“Hidden Harm” Action Plan needed for children in families with parental alcohol and drug problems: denial no longer an option

One in 11 children living in families with parental alcohol problems

Alcohol Action Ireland, the national charity for alcohol-related issues, today urged the Government to adopt a child welfare and protection strategy specifically for families with alcohol and drug problems similar to the “Hidden Harm” action plans operating in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

The charity made its call for a “Hidden Harm” Action Plan following on today’s report of the Independent Child Death Review which reported ongoing drug and alcohol abuse within the families of some of the children who had died, putting children at risk.

Alcohol Action Ireland Director Fiona Ryan said: “While we take the time to stop and remember these children and their families – it is also worth considering what could have been and the changes that are badly needed in order to make sure the chances of this happening again are significantly reduced if not altogether eliminated.

“Parents want to do the best for their children but parental alcohol and drugs problems can and do have a serious impact on parenting capacity and a child’s welfare and safety – one in seven children in State care is there as a result of parental substance misuse problems.

“One of the key lessons from this report has to be: reducing the harm to children from parental alcohol and drug misuse has to become a major objective of policy and practice and not a marginal issue. We need a strategy similar to the Hidden Harm Action Plans operating in Northern Ireland and Scotland in order to develop a properly planned, integrated, systemic, effective and accountable response where the welfare and well being of the child is paramount.”

In Northern Ireland, approximately 40% of children on the child protection register are there as a direct result of parental substance misuse and they estimated there are 40,000 children in Northern Ireland living with parental alcohol problems. Ms Ryan highlighted one of the key challenges in developing a planned, integrated, systemic, effective and accountable response was the lack of basic data on children negatively affected by parental alcohol and drug problems.

Shockingly, we do not have even the most basic information on prevalence of the problem and this is in a country where we have one of the highest binge drinking rates in the world and one of the highest proportion of children per population in Europe. It is estimated that in Europe alcohol is a causal factor in one in six cases of child abuse and neglect.”

Ms Ryan said that as a result, Alcohol Action Ireland and other charities had over the years have commissioned research in order to gauge the extent of the problem.   A national children’s charity had surveyed 10,000 children and found that one in 11 children is currently being affected by parental alcohol problems. Children report experiencing emotional abuse, anxiety and inappropriate levels of care responsibility i.e. looking after younger brothers and sisters. The experiences tallied with Alcohol Action Ireland’s commissioned research of adult recollections’ of parental drinking during childhood which found that the equivalent of 71,000 people said they frequently felt afraid or anxious during childhood due to parental drinking, while one in 12 reported witnessing parental conflict linked to alcohol and a significant number had responsibility for siblings.

“The impact of parental alcohol problems on children has been denied or ignored on a societal and state level, yet these children are often leading lives of quiet desperation, unseen and unheard by authorities, unsure who they can turn to. They get our attention only when the most extreme cases come to light and we prefer to think of these as isolated incidents. It is time we recognise that we have a real and on-going problem with parental alcohol and drug problems in families.”

Alcohol Action Ireland was a member of the steering group of the National Substance Misuse Strategy whose report recommends a “Hidden Harm” type Action Plan for the Republic of Ireland as well as children being able to access services in their own right.


Notes to the Editor:

Background to Hidden Harm

Hidden Harm is a term used to describe the lives of children and young people affected by parental drug and alcohol problems.

“These children can suffer in silence; their circumstances are often not known to services; they often do not know where to turn for help; and the impact of their parents’ substance misuse has a deep and long-lasting impact on their lives, which may not fully emerge until young adulthood and beyond.”[1]

Following a three year inquiry, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs in the UK published a report in 2003 entitled Hidden Harm: responding the needs of children of problem drug users, alcohol was included under drugs. The key messages of the report were as follows:

 · it is estimated that there is about one child for every problem drug misuser in the UK

 · parental problem drug misuse, can and does, cause serious harm to children at every age from conception to adulthood

 · reducing the harm to children from parental drug misuse should become a major objective of policy and practice

 · effective treatment of the parent can have major benefits for the child

 · by working together, services can take many practical steps to protect and improve the health and well-being of affected children

Hidden Harm Action Plans developed for Northern Ireland and Scotland

Some of the guiding principles of the Northern Ireland “Hidden Harm” Action Plan in working with children born to and/ or living with parental alcohol and drug misuse are:

 · The welfare of the child should be the paramount consideration

 · A shared commitment and response to the issue including inter-agency working

 · A focus on prevention and early identification minimises the risk of crisis or tragedy occurring in the lives of children affected

 · Not all families affected by substance misuse will experience difficulties –routine screening and assessment will help determine those who are

 · Parental Substance Misuse may have significant and damaging consequences for children and it is important that proper planning and service provision is in place

General on children affected by alcohol problems in Europe

 · Approximately 9 million children in the European Union are affected by their parents’ drinking problems[i] . These children suffer from neglect, feelings of shame and self-blaming for their parents’ addiction and from continuous conflicts at home. Many children and young people have to witness and suffer violence[ii] .

 · It is estimated that in Europe, alcohol is a causal factor in 16% of child abuse and neglect cases[iii] .

[i] Anderson, P. and   Baumberg, B., 2006. Alcohol in Europe. London: Institute of Alcohol Studies.

[ii] as in i

[iii] as in i

For further information or comment contact: Conor Cullen 087 2195723/ 01 878 0610

[1] PHA/HSBC Hidden Harm Action Plan: Responding to the Needs of Children Born to and Living with Parental Alcohol and Drug Misuse in Approved by DHSSPS October 2009