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The child victims of our drugs problem

By 30 April 2012One Comment

Between 250,000 and 300,000 UK children are estimated to be exposed to drug abuse in the home.  Some 60,000 Scottish under-16s live with a substance abusing adult.  There is evidence of parental substance abuse in 57% of social work case reviews of child abuse.  25% of children on child protection registers are registered because of parental drug or alcohol abuse.  In Scotland in the late 1980s there were 9,000 known drug addicts.  Today there are 33,000.  These figures were revealed at a recent Glasgow University conference on the impact of substance misuse on children’s educational attainment.
Joyce Nicholson, of Glasgow University stated that to tackle the issues of drug and substance abuse in Scotland we also require to tackle poverty and inequality which are fundamentally linked to drug abuse. Securing the educational attainment of children from drug abusing families however, requires, first and foremost, safeguarding their welfare.  Such children are characterised by neglect, poor attendance, lateness, undone homework, concentration problems, anxiety, attention-seeking behaviour and bullying, both as perpetrators and as victims.  The harm they are suffering is frequently however hidden, indeed often self-hidden.  To safeguard children’s welfare, teachers require to be trained to spot the symptoms.
Glasgow GP, Dr Douglas Robertson, robustly advocated the maintenance of the methadone programme.  In Glasgow between 1986 and 1994, seven young adults died from drug overdoses.  Since the introduction of the methadone programme in 1994 there have been no such deaths.  He also suggested that the methadone programme gave GPs a control over addicts which made practical an insistence that addicts’ children were brought for regular medical checks, that family addiction clinics could operate and that weapons would not be brought into them.  He could even insist that addicts treated himself and his staff with courtesy.  He reminded the conference that addicts, like all other human beings, knew shame and regret and many wanted to recover.  Recovery is possible but requires three preconditions: a positive decision to change, support to change and employment.

Sarah Wilson, of Stirling University, described the reality of family life for such children.  They faced regular and recurring crises in households characterised by angry exchanges and continual shouting.  Parents often seek to hide their drug use from their children, convincing themselves that what is not seen is not comprehended.  In fact such children, especially the older children, frequently understand the reality only too clearly and attempt to protect younger siblings from it.  As a result such older siblings often find it hard to prioritise their own needs as they assume the carer role for the younger family members and even for parents
Their great aims are normality, safety and security, occasionally found in extended family networks.  In school what is often required above all else is a place of quiet safety and a trustworthy, supportive, listening  adult.  School transitions, especially from primary to secondary, but also from school to school, can be particularly difficult since such moves often lead to the loss of trusted individuals and painfully-created relationships.  Schools require to link with wider family networks to help sustain the child through these traumatic years.
Fraser Shaw, a consultant psychiatrist, spelled out that impaired patterns of parental care and unpredictable routines led to early behavioural and emotional problems in children and increased risk of emotional and physical neglect and of abuse.  These children suffered repeated patterns of separation and shouldered inappropriately high responsibilities.  Their subsequent difficulties in developing good, supportive peer relationships meant that they were more likely to become involved in criminal activity and  to misuse substances themselves.
Clinical psychologist, Patricia Mooney, advocated priority strategies to support such families and such children: parent skills training for the adults, play therapy to compensate for the lack of nurturing for the younger children, and social support, the teaching of coping skills and the provision of a specific trusting adult for all such children.
Despite its title, the conference offered little on how to raise the educational attainment of children in substance misusing families.  That may be partly because of the total dearth of practicing teachers among the speakers.  It did however describe the problems and the issues in gripping and graphic terms.

The above article was first published as  a guest editorial in SecEd on 6 January 2011:;type_uid=7;

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