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Parental Drug Use as Child Abuse

Parental Drug Use as Child Abuse

Abuse of drugs or alcohol by parents and other caregivers can have negative effects on the health, safety, and well-being of children.

Approximately 47 States, the District of Columbia, Guam, and the U.S Virgin Islands have laws within their child protection  statutes that address the issue of substance abuse  by parents. Two areas of concern are the harm caused by prenatal drug exposure and the harm caused to children of any age by exposure to illegal drug activity in their homes or environment.

Prenatal Drug Use

The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) requires States to have policies and procedures in place to notify child protective services (CPS) agencies of substance-exposed newborns (SENs) and to establish a plan of safe care for newborns identified as being affected by illegal substance abuse or withdrawal symptoms resulting from prenatal drug exposure.

 Several States currently address this requirement in their statutes. Approximately 19 States and the District of Columbia have specific reporting procedures for infants who show evidence at birth of having been exposed to drugs, alcohol, or other controlled substances; 12 States and the District of Columbia include this type of exposure in their definitions of child abuse or neglect.

Some States specify in their statutes the response the CPS agency must make to reports of SENs. Maine requires the State agency to develop a plan of safe care for the infant. California, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia require the agency to complete an assessment of needs for the infant and for the infant’s family and make a referral to appropriate services. Illinois and Minnesota require mandated reporters to report when they suspect that pregnant women are substance abusers so that the women can be referred for treatment.

Prenatal drug use puts the infant at risk for many developmental delays and disorders. Mothers who use substances while pregnant put their baby at risk for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), alcohol-related neurodevelopment disorder (ARND), and developmental delays. The characteristics of FAS include low birth weight, small head circumference, failure to thrive, epilepsy, poor coordination, behavioral problems, learning difficulties, and poor socialization skills. The affects of FAS are long-term.

Also, ARND causes long-term affects for the infant. The child will show the behavioral and emotional affects of FAS without the developmental delay or physical deficits. Some developmental patterns of children who were exposed to drugs prenatally are feeding difficulties, irritability, delayed language impairment, and unpredictable sleeping patterns. Overall, prenatal drug use affects the infants emotionally, developmentally, physically, and socially.

Children Exposed to Illegal Drug Activity

There is increasing concern about the negative effects on children when parents or other members of their households abuse alcohol or drugs or engage in other illegal drug-related activity, such as the manufacture of methamphetamines in home-based laboratories.

 Many States have responded to this problem by expanding the civil definition of child abuse or neglect toinclude this concern. Specific circumstances that are considered child abuse or neglect in some States include:

  • Manufacturing a controlled substance in the presence of a child or on premises occupied by a child.
  • Exposing a child to, or allowing a child to be present where, chemicals or equipment for the manufacture of controlled substances are used or stored.
  • Selling, distributing, or giving drugs or alcohol to a child.
  • Using a controlled substance that impairs the caregiver’s ability to adequately care for the child
  • Exposing a child to the criminal sale or distribution of drugs  

Approximately 33 States and the U.S. Virgin Islands address in their criminal statutes the issue of exposing children to illegal drug activity. For example, in 20 States the manufacture or possession of methamphetamine in the presence of a child is a felony, while in 9 States, the manufacture or possession of any controlled substance in the presence of a child is considered a felony. Nine States have enacted enhanced penalties for any conviction for the manufacture of methamphetamine when a child was on the premises where the crime occurred.

Exposing children to the manufacture, possession, or distribution of illegal drugs is considered child endangerment in 11 States.

 The exposure of a child to drugs or drug paraphernalia is a crime in eight States and the Virgin Islands.In North Carolina and Wyoming, selling or giving an illegal drug to a child by any person is a felony.

 Children who witness their parents using, distributing, selling, or manufacturing substances have many long-term effects that influence their emotions and behaviors. These children often have an increased risk of suicide and eating disorders.

 Also, they are four times more likely to become addicts themselves. Witnessing substance abuse affects the children academically and emotionally as well. They can acquire learning disabilities and attention difficulties. Some emotional effects include guilt, depression, insecurity, and embarrassment. Children are usually embarrassed to discuss substance abuse and their parents with other individuals.

They often to do form a bond with their parents or feel the necessary love, attention, and support from their parents. Parental substance abuse causes the children to feel neglected, because the parents will remove themselves, physically and emotionally, from the children. All of these factors follow the children for a lifetime.

 Two parents have recently made the news for sharing a dangerous habit:

A Montgomery County (PA) mother allegedly introduced her 15-year-old daughter and the girl’s teenage boyfriend to heroin and would take the couple — and sometimes an 8-year-old child — on trips into Philadelphia to buy the drug.”

A 4-year-old in Delaware took lessons in sharing to a new level when she handed out what she thought were bags of candy from her backpack to her friends at the Hickory Tree Child Care Center in Selbyville. Instead, the small bags of white powder were filled with heroin, according to a note posted on the Facebook page of the Delaware State Police.”

Sadly, stories such as these are becoming more common throughout the country. Communities can no longer turn a blind eye to what is happening in their backyards – and perhaps even in their own families.

According to The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “the lives of millions of children are touched by substance use disorders (SUDs). The 2007 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports that 8.3 million children live with at least one parent who abused or was dependent on alcohol or an illicit drug during the past year. This includes 13.9 percent of children aged 2 years or younger, 13.6 percent of children aged 3 to 5 years, 12.0 percent of children aged 6 to 11 years, and 9.9 percent of youths aged 12 to 17 years. These children are at increased risk for abuse or neglect, as well as physical, academic, social, and emotional problems.”

The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act defines child abuse this way: “Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation, or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.” By that definition, parents who abuse substances are abusing children.

Additionally, children raised in homes in which drugs and alcohol are in regular use may fall prey to developmental deficits because of the prenatal challenges on top of neglect and abuse perpetrated by caregivers who put substance use before the safety of their children. Continued use may also lead to physical injury requiring medical intervention and to involvement with Child Protective Services.

In one extreme case, a father with a heroin addiction sat with his adolescent son, tied off his arm and injected him, telling him life was hard and the only thing that made it bearable was drugs. He said he wanted his son to learn the “right way to use.” The boy overdosed shortly after his father introduced him to heroin.

There’s Hope for Children of Addicted Parents

“An examination of a social-skills intervention called Children’s Friendship Training found that it led to a decrease in hostile attributions or perceptions of children with PAE (Prenatal Alcohol Exposure),” according to an article from Promises Treatment Center. In this program, the participants were able to learn skills that would assist them in creating and sustaining meaningful connections and improve overall social functioning.

For children of addicted parents, solid support is crucial, whether it comes from family, friends, faith community, school, scouting, support groups or therapy. These can help stave off the devastating impact and perhaps break the cycle of multi-generational abuse.

For the parent, choosing recovery can prevent further damage in their own lives as well as the lives of the children they love.


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