Alcohol misuse can’t be ignored, write Fiona Ryan, Director of Alcohol Action Ireland

Friday, June 22, 2012

The role of alcohol in the abuse of children must urgently be addressed, writes Fiona Ryan

Fiona Ryan, Director of Alcohol Action Ireland
Fiona Ryan, Director of Alcohol Action Ireland

LESS than 48 hours after a report detailing how the State failed once again to look after children in its care might seem too soon to contemplate what we need to do to ensure this never happens again. Children are dead, families are devastated.

Eventually we will have to move from “how could this have happened again?” to “how can we make sure this doesn’t happen again?” This is not an attempt to dilute the bitter backwash of this report. To do that would be to dishonour the memory of these children and the complexity of their lives and their deaths.

The authors of the report, Norah Gibbons and Dr Geoffrey Shannon, have done an admirable job in honouring and representing this complexity, which is why the following statement is so stark:

“In reviewing many of the case histories which are the subject of this report the ICDRG cannot help but be struck by the adverse consequences for the welfare of many of these children posed by alcohol. In some but by no means all of the cases alcohol contributed to children being exposed from their earliest years to poor parenting, neglect, abuse and psychological trauma. Some of these children and young people never recovered and went on themselves to engage in problematic alcohol and substance misuse.”

When the Review Group looked at issues prevalent in the lives of children who had died they found:

* Alcohol in the home was an issue in one-third (37) of the 112 cases of unnatural deaths reviewed.

* Alcohol in the home as an issue was twice as prevalent as other drugs (19) in these cases.

* Alcohol was the second most prevalent issue overall, behind neglect, which was an issue in 44 of the 112 cases.

The Review Group also found that authorities closed files on children where there was ongoing alcohol and drug abuse in their families. What this points to is a systemic failure on the part of the State to safeguard the wellbeing and welfare of children. It also points to an ongoing problem with the State failing to recognise the impact of parental substance misuse, alcohol and drugs on children.

One in seven children in care are there because of parental substance misuse. An estimated one in 11 children are living with a parent with alcohol problems, which does not mean that there are child welfare and protection concerns in all these cases, as many parents work to both recover and parent.

However, for a significant number of children, their emotional and physical wellbeing is being jeopardised. At home today they will be facing actual abuse and neglect ”” going hungry, called names, given responsibility for younger siblings.

Reducing the harm to children from parental alcohol and drug misuse needs to become a major objective of child welfare policy and practice and not a marginal issue.

We need to develop a properly planned, integrated, systemic, effective and accountable response where the welfare and wellbeing of the child is paramount for all children but recognises the specific complexities of families where alcohol and drug misuse is prevalent.

Minister Frances Fitzgerald’s commitment to work with Minister Roisín Shortall “on progressing a fresh new approach to identifying and addressing the hidden harm posed by substance misuse” is to be welcomed.

We have a blue print to at least start with: The “Hidden Harm” action plan in Northern Ireland has been specifically drafted to help families with substance misuse problems. Whatever action we take after this report, one thing is sure: denial is no longer an option.

* Fiona Ryan is the director of Alcohol Action Ireland