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Children put at risk by parents' alcohol misuse

Parental drinking is a factor in more than a third of child deaths and serious injuries

Ingrid Torjesen

Monday, 12 February 2018

More than a third (37%) of child deaths and serious injuries are linked to neglect by parents who abuse alcohol, a parliamentary report* has found.

The report, published by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology following a request by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Children of Alcoholics says parental alcohol misuse leads to inconsistent and unpredictable parenting, and that almost two thirds (61%) of care applications in England are related to misuse of alcohol and/or drugs by parents or carers. Between 2011-14, parental alcohol misuse was implicated in 37% of cases involving the death or serious injury of a child through neglect or abuse in England.

There are no systematic national data on children affected by parental drinking, but it is estimated that between 189,000 and 208,000 children in England live with an alcohol-dependent adult, while 15,500 children live with an adult receiving treatment for alcohol dependence.

The effects of parental alcohol misuse can start before birth and continue into adult life. Heavy drinking during pregnancy may lead to Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), an under-diagnosed condition that is associated with behavioural and learning difficulties, and increased risk of physical and mental health issues, including eating disorders and depression, and more likely to become involved in crime.

Children living with alcohol-dependent parents report feeling socially isolated, and are reluctant to seek help due to feelings of stigma, shame and guilt about not wanting to betray parents, the report says. Children may have to take on caring responsibilities for the affected parent or younger siblings which can negatively impact school attendance and homework.

The APPG for Children of Alcoholics and the Office of the Children’s Commissioner have called for greater awareness around the effects of parental alcohol misuse among health professionals and those working with children. Recommendations include producing a national strategy, increasing the availability of support for families affected, and improving data collection on families accessing support.

A Freedom of Information investigation found that over half of councils still do not have a strategy to help children of alcoholics, almost all are cutting their budgets for alcohol and drug treatment services, and in more than half referrals to alcohol treatment services are falling.

Liam Byrne MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children of Alcoholics said: “Millions of parents drink too much and their misuse of alcohol causes horrific problems for their children. Parental alcohol misuse scars kids for life and can lead many into a life of drinking too much themselves.”

Byrne, who lost his dad to alcoholism in 2015, said: “Our campaign has now won a new commitment from government for a national strategy to stop parental alcohol misuse. This new report shows just why the government must act fast to put an effective plan in place.”

*Parental Alcohol Misuse and Children. A report prepared by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, February 2018.

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