With children as young as 10 being initiated into drug use by their parents, a new report calls for a family-led approach to addiction
Sharon Simms knows exactly who introduced her to drugs: her own father. During her childhood, his twin weaknesses were Special Brew lager and marijuana. Drug dealers plied their trade from the house she shared with him, and he let heroin addicts inject in the bathroom in return for a spliff or can of beer.
After such experiences, it was little wonder that Sharon ended up drinking at nine and taking solvents at 11, before moving on to marijuana and crack cocaine as a teenager. "My dad got me into drugs," says Simms, now 37. "He had an addiction, which he passed on to me. It's a vicious circle: once children are exposed to drugs, then that's telling them that it's OK to do. Unfortunately, that's the message my dad gave me - that if mum or dad are doing it, it's OK, it's fun. I now know that you should try to protect your kids from it, not expose them to it."
Simms's habit led directly to the three youngest of her six children being taken into care, one of them at just nine days old. She says she was "out of it" so often that she did not make regular meals for her children, get them up in the morning and ensure they got to school on time - or got there at all sometimes - and used their child benefit money to buy crack. Although clean since mid-2004, Simms embodies the vicious circle of intergenerational drug transmission. One of her teenage children now uses marijuana, and Simms fears that it may prove a gateway to harder substances, as it did with her.
Simms's story is grim, but not uncommon. A 2003 report from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs suggested that as many as 350,000 children in the UK are being brought up in a household where one or both parents has a serious drug problem. New research, funded by the Department of Health (DH), shows that such families - especially the children in them - often do not get the help they need to tackle the multiple problems which they both have and create.
Co-authors Brynna Kroll and Andy Taylor, social work academics who recently left Plymouth University to join Artec Enterprise addiction consultants, undertook the work as part of a DH effort to improve drug treatment services. They interviewed 42 children and young people aged between four and 20 who had witnessed parental drug misuse, 47 parents or grandparents who cared for them, and 60 professionals who work with them. Their findings raise serious questions for child welfare, addiction and social work professionals.
"Several children told us how they began using heroin at 12 or 13 after being offered it by their mother, who had said, 'Try this, it will make you feel better', and then took the heroin with their mother," Kroll says. She and Taylor found that while a quarter of those they interviewed aged 10-14 had begun using drugs or alcohol, that figure rose to 50% among those aged between 15 and 17, with one-third of the latter age group using at least one illicit substance. Some become substitute parents to younger siblings.
Interestingly, this was not simple copycat behaviour. Young people who ended up taking drugs themselves did so as both a form of pain management and a way of connecting with a parent who was otherwise "psychologically unavailable and emotionally absent" because their drug habit came before their children. One 15-year-old girl said it made her feel closer to her parents to share their heroin, while a 16-year-old boy said he used cannabis and amphetamine to be like his father.
Most of the young people said they felt themselves to be "invisible", not just to their parents but in case records and to some of the professionals they encountered. They believed that too little help was offered too late, and that not enough was done to help families stay together rather than being separated by care proceedings and fostering.
That, Kroll argues, points to the need for drug services to start focusing on the entire family affected, not just the user. She says: "Professionals should work together better and start developing approaches to this problem that are more holistic, assertive and family-focused, which involve all the family and give the needs of the child as much attention as the parent with the drug problem."
Children in such situations need to be identified earlier, whole families given more help after the parent's addiction has been successfully treated, and all offspring of drug misusing parents viewed as "children in need", given the incompatibility of a drug habit and proper parenting, the report adds.
Alan Booth, a spokesman for Addaction, a drugs and alcohol charity that runs projects tackling intergenerational family addiction, endorses the study's key recommendations. He adds that social work training should include working with drug users, and that local councils need to be much more interventionist with such families.
# Denis Campbell
# The Guardian
# January 14, 2009