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Children of Drug Abusers

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 4:54 pm on 16th September 2004.

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Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour 4:54 pm, 16th September 2004

I wonder whether, like me, others in this room spend quite a lot of time asking themselves why they are keen to do a job that most people criticise at the drop of a hat, telling us that they could do it much better than we can but being quite happy to let us do it anyway. Sometimes, however, we come across an issue that we think we might be able to do something about and which causes us to think that we might just be able to bring about a change that will help people's lives. Perhaps that is why we are here. That is the substance of the motion that I have lodged for this debate. If we cannot help children of drug abusers, we have to ask ourselves why we are here.

In Glasgow, at a conservative estimate, there are between 15,000 and 20,000 children who are affected by parental drug abuse. Throughout Scotland, the estimated number is 52,000. It is estimated that 60 per cent of drug users have children and that 46 per cent of them have children who still live with them. It is clear that there is a wide range of figures about the number of kids in such circumstances. For example, in Inverclyde, which my colleague Duncan McNeil and I represent—he represents the Inverclyde constituency and I represent Port Glasgow—the number of cases allocated to social work amount to 307. That is 307 too many, but it is also not an accurate figure because it does not include voluntary organisations or the children who are not put in touch with any kind of organisation.

What public services look after the children of drug abusers? The first service that springs to mind is social work—a much-maligned profession, as my colleague Scott Barrie and I know only too well. There are also projects such as those that are run by the Aberlour Child Care Trust, which looks after children and their parents in a residential setting and through community outreach. There are also the drug action teams, and in Port Glasgow there is a specialist clinic that is involved in primary care services. In Greenock, in Duncan McNeil's constituency, there is an early-intervention short, sharp detox programme for young people who are just starting down the road of drug abuse.

What does it mean to be the child of a drug abuser? One of the first children with whom I had to deal when I was a social worker suffered from foetal alcohol syndrome. That meant that he had a small, wizened face and pointed ears. Just before I gave up social work, I worked at the Inverclyde royal hospital and the Glasgow royal infirmary with the mothers of children who were going cold turkey from heroin withdrawal. That is not a pretty sight; it is not nice to see a three-week-old child shaking, screaming, crying and suffering from sickness and diarrhoea—with a look of absolute terror on its face—because the mother has been using heroin or other drugs throughout her pregnancy. What does that sort of experience do for those kids when they get older? They are withdrawn, sometimes they are aggressive, they have no confidence, they are socially isolated and they perform poorly at school. They are also more likely to take drugs. It is easy to see why: at home, when there is a problem, their parents take a drug—including alcohol—and the problem, amazingly, is solved. The children then think that it is a good idea to take a drug to solve their problems. At home, the children are neglected and made to feel second to drugs.

There are questions that we must address, as must the relevant agencies. When do we intervene? When we intervene, how can we sustain our intervention in the long term? Do we focus on the child or on the user? Should we intervene and encourage drug users to use contraception? I remind members of my description of what a child going cold turkey looks like. If we intervene in that way, however, how far do we go? What about people's civil liberties?

I believe that we are right to support methadone programmes, but we do not have enough of them. We do not provide enough support for people who are coming off drugs.

All of us know of grandparents in our constituencies who look after children who have drug-using parents. Families and communities are starting to adjust to this massive problem and grandparents and aunts and uncles are taking children in. The minister will tell us that the Executive is doing something about the problem, and he will be quite right. However, I wonder whether provision is appropriate or adequate; I honestly do not think that it is.

There are no clear statistics on children of drug-abusing parents. There are estimates of 52,000 such children across Scotland and 300 or so in Inverclyde. The Executive is undertaking a scoping exercise to consider all the available research and data. That is good, but if the results show the high numbers that we expect, we in the Parliament will have to be prepared to put our money where our mouths are and finance appropriate services. Core packages must reflect the whole problem during and after drug misuse, and I believe that it is appropriate for services to be local.

Last week, Jack McConnell said:

"there will be further legislation to protect and support Scotland's children"—[Official Report, 7 September 2004; c 9873.]

No one would disagree with that. If we can make a change, we should, but I stood four years ago at the Mound and had exactly the same debate. It was instigated by reading on the front page of the Daily Record that a five-year-old boy who was new to school had taken a package to his teacher and said to her, "Take this, because it is making my mummy sick." It was her £5 bag of heroin. Sadly, there are many children out there who could say exactly the same thing today.