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Many of us involved in care proceedings in the provinces have looked at the Family Drugs and Alcohol Court in London and Drug in London with envy. They seem so sensible and humane and so at odds with the reality of life for most children lawyers. By the way, I write this from the perspective of a children law specialist with some 30 years’ experience and with much of my time spent working with drug addicted parents and their children.
My court covers six local authority areas around Reading. It is extremely busy considering the relatively small area and population covered. The six areas are uniquely diverse ranging from extreme suburban affluence, rural communities through to culturally diverse urban sprawl.
To understand the issues it is important to look at how drug addicted parents get caught in the social care net as, in my experience, not all do. I often get clients asking ‘Why us?’ when their neighbours (‘… crackheads beating up their children daily… ’) don’t. There is a huge element of chance at play. Typically such parents come to the authority’s attention because; their baby is born showing drug withdrawal; they are raided by the police; they are already known to children’s services as care leavers; their child has suffered harm as a result of drugs or lack of supervision; or, occasionally, through anti-natal referral when none of the of above apply. It follows therefore that where the children are older the opportunities for referral decrease, although other agency may become involved because the child displays behavioural issues as a result of their parents prioritisation of their drug usage.
Interestingly in my most recent cases few instances of non-accidental inflicted injury are drug related.
In the urban areas parents coming to the attention of authorities usually results in care proceedings being started. This is not always the case elsewhere. The proceedings follow an all too familiar route of removal, assessment and placement in alternative care. There appears to be little co-ordination of approach even within the same authority. The drugs agencies are suspicious of children’s services and are frequently seen to be at loggerheads. The agencies themselves are not co-ordinated and different agencies deal with different drugs. There appears to be little attempt to understand the nature of drug usage and the impact this has upon parenting capacity. As a result a one-size-fits-all culture has developed and there is little differentiation between a 25-year old amphetamine user, a maintained heroin addict and a chaotic poly drug abuser. The focus of intervention is the drug usage rather than the child care.
In drug cases the burden of proof appears to be subtly shifted, instead of the authority proving a likelihood of significant harm it seems to be accepted that the fact of drug usage places the burden upon the parent to prove that they can parent. It is left to those of us acting for parents to obtain expert assessments and engage the drug agencies. We have to suggest residential assessments and make applications the court for these. Drug users face stereotypical responses that do not necessarily match the individual.
The problem is made worse by geographical issues. One authority may adopt a zero tolerance policy to the issue whilst another a hundred yards further down the road may take a more considered approach. One authority may use pre-proceedings meetings to try to work with parents in a spirit of partnership and another may go straight into the proceedings. There is an increasing tendency towards emergency protection order where the newborn child is still in hospital.
The recent government and media responses to the report that only 60 babies were adopted last year will only increase pressures. I have heard people who should know better say there is too much emphasis upon the rights of parents, but those of us who work for both parents and children know that at present the balance is about right and if anything is weighted too far in favour of local authorities. Drug parents may well be even more in the firing line now.
Not all drug abusers are bad parents, not all drug abusers are incapable of change and not all children brought up by drug abusers become criminals, wasters and abusers. The key test is the ability of the parents to prioritise their children’s needs. Many drug users are more able to do this than they are given credit for.