parents have difficulty in organising their lives (Famularo et al 1992). Other studies have found high rates of psychiatric disorders among drug users (Tunnard 2002).

In a review of developmental issues in children of substance abusers, McMahon and Luthar (1998) report that the two main research findings regarding such children are firstly that they have poorer developmental outcomes (physical, intellectual, social and emotional) than other children, although generally in the low-normal range rather than severely impaired; and secondly, they are at risk of substance abuse themselves. Studies have also shown that parents with substance abuse problems are more likely than other parents to maltreat their children (Famularo et al 1992; Jaudes et al 1995; Kelleher et al 1994).

McKeagney et al (2002) found that material deprivation in the home was an obvious consequence of some drug use. Furniture and household equipment was not acquired or soon sold. Clothing was not replaced when worn out or too small. Food was not provided, either through lack of cash or because parents neglected to make meals. In a review of literature on drug abuse and parenting (Tunnard, 2002) found that few parents in any study were in paid work, and as families were mainly dependent on welfare benefits, income levels were very low. Poor living conditions were seen as both a cause and effect of parental drug use and the strain ot finding money for drugs can add to family tensions and leave parents unavailable for their children (Tunnard 2002).

Other research has found that drugs and other equipment, such as needles, also pose physical hazards for children (Hogan and Higgins 2001). In addition, there have been cases, thankfully rare, reported of children dying from ingesting their parent’s drugs (Centre For Social Research on Health and Substance Abuse, 1998; The Scotsman, 2006).

For decades, child welfare staff have recognised that substance abuse is common in the families they serve (Fanshel, 1975). One of the problems with addressing the difficulties presented by this is that families require a service in which children and adult services collaborate. Parental drug abuse is often viewed and treated in isolation and there may be an unhelpful split in the response to families in that the parent may have their own social worker who might not give a high priority to child protection concerns, whilst the children’s social worker might be seen as unsympathetic to the parent’s needs (Tunnard 2002). In a review of research Cleaver et al (1999) states that if the appropriate measures were taken to ensure effective collaboration between services then this would in turn "ensure that not only are parents recognised as having needs in their own right, but the impact ot those needs on children becomes part of a multi-agency service response.’ (p.6).

With the increasing availability ot illegal drugs in Northern Irish society (Health Promotion Agency 2005, Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency 2005) it is to be expected that these issues have an impact on the work of child and family social workers.

Centre For Social Research on Health and Substance Abuse (SRHSA) (1998). Drug Using Parents and their Children – Risk and Protective Factors. A Preliminary Study. Final Report to the Department ot Health. SRHSA, Manchester Metropolitan University.

Cleaver, H., Unell, I. and Aldgate, J. (1999). Children's needs. Parenting capacity: The impact of parental mental illness, problem alcohol and drug use, and domestic violence on children’s development. London; HMSO.

Famularo, R., Kinscherff R. and Fenton, T. (1992). Parental substance abuse and the nature of child maltreatment. Child Abuse and Neglect, 16. pp. 475-483.

Fanshel, D. (1975). Parental failure and consequences for children; The drug abusing mother whose children are in foster care. American Journal of Public Health, 65, 6. pp., 604-612.

Health Promotion Agency For Northern Ireland Website [accessed 11 September 2005]

Hogan, D. and Higgins L. (2001). When parents use drugs – key findings from a study of children in the care of drug-using parents. The Children’s Research Centre, Trinity College, Dublin.

Jaudes, P., Ekwo, E. and Van Voorhis, J. (1995). Association of drug abuse and child abuse. Child Abuse and Neglect, 19,9. pp.1065-1075.

Kelleher, K., Chaffn, M., Hollenberg, J. and Fischer, E. (1994). Alcohol and drug disorders among physically abusive and neglectful parents in a community-based sample. American Journal of Public Health, 84, 10. pp. 1586-1590.

McKeagney, N., Barnard, M. and McIntosh, J. (2002). Paying the price for their Parents Drug Use; The Impact of Parental Drug Use on Children. Drug Education, Prevention and Policy, 3. pp. , 233-246.

McMahon, T. and Luthar, S. (1998). Bridging the gap for children as their parents enter substance abuse treatment. In R. Hampton, V. Senatore and T. Gullotta (Eds.), Substance Abuse, Family Violence and Child Welfare: Bridging Perspectives. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Standing Conterence on Drug Abuse (1997). Drug using parents.- policy guidelines for inter-agency working. London; Local Government Association.

The Scotsman (Saturday 26 May 2006) Toddlers methadone death: Two face charge of murder. http:/ [accessed 11September 2006] .

Tunnard, J. (2002). Parental Drug Misuse; A review of impact and intervention studies. Research in Practice. Darlington.

Cousins, W. and Milner, S. ((2006). Drug abuse and parenting: The impact on young children in the social care system in Northern Ireland. Irish Journal of Applied Social Studies, 7, 1. pp. 96-98.

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