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Children of Drug Abusers

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 5:09 pm on 16th September 2004.

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Photo of Keith Raffan Keith Raffan Liberal Democrat 5:09 pm, 16th September 2004

The issue is extremely serious, but we know little about it. It will be difficult for us ever to have exact statistics on the number of vulnerable children who are affected by their parents' drug addiction. I believe that the figures of 40,000 to 60,000 that I have been mentioned are a gross underestimate. As has been mentioned, chronic alcohol misuse in Scotland is a more serious and widespread problem. We are talking about more than 0.25 million chronic misusers of alcohol and probably about 300,000 to 400,000 children who live with parents who are alcoholics.

The statistics cannot do justice to the lifelong damage that is done to those children. It is impossible to repair such damage, although some surmount it, such as the former President of the United States, Bill Clinton, who came from a highly addictive family. He has been open about the various compulsive-obsessive behaviours, as they are medically called, of his parents, his brother and others in his family. The late Duke of Devonshire, who died last month, headed a family that was well known for what was called the Cavendish disease—alcoholism. We are talking about a disease that often runs in families. We need to study it far more—not just at the aristocratic end of the scale, although that might be the more visible end. We need to study it right across the board.

I know that the Executive has published guidance on "Getting Our Priorities Right—Good Practice Guidance for Working With Children and Families Affected by Substance Misuse". Our priorities are to deal with the children of alcohol or drug misusers. The scope of the discussion needs to be broadened, because both sets of children are vulnerable. Indeed, in the home of an alcoholic, a child might be more likely to suffer domestic violence. Intervention needs to be early. Too often, intervention happens only at the crisis stage. Another problem is that the addict might be reluctant to seek support in case he or she—or both parents—lose custody of the children.

The situation has to be dealt with sensitively, because it might well be in the children's interests not to go into care but to continue to be cared for by their parents, even when those parents have serious drug problems, provided that there is sufficient support.

That is where the role of certain individuals is crucial. For example, general practitioners are important for people undergoing methadone treatment; they see addicts regularly. Nurses in accident and emergency departments see people who have come in because of an overdose, because they are the victims of violence or because they have collapsed in the street. Similarly, social workers, housing staff, voluntary organisation workers and teachers might be the first to detect a problem. That cab help to build an information base through which addicts can be contacted, which will enable them to be offered counselling, family therapy, parenting and coping skills and the help of family support groups.

The role of grandparents is important, particularly in relation to the children of drug misusers. I remember meeting grandparents with Margaret Curran when she was convener of the Social Inclusion, Housing and Voluntary Sector Committee and we were undertaking our inquiry into drug misuse in deprived communities. The role of carer is often left to grandparents and we have to consider ways of supporting them far more. Praise should be given to Al-Anon, which is the sister organisation to Alcoholics Anonymous and which does much work with the families of alcoholics.

I have given just an indication of what we need to do. However, it is often through the voluntary sector and the individuals whom I have mentioned that we can help to build up the support networks that addicts so badly need, whatever they are addicted to.