Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Children of Drug Abusers

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 5:23 pm on 16th September 2004.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of John Swinburne John Swinburne SSCUP 5:23 pm, 16th September 2004

I thank Trish Godman for returning this issue to the Parliament following my related kinship care debate last session.

Last year's "Hidden Harm" report highlighted the needs of the children of problem drug users in Scotland and estimated that between 40,800 and 58,700 children in Scotland had a parent who was a problem drug user. As a result of the illicit nature of drug use, it is likely that those figures are underestimates, but they represent between 4 and 6 per cent of children under 16, which is double the figure in England and Wales.

The statistics are simply terrifying, but what are the individual experiences of some of those children? Drug agencies insist that parents with substance abuse problems are not necessarily bad parents, but few children brought up in the chaotic world of an addict will escape entirely unharmed. A consultant clinical psychologist who runs a drug clinic said:

"Children like predictable, stable environments, and you can't have that if mummy or daddy is being intoxicated or suffering withdrawal symptoms. The long-term consequences can be damaging for the child."

Parental drug or alcohol misuse was involved in 40 per cent of the cases that came before children's panels in 2002. Children of parents whose lives are dominated by drug misuse will have their lives also dominated by it. They endure risks such as needle injury, accidental drug consumption and threats of violence and abuse from dealers who visit the home. They also experience social deprivation, poverty and exclusion, as the parent's life becomes dominated by the search for drugs, which results in a decline in the adult's parenting capacity and the child being neglected or going without.

The instability of life in a family affected by drug abuse can lead to psychological problems in the children and personality disorders that manifest themselves in impulsive behaviour and, perhaps, self-harm. Research has shown that routine activities such as eating and sleeping become wholly unpredictable, and children whose parents are having problems finding drugs are obviously more vulnerable.

We must also bear in mind the emotional effects of parents' drug use, including the stigma of belonging to a so-called junkie family. However, the worst effect is perhaps that caused by broken promises when parents say that they will give up their addiction and then for whatever reason are unable to do so.

The "Hidden Harm" report provided us with a powerful message. I thank Professor McKeganey and his team at the centre for drug misuse for their work on the issue. The majority of agencies and services currently deal with users' problems and do not even request information about dependants. As a result, I believe that all drug treatment agencies should record data about the children of their clients and meet their needs directly or through referral to or liaison with other services.

These situations are also having an effect on the health and life expectancy of grandparents who look after grandchildren affected by this problem. We cannot imagine the effect on children of losing their grandparents after losing their own parents to a drug overdose. Indeed, grandparents have told me about the type of behaviour that their grandchildren have exhibited in their care. For example, one grandmother was appalled when her granddaughter was able to point out the house where her mummy got her "medicine".

One of our ministers knows that many Scottish local authorities are failing to meet the needs of these children and grandparents, because I facilitated a meeting between him and grandparents whose lives have been seriously changed as a result of the drug problems of their sons or daughters. This Executive is continually stating that it has an obligation to ensure the welfare of Scotland's children. I again plead with the Executive: if we cannot rid our society of drug abuse, the Executive must stop hiding behind local authorities' autonomy and do its duty by these children.