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Harm minimisation needs to be for children too

By Lillian De Bortoli and Philip Mendes - posted Monday, 3 March 2008

Recent media reports suggest an increasing number of children of illicit drug users are being exposed to severe child abuse and neglect. Six-year-old Rose Austin died in Sydney after she was given methadone instead of cough mixture. In Victoria, five-year-old Cody was beaten to death by his drug-abusing stepfather. Elizjah Lynden-Baker was born to a drug-addicted mother in Adelaide; she was born head first onto a footpath behind a tree. Four weeks later, the baby was found dead lying face down in a soft pillow.

Concerns about drug-using parents were reinforced by the September 2007 Parliamentary Inquiry into the impact of illicit drug use on families. The Inquiry cited evidence that illicit drug use during pregnancy can cause significant damage to children, and that ongoing parental illicit drug use can gravely compromise child safety and development. Illicit drug use was found to be directly associated with a significant number of child deaths. The Inquiry recommended that adoption be targeted as a preferred solution for young children living with drug-addicted parents.

Although we do not agree with a number of the recommendations made by the Parliamentary Inquiry, we nevertheless remain concerned that existing harm minimisation programs do not appear to directly address the risks for children living in the care of drug-using parents.


We do not take the view that illicit drug users can never be fit parents, but nor do we hold the opposite view that drug users may be no less skilled than other parents. Rather, we believe that individual family situations need to be judged on the basis of evidence, rather than ideological preconceptions. For instance, children appear to be at increased risk of abuse when born into families where both parents, or the only parent in a single parent family, regularly use illicit drugs.

Children are influenced by their environment. Their vulnerability is further heightened when parents use drugs. Research shows that children who are raised in families affected by parental substance abuse are at significantly greater risk of developing behavioural and emotional problems during childhood and later mental health problems. An environment affected by parental drug use, in our view, raises the following concerns:

  • the way a drug impacts upon a parent’s ability to function and act in the best interests of their child(ren);
  • the correlation between some illicit drug use and violent behaviour and/or mental illness;
  • the potential exposure of children to other drug users with violent or sexually predatory tendencies;
  • the likely necessity for undertaking criminal activities such as theft and prostitution in order to acquire the drugs;
  • the possibility that parental income will be spent on drugs rather than basic food, clothing and housing needs;
  • the inappropriate responsibility placed on young children to care for themselves and/or younger siblings; and
  • the potential for children - including particularly those of young age and maturity - to access the drugs.

Approximately half of all child abuse cases investigated by Victorian child protective services involve alcohol/drug issues by the child’s parents. Yet currently there seems to be little if any partnership between drug and alcohol services which aim to reduce harm to drug users and the community, and child protection services which aim to protect children from harm. We believe this artificial separation must end, and that there is an urgent need for formal collaboration between the two services.

For as long as drugs are part of our society, harm minimisation strategies should incorporate not only plans to assist users to use safely, but also detailed protective plans to reduce associated risks to children. The deaths of Rose, Cody and Elizjah have shown how important this can be.

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About the Authors

Lillian De Bortoli (National Research Centre for the Prevention of Child Abuse) researches in the School of Primary Health Care at Monash University.

Associate Professor Philip Mendes is the Director of the Social Inclusion and Social Policy Research Unit in the Department of Social Work at Monash University and is the co-author with Nick Dyrenfurth of Boycotting Israel is Wrong (New South Press), and the author of a chapter on The Australian Greens and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in the forthcoming Australia and Israel (Sussex Academic Press).

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Lillian De Bortoli
All articles by Philip Mendes

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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