How Does Parental Drug Use Affect Children?

These children are at increased risk of adverse consequences including medical, social, psychological and behavioral problems

Child with hands on misted window

Children whose parents use drugs are referred to as the hidden harm of drug use disorders and of stigmatizing and criminalizing drug policy – Photo: Shutterstock

By Lucía Goberna – At the margins of the 65º annual session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs Dianova organized a side event on “Children and families affected by parental drug use: current gaps and promising practices” to bring this issue into the agenda and put forward interventions and concrete recommendations on how to improve the situation of the children concerned.

The event took place on 17th March 2022 and with 139 registered participants. It was chaired by Florence Mabileau  (Pompidou Group) and co-sponsored by the governments of Croatia and Italy, the Association Proyecto Hombre, the Council of Europe – Pompidou Group, and the San Patrignano Foundation.

Scroll down this page to view the event’s video, and download speakers’ presentations

An invisible population

Children whose parents or caregivers use alcohol or other drugs are at increased risk of short- and long-term adverse consequences ranging from medical problems to social, psychological and behavioural challenges, e.g. they are more likely than other children to have lower socioeconomic status, they face increased difficulties in academic and social settings, and they may experience direct effects such as parental abuse or neglect.

Yet, despite being in often dire situations, these children are often buried in silence because of shame and stigma, and because their parents or caregivers lack information on the resources available to receive support.

Parents have to face the double challenge of parenthood and drug dependence. They don’t know who to turn to for help and tend to live with the fear to have their guardianship revoked or to be liable to penalties should they disclose their substance use problem. As a result, they tend to delay seeking support, while their substance use problems become more and more central to the family dynamics.

Children illustration

Event’s flyer image – click here to view flyer

Pompidou Group study: recommendations for member states and drug treatment programmes

At the event, speakers explored the issue through various perspectives and presented complementary practices. Corina Giacomello presented a study conducted by the Pompidou Group on children whose parents use drugs. The study focused on programmes, services and practice implemented in 16 countries and identified promising practices and recommendations for member states and substance use treatment services.

Among the main recommendations highlighted by Corina was the need to implement integrated strategies to address the needs of all children concerned at local and national levels. In particular, services need to stop working in silos and engage in open collaboration. Another key element identified is the need to improve data collection and information on children whose parents use drugs, and to facilitate its dissemination to produce better-informed public policies. Finally, she stressed that drug treatment services need to be more responsive to the needs of the children concerned and their parents, for example through the provision of crèches and day care services, through parenting capacity building as an integral part of the programme, and through close follow-up in outpatient services.

The Croatian experience

Dr. Jadranka Ivandić Zimić, of the Croatian Public Health Institute, gave a comprehensive presentation of the Croatian experience in caring for children of drug-using parents. In addition, she highlighted the Croatian state’s policy and practices vis-à-vis drugs and how the different stakeholders work together, and described the target groups and their families.

She also mentioned the limitations of prevention programmes for these children and their families. As she stated, specific prevention programmes can also have negative consequences in that they can indirectly contribute to the stigmatisation of these children.

It is key to strengthen the individual approach and to provide professional assistance in preschool and school institutions. In any case, the focus should not be to remove custody of children but to encourage parents on their road to recovery, to help them become better parents, and to keep the family nucleus.

Speakers at the event

Speakers at the side event, from top left: Ana Trudov, Lucía Goberna, Dr. Jadranka Ivandić Zimić, Corina Giacomello, Florence Mabileau, Monica Barzanti, Dr. Gisela Rodriguez, Catherine Comiskey – Screenshot from event

Useful resources for addiction treatment services

Catherine Comiskey explained how to work with children whose parents use drugs through a very clear and practical intervention. She covered aspects such as how to estimate prevalence and get to know how serious the problem is, how to identify risk and protective factors (with tools such as Responses to the needs of children of people who use drugs by the EMCDDA). Moreover, Catherine described the characteristics of effective programmes in this field and gave participants information on the evaluation of prevention programmes (see EMCDDA’s XChange registry), and e-learning portals for addiction treatment, such as “Identifying and Responding to Drug and Alcohol Addiction in Nursing, Midwifery and Allied Healthcare Practice”.

Addressing children’s rights in addiction services

Gisela Hansen presented the study and infographic prepared by Dianova on how to protect the rights of children affected by parental substance use, as a guide for addiction services. Gisela focused on three concrete aspects:  the challenge for professional, faced with their obligation to protect children, while supporting their parents; the need to improve gender mainstreaming in services; and how crucial it is to respond quickly and effectively to children’s rights violations. Finally, Gisela outlined some recommendation on the way forward for addiction services.

Presentation of an intensive care programme in Italy

Monica Barzanti presented an intensive care programme designed to prevent the institutionalization of children living in vulnerable families. The Programme of Intervention for Prevention of Institutionalization, or P.I.P.P.I (inspired by Pippi Longstocking, a fictional character whose creativity and resilience are famous worldwide) was designed by the Italian Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs and the University of Padua and it resulted in the publication of national guidelines on “the intervention with children and families in vulnerable situation” in 2017. Every family concerned has the right to access this programme free of charge.

Among other innovative key components, the programme relies on a multidisciplinary team and the active participation of children and families in the evaluation and decision-making progress (World of the Child Tool).

On behalf of Dianova, we would like to thank the speakers for their excellent contributions. We are glad that this issue is gaining more attention from the academia, public authorities and NGOs, as in was addressed in numerous occasions during the course of the CND65.

Video of the event