Helping Children whose Caregivers Use Drugs

A Pompidou Group’s project aims at identifying current policies and opportunities in order to give children and caregivers the support they need

Boy alone

Parental substance use or dependence can severely impact children’s health and development,leading to poorer academic functioning, isolation, behavioural and social problems, and an earlier onset of substance use – Photo by Nicolò Canu on Unsplash

By Corina Giacomello – Children[1] who live in families where harmful drug use or dependence takes place, may experience neglect, violence, poor parental performance and exposure to the unsupervised contact with substances. Often, they have to assume parenting responsibility prematurely and, as a result, they may feel confused, rejected, burdened and unable to trust parents.

Assuming parenting responsibilities as a child

These children often feel shame and, at the same time, they feel responsible for “saving” their parents, a sentiment which may turn into loneliness and silence in order to avoid stigma and to spare their parents from social services’ interventions and the risk of being separated from their families. Seemingly, parents who experience drug dependence can face challenges in their parenthood but may not know how, or wish, to call for help. Lack of information, fear of stigma or criminalization, solitude and past or present negative experiences with services can hinder the process of undertaking a therapeutic path. Women can encounter particularly high social, structural and cultural barriers in accessing treatment, especially when they have young children and are their sole or primary caregivers.

Children at higher risk of health and social problems

While “it has become well accepted that children of substance misusers, compared to their peers whose parents do not misuse substances, are at heightened risk of experiencing a range of health, social and psychological problems”[2], policymakers, public institutions and social services in the fields of welfare, child protection and drug treatment, are not always aware of the challenges faced by children and their caregivers.

Studying current approaches targeting children

Since November 2020, the Pompidou Group of the Council of Europe[3] has been developing a research aimed at studying the current legal and operational approaches targeted at children living in families with dependence to substance use, as well as parents in drug treatment services in order to address this topic, share existing practices and develop policy proposals.

Between November 2020 and January 2021, the Pompidou Group carried out a preliminary assessment, based on 16 Pompidou Group countries’ responses to a questionnaire, literature review – including international normative and standards – and quantitative data. This project was proposed in response to the Council of Europe’s invitation to the Pompidou Group Secretariat to participate in the Inter-Secretariat Task Force on Children’s Rights to contribute to the discussions on the themes which should appear in the new Council of Europe  Strategy on the Rights of the Child (2022-2027).

Participation of an array of governmental organisations, NGOs and other actors

In February 2021 began the second phase of the project which counts with the participation of eleven countries[4] . The countries have been engaged in intra-states as well as national focus groups[5] and semi-structured collective and individual interviews[6] have been carried out with governmental and non-governmental institutions and organisations in the fields of social welfare services, child protection, legal and judicial services, drug treatment services – including women-only services – shelters for women victims of violence and who use drugs and experts in the field of data gathering.

The findings and recommendations of the research will be included in a report to be presented to the Pompidou Group’s Permanent Correspondents at the end of October, which will also be the time  for Pompidou Group to celebrate its 50th Anniversary along with a new name : Council of Europe International Cooperation Group on Drugs and Addictions.

Issues and challenges detected

Some of the challenges detected in the first months of the project are: i) lack of integrated, shared data that allow to estimate how many children are affected by parental drug misuse and thus build targeted public policy interventions; ii) the compartmentation of services often leads to gaps of attention; iii) drug treatment services – in general – maintain a clinical, individual-centred approach aimed at treating dependence and not taking into account parental responsibilities; iv) stigma and uninformed mentalities around drugs and drug use sometimes intervene in how social services’ perceive people who use drugs and assess their parental skills.

Inspiring practices also identified

Despite of gaps, promising and inspiring practices have been collected across countries, such as: i) interventions specifically aimed at children whose parents and caregivers use drugs; ii) shelters for women who are victims and survivors of violence who accept women who use drugs; iii) drug treatment services, including therapeutic communities, where women can stay with their children; iv) holistic interventions aimed at strengthening the family, while working with the children and the adults, in the attempt to preserve the family unity and overcome vulnerabilities.

The mosaic of interventions that the Pompidou Group is gathering through the collaborative, generous and enthusiastic participation of multiple stakeholders will be of use for policymakers and actors at the international, national and local level, with the aim to impact over families and children’s lives.


[1] The terms child and children are used to refer to “every human being below the age of eighteen years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier”, as defined by article 1 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

[2] Horgan, J. (2011) Parental Substance Misuse: Addressing its Impact on Children. A Review of the Literature (Dublin: NACD),


[4] In alphabetical order: Croatia, Cyprus, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, Poland, Romania, Switzerland and Turkey.

[5] Croatia, Cyprus, Iceland, Ireland and Italy.

[6] These have been carried out virtually in nine countries: Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Mexico and Switzerland.