Donna Ribton-Turner, Director of Clinical Services at UnitingCare ReGen argues that we need a more complex approach to supporting families dealing with alcohol and drug problems.
Alcohol and other drug (AOD) use is a topic that tends to generate passionate public debate. Problematic AOD use by parents (particularly of illicit drugs) is one issue that typically acts as a lightning rod for popular opinion, with the common perception that AOD-using parents must be ‘bad parents’ and a threat to their children. The reality, of course, is not so simple.
In “Best chance for addict’s kids lies in adoption” (The Australian, Feb 20) John Hirst wrote about how to respond to the ‘vexed question of how to treat the children of drug addicts’. While Hirst clearly has the wellbeing of children at heart, his piece shows little appreciation for complexities involved, or the capacity for parents to change their behaviour. His passionate, but simplistic, position is that substance-using parents will never change and that their children need to be protected from them.
Once an ‘addict’, always an ‘addict’, apparently.
Another example of biased reporting in this area is the presentation of a recent US study on the impact parental communication with adolescent children about their own AOD use. The study found that children whose parents disclosed their own history in the context of discussions about alcohol, tobacco and cannabis use, were less likely to demonstrate ‘anti-drug attitudes’.
While there are a range of potential qualifications of these findings (some of which have been acknowledged by the study’s authors), local and international reporting of focussed on messages such as “Study says sharing your drug history with your kids is a recipe for disaster” (News.com.au, Feb 26). The complexities of raising adolescents and teaching them to make informed, healthy decisions was lost in a stampede of ‘just say no’ headlines.
It is hard to imagine many parents feeling more clear about their parenting strategies as a result of this coverage. Nor any young people feeling that being lied to by their parents during discussion of such important matters will help them make good decisions.
ReGen is a not-for-profit AOD treatment and education agency with over 40 years experience delivering a comprehensive range of AOD services to the community. Our experience has shown the powerful benefits that can be achieved in working together with families to strengthen the family unit, protect vulnerable members and support sustainable behavioural change.
While there is still much that can be done to improve the systemic response to the needs of vulnerable and ‘at risk’ children, introducing simplistic responses to complex issues is unlikely to produce lasting benefits for any of those affected. Yes, there are cases in which removal of children from AOD-dependent parents is the most appropriate outcome (for all concerned), but the great majority require a more nuanced approach that recognises both the strengths and vulnerabilities of affected families.
AOD dependence does not occur in isolation. Typically, it is one of a range of possible factors affecting families’ functioning and is not the sole determinant of children’s present and future wellbeing.
Our work with vulnerable families confirms that, for many parents, recognising their responsibilities to their children is a powerful motivator to seek help. Our approach is to provide families with holistic supports that address risk and develop their strengths.
ReGen has recently published a position statement and supporting evidence on the need for further development of Family Inclusive Practice within Australian AOD treatment services. Improved partnerships with protective and specialist family services are essential to build a stronger system for protecting children and supporting parents in Australia.
Increased collaboration and a more consistent approach to identifying and responding to AOD-related harms within families will result in improved protection of vulnerable children and remove parents’ fear of seeking assistance. Simplistic, one-size-fits-all approaches and unenlightened public debate of AOD issues do little to promote a rational and considered discussion of complex issues.
Our families deserve better.