Considering the impact of parental problem drug use

To be used by practitioners to aid reflective thinking


What is problem drug use?

Problem drug use was defined in Hidden Harm (Home Office 2003) as behaviour that has ‘serious negative consequences of a physical, psychological, social and interpersonal, financial or legal nature for users and those around them’.  Statistically there appears to be an increase in the prevalence of drug misuse and whilst varying rates in different geographical areas in the UK, on average one in four cases of children subject to a child protection plan is thought to involve parental drug misuse.

The prognosis for children in these families is frequently poor; not just in terms of the potential impacts on them within the home but in the chances of being removed from home being significantly increased.  According to the Hidden Harm report less than half the parents with serious drug problem have their children living with them. 

When would you use it?

Whilst the presence of issues which effect parenting capacity do not automatically place children at risk of abuse or neglect, the potential for children to have unmet needs or to be at risk of harm is increased, so it is essential to consider and assess their needs and the impact on them.

Some parents have good support networks and are able to meet their children’s needs.  Some are aware of the potential effect of their behaviours on their children and actively minimise it. However when this is not the case, the impact on children can be serious and long lasting. These can include:

  • Lack of supervision
  • Lack of stimulation, guidance and boundaries
  • Reduced physical care
  • Poor school attendance
  • Anxiety
  • Increased risk of misusing substances or alcohol themselves
  • Becoming a young carer
  • Emotional, behavioural and social problems for children and young people
  • Severe neglect or abuse


Guidelines for considering the risk of harm to children when working with drug using parents

The following guidelines have been adapted from the Standing Conference on Drug Abuse (SCODA) guidelines for professionals (Adaped by J Powell. National Childrens Bureau 2001 in Putting Analysis into assessment, Dalzell and Sawyer, 2011, National Children’s Bureau), and can be used to help aid your thinking, be reflective and gain a picture of parental drug use and potential impact on risk to children and young people.  The information collected falls under the dimensions of the Framework of Assessment of Children in Need and their families.

You may not need to ask these questions directly but rather reflect upon them to inform your own understanding and response.

1. Pattern of parental drug use  

  • Is there a drug-free or supportive partner?
  • Is the drug user stable or chaotic? (i.e. swings between states of intoxications and withdrawal and/or poly-drug use)
  • Is alcohol a part of the repertoire of drug use?
  • Exactly what drugs are used (ask specific questions e.g. refer to yesterday or last weekend)?
  • How much is spent on an average day or week?
  • Have there been any (voluntary) significant drug-free periods?
  • How are the drugs used? 
  • Are there any behavioural implications (e.g: inconsistent behaviour, drowsiness or unavailability)?


2. How the drugs are procured 

  • Are the children left alone while the parents are procuring drugs or getting money to do so?
  • Are the children being taken to places where they could be vulnerable?
  • Where does the money to buy drugs come from?
  • Are the parents frequently arrested?  Are there any outstanding criminal offences yet to be dealt with?  Are the parents on probation?
  • Is the home used for selling drugs stolen items or prostitution?
  • Are the parents allowing the home to be used by other drug users?


3. Health risks  

  • Where are the drugs normally kept?  Could children have access to them?
  • If parents are injecting drugs, are needles shared?  How are syringes or needles disposed of?
  • Do the parents have health problems associated with drug use?
  • Are the parents or children registered with a GP?  Is the GP aware of the drug use?

4. Parents’ perception of the situation 

  • Do parents see their drug use as harmful to themselves or their children?
  • What strategies are used to minimise the impact on the children?
  • Do the parents perceive a difference in their childcare when they are using drugs, as opposed to when they aren’t?

A copy of this Tool is available on request