By Jessica Roy

Child & Family Social Work (2020)

Review written by Dr Donald Forrester

What question is the research trying to answer?

A high proportion of child and family social work involves parents who misuse drugs or alcohol, but there is limited research examining the nature of these issues – and the biggest study to do so is almost 20 years old. Roy’s research addresses this by describing the characteristics of 299 children from 186 families referred to a single local authority in England and addressing the question – what are the sorts of parental alcohol and drug problems that get referred to children’s services?

How does it try to do it?

The study is based on social work case records. The paper provides a description of the sample, and explores whether there are any significant associations between the different variables 

What did it find?

The main referrer was the police and alcohol was far the most common substance identified – for almost three quarters of the children. There were strong associations with other parental challenges – 44% of the children lived in families where parental mental health was an issue, 43% domestic abuse and 60% had criminal justice involvement. A very high proportion had previous involvement with children’s services– almost 70% of the families had had previous referrals.

What should we make of the findings?

The most interesting element of this study will be the follow-up, which will seek to find out what happened to the children and what factors influenced their outcomes. This may help us identify risk or protective factors, and provide pointers toward how we might help families more effectively. 

Nonetheless, these findings are also interesting in their own right. I was the lead author on a similar study to this one – some twenty years ago – and perhaps the most striking finding is that the situation seems rather similar. Of course, it is just one local authority – and not a Welsh one – but the way that parental drug and alcohol problems are woven into a complex tapestry of other problems remains the same. Thus, alcohol or drug problems are associated with poverty, domestic abuse, mental health issues and myriad other complications.

What this means is that drug or alcohol misuse are rarely problems in isolation. They are  caused by and contribute to a variety of other issues. This implies two things. First, social workers need a good understanding about alcohol and drug problems. They should know what causes drug or alcohol misuse and the basics of how to help – and what is unhelpful. Second, social workers need to also recognise that this knowledge is not enough on its own – because drug and alcohol problems are rarely if ever isolated, but occur as part of a more complex picture. 

More generally, this piece of research helps remind us of why we need social work in the first place – precisely because we need to understand issues such as drug and alcohol misuse not as individual problems but as part of a wider social and psychological context.

Review written by

Dr Donald Forrester