Children living with problem drinking parents “invisible”

There are an estimated 61,000 to 104,000 children in Ireland under the age of 15 living with parents who have problems with alcohol whether alcohol-dependent/alcoholics, regular heavy drinkers or occasional binge drinkers.   It is hard to imagine that enough children to fill 150 primary schools could be invisible but effectively they are.

The estimated statistics were not collected by Irish sources, they are the work of a European NGO which used a Danish medical survey to calculate the lower estimate and a Finnish study for the upper limit. The figures do stand up when compared with countries that have similar drinking patterns to our own – Scotland and England where it is estimated that one in 10 children is affected by a parent’s problem drinking. Both in England and Scotland, the issue of children living with problem drinking parents has been a national policy priority as a result of child welfare and protection considerations.  

Why then is there no Irish estimate for the number of children in Ireland living in families adversely affected by alcohol?  

The first step to making a difference for these children is to make sure they are recognised and visible to the politicians and policy-makers, the people who create policy and develop services. On a basic level we need to know how many of these children are living in families adversely affected by alcohol and what their needs are. Alcohol Action Ireland is currently compiling an Ireland country report for an EU study on children affected by parental alcohol problems. The report from each country, due out at the end of the year, will be grouped and analysed by social researchers at Brunel University in the UK who will then identify emerging issues, best practice, gaps and barriers as well as ways forward.  

What our research has so far revealed is a real lack of information on these children and their families. There are opportunities to extend our knowledge of what is happening for these children by incorporating questions into already existing national sources of data such as: the national Survey of Lifestyles, Attitudes and Nutrition; the Childcare Interim Dataset, which includes data on cases reported to HSE social workers and their outcomes, as well as data on children in care; the Garda PULSE system; children’s charities.

Figures and policies do not convey the reality of what life is like for a child living in a family where parents have alcohol problems. For a child, parental drinking can shape their every moment from the time they wake up to the time they go to bed. Will Mam drink today/will Dad drink today? What mood will they be in? Will it mean sweets or going to bed hungry? Or will they be so hung-over that you have to wash your own school uniform even though you are only 10-years-old? The child might well have to become the main carer in the family, effectively the parent.   

Alcohol Action Ireland was recently told of the case of a distraught 15-year-old who was stranded at two o’clock in the morning in a petrol station forecourt looking after her mother who was drunk and two younger children, one of whom was in a buggy. We do not know what happened to that girl, her mother or the little children whether they got the help they so obviously needed.  

What we do know is that a family situation can deteriorate to the extent where children are neglected and abused – dirty nappies going unchanged, children going without regular meals. In a recent national survey on domestic abuse, alcohol was named as a trigger for violence in one in three of the most severe cases. Children are frequently the silent witnesses to this type of abuse which is a form of emotional abuse of children. Interestingly, a recent survey on attitudes to domestic abuse commissioned by the National Office for the Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based violence, asked people the reasons for not reporting domestic abuse: 88% said they thought they should not get involved in other people’s business while three out of four said it might mean the children being taken away from the family.  

The State does partially respond to these children’s needs by providing a cross-section of services but these do not appear to “join-up”. So even when families do engage with services, where they exist, the way that services are structured can mean childcare services focussing on the child’s needs and alcohol treatment services focussing on the parents. It appears that neither service sees the family as a whole and the central fact of problem parental alcohol use in the context of the family is not actually tackled.  

At the start of December, Alcohol Action Ireland organised a seminar for charities and NGOs, academics and others working in the area to explore ways of how we can move forward on this issue. It was the same day that a leading supermarket chain announced it would be selling a bottle of beer for 83c – cheaper than a bar of chocolate in the same shop.   

By Fiona Ryan, CEO of Alcohol Action Ireland.

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