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Alcohol implicated in one third of child deaths or serious injuries

Parental Alcohol Misuse was implicated in more than a third of child deaths or serious injury, a report has stated.

Between 2011 and 2014, Parental Alcohol Misuse was implicated in 37% of cases involving the death or serious injury of a child through neglect or abuse in England, a report commissioned by the All Party Parliamentary Group of Children of Alcoholics found.

The report also referred to a 2011 study which found that more than 60 per cent of care applications in England involved the misuse of alcohol and/or drugs. PAM is associated with impacts on children’s mental and physical health. Reviews of studies identify increased risk of obesity, eating disorders, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, as well as of hospital admissions and injuries.

“Parental Alcohol Misuse (PAM) can negatively affect children’s physical and mental health, and other outcomes including educational attainment and behaviour. Effects can be acute when experienced in conjunction with other adverse experiences such as domestic abuse, marital conflict, and deprivation. PAM is a common feature in child protection and care proceedings, and places a considerable burden on social services,” said the report.

Estimates of the total number of children affected by PAM vary widely according to sources and definitions used but figures are likely to be underestimates as respondents generally under-report alcohol consumption. Analysis of data from two large surveys from 2014 estimated between 189,000 and 208,000 children live with an alcohol dependent adult, of which 14,000 live with two alcohol-dependent adults. In addition, data from Public Health England and the Office for National Statistics suggest that in 2016, 15,500 children in England lived with an adult receiving treatment for alcohol dependence.

The services that are available for children affected by PAM vary throughout the country as each local authority has different needs. A Freedom of Information request by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for the Children of Alcoholics (COA) to local authorities in England found that none of the 138 respondents had a specific strategy to support children affected by PAM.

The report highlights how PAM can disrupt everyday routines and lead to inconsistent and unpredictable parenting. Research with children living with alcohol-dependent parents has found that:

  • Many children report feeling socially isolated.
  • Many children and are reluctant to seek help due to feelings of stigma, shame and guilt about not wanting to betray parents.
  • Calls to helplines reveal the chronic worry and fear experienced by children living with PAM.
  • Children may have to care for the affected parent or younger siblings which can negatively impact school attendance and homework.
  • 18% of children reported feeling embarrassed by seeing their parent drunk.
  • 15% reported disrupted bedtime routines as a result of their parents’ drinking.

Family-focused services have been shown to improve outcomes for the alcohol misuser as well as children, and to be cost effective. Interventions which target both parenting practices and substance misuse aim to improve family functioning and reduce family conflict in order to protect children. There have been few well-evaluated studies in the UK, but initial findings suggest this approach improves family communication, cohesion, and child well-being.

It has been suggested that the Government give greater attention to the effects of PAM on children. For example, the APPG for COA recommended that a national strategy for affected children be produced. There should be an increase in the available support for families affected by different parental alcohol consumption levels, improving multiagency working, and more training for professionals, including those in schools. There should be increased awareness amongst children, parents, practitioners and wider communities about the impact of alcohol misuse and available support.

Regarding the evidence and data, recommendations include improving data collection on the families accessing support and more robust evaluation of services targeted towards families and children affected by PAM; better evidence on under-represented groups, the impact of different levels and patterns of alcohol consumption, and the relationship between PAM and issues such as domestic violence.

The research briefing is available here


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