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Parental substance use: through the eyes of the worker

It is known that the number of children affected by parental substance use is significant, and that the effects on them are equally serious. Hidden Harm identified 250-350,000 children affected by parental drug use in the UK, and was the first major research to focus on their needs rather than those of the substance user. A third of the adult drug treatment population have childcare responsibilities, at least 120,000 children are living with a parent currently engaged in treatment, and there could be five times as many children affected by parental alcohol misuse as drugs

Though harm to children is not inevitable, parental problem drug use can be associated with neglect, isolation, physical or emotional abuse, poverty, separation and exposure to criminal behaviour. Longer-term risks include emotional, cognitive, behavioural and other psychological problems, early substance misuse and offending behaviour and poor educational attainment5. In 2007-09 22% of Serious Case Reviews mentioned parental drug use, and 22% parental alcohol use.

The Government’s 2010 Drug Strategy identifies ‘the capacity to be an effective and caring parent’ as a key outcome in a recovery-focused treatment system; the Department for Children, Schools and Families (now Department for Education) published Joint Guidance on Development of Local Protocols between Drug and Alcohol Treatment Services and Local Safeguarding and Family Services in 2009; and many regions in England have their own Hidden Harm strategies. .

Despite a wealth of knowledge around the impact of parental substance use and a proliferation of policy initiatives and regional strategies aiming to address it, much less discussed are the experiences and attitudes of the people working in this complex and challenging area on a day-to-day basis. Recognition in research, strategy or protocol does not necessarily mean that the appropriate action has been taken, so this report aims to share the experiences and realities of safeguarding practice through the eyes of the frontline worker.