For years drug abuse treatment and child protection services in the UK have operated under the belief that drug addiction does not necessarily undermine a parent's ability to look after their children. As recently as 2003, for example, the Scottish Executive was issuing guidance to services working with addict families saying that ‘parental substance misuse alone is neither a necessary nor a sufficient cause of problems in children’ (Scottish Executive, 2003, p 13). In May 2006 that, rather comforting, view was blown apart when the Justice Minister, the Health Minister and the Education Ministers in Scotland all put their name to the statement that ‘Serious and chaotic drug abuse is incompatible with effective parenting’ (Scottish Executive, 2006, p 5). Published as part of the Hidden Harm: Next Steps report, that statement indicates a hardening in the attitude of some of those in government to the problem of parental drug addiction and, in particular, the impact of parental drug use on children.
In this chapter we look at what is known about the ways in which parents’ drug use may influence the lives of their children and the challenges faced by those seeking to meet the needs of these children. Before doing so we should add a word on terminology. Throughout this chapter we use the term ‘addict’ or ‘dependent drug user’ to refer to individuals who have a serious drug problem. These are individuals who are using heroin, often on a daily basis, frequently by injection and who are experiencing a range of problems associated with their drug use. We are not referring here to individuals who may be using a range of other drugs, such as cannabis, on an occasional or repeated basis without any obvious impact on their own lives or the lives of their children.
The impact of parental drug use on children
In 2003 the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs published the results of a two-year inquiry into the impact of parental drug use on children. Titled ‘Hidden Harm’: Responding to the Needs of Children of Problem Drug Users, the report outlined the estimate that there may be something of the order of 350,000 children in the UK with one or both parents dependent upon illegal drugs (ACMD, 2003). Striking as that figure is, the authors of this report acknowledge that the true figure could be even higher.