Alison Todd: Children have borne brunt of alcohol misuse for too long

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As figures show a rise in those charged with being drunk in charge of a child, Alison Todd examines what needs to be done

My Children 1st worker helped my dad understand how I was feeling and got him to think about what he could do differently. Things are better just now, but if he starts getting annoyed I give him the sign we agreed on that he is to stop and he has to stop.”

This experience of one nine-year-old child is one of hundreds among children we work with who are currently, or have been, affected by their parents’ drinking.

Many Children 1st services support children, young people and their families whose lives have been blighted by alcohol misuse. It’s not just us – the Scottish Government has estimated that alcohol misuse costs at least £230 million every year in social care and Children’s Hearing services.

In 2011, alcohol and/or drugs misuse was a key factor in the lives of approximately a quarter of the children and families we work with and it is estimated that 80,000 children in Scotland are affected by their parents’ harmful drinking. These children are not getting the best start in life due to Scotland’s deep-seated issues with alcohol. Due to our work with vulnerable children, young people and their families, we know that alcohol misuse is both a cause and a symptom of violence, neglect and abuse. For too many, home is not somewhere they feel safe.

Through our national helpline, ParentLine Scotland, we hear from adults concerned about a child as a result of their parents’ drinking habits.

One call taker said: “A man phoned because he was concerned about his grandson’s safety because his daughter binge drinks, sometimes keeping his grandson off school for days and being very unpredictable. There are no signs yet of abuse or neglect but the caller worried that this might start”.

Another caller told us: “My partner gets really aggressive when he has been drinking, I really fear for the kids and me, I need to get out of this situation, but I have nowhere to turn.”

Research shows that where one or more parents misuse alcohol, children in the family are more likely to be victims of abuse or neglect. The most recent government statistics indicate that alcohol was a contributing factor in a quarter of all child protection registrations in Scotland. For too long, children have borne the brunt of our nation’s attitude to alcohol.

And while there has been a series of recent laws and measures to tackle our drinking, Children 1st believes more – much more – needs to be done to minimise its impact on children.

We welcome the proposal to introduce minimum pricing and have supported many of the measures passed in last year’s alcohol Bill, but we also need to ensure that agencies have modern, fit-for-purpose legislative tools to protect children.

Currently, it is only an offence to be drunk in charge of a child in a public place. There is no equivalent specifically protecting children in their own homes. There is a law making it an offence to ill-treat, neglect or abandon a child – or to do anything that makes this happen – and being drunk in charge of a child may qualify under these provisions. But this law was originally passed in 1937. There are robust laws and guidance around the steps police and social work should take to protect a child from harm, including removing a child to a place of safety, but offences, and indeed convictions, for abuse and neglect of children are low.

A review of current legislation and especially the powers available to the police and others to protect children and prosecute those whose drinking harms children is needed.

We must also do more to enable children to recover from the trauma of abuse. Developing “whole family” services that address children’s welfare as well as providing treatment and support for adults would help, as would greater investment in services.

All this and more is needed if we are to stop thousands of children – generations of children – losing out on their childhoods and, indeed, their adulthoods. Research also shows that children who grow up in homes with parents who drink frequently are more likely to start using alcohol at an earlier age. If we can’t change our drinking habits for our own good, then surely we should be doing it for our children. After all, their needs should always come first.

• Alison Todd is director of Children and Family Services at Children 1st