We are Family – The crisis in children’s services and support for parents who use drugs


The ground-breaking report Hidden Harm (1), produced in 2003, aimed to illuminate the harm caused to children by parental drug use. An issue that had until then remained largely hidden. My involvement in the report meant facing the failures of drug treatment agencies, including my own, and children and families services, to meet the needs of impacted children.

The report estimated there were between 200,000 and 300,000 children in England and Wales where one or both parents had serious drug problems. Identifying the scale of the problem was vital work. However looking back, and at the position of children’s services today, its recommendations fell short of meaningfully engaging parents who use drugs and protecting children. The failure of that report to make change still haunts me, but to recognise our mistakes is critical.

Engaging with people who use drugs is no easy feat. In fact 60% of parents who are dependent on heroin are not receiving treatment (2).  The NSPCC (3) recently shared their support for #COAweek, an annual campaign to raise awareness of children affected by a parent’s drinking, following a stark rise in the number of concerns reported about parental substance misuse, parents and carers struggling to access specialist support and families who weren’t previously known to children’s services requiring help.

Kaleidoscope, during the 90s, ran a crèche for our service users. This work was reviewed by the World Health Organisation, and its findings were extremely troubling. The verbal skills of our children were below that of their peers, basic skills such as using a knife and fork were simply not there, and protective social behaviours like keeping a distance from strangers were rarely exhibited. There is no doubt that the crèche was a lifeline for those children, helping them to build the skills necessary for school and limit opportunities for further stigmatisation. Sadly, this programme was a pilot that lasted just 3 years, despite being a provision that the parents desperately wanted. Their feeling was that as a third sector provider, they and their children would be protected from children’s social services. The stigma that surrounds drug dependency problems means that both parents and children are reluctant to speak openly about the family secret for fear of public censure and social isolation. Children and parents alike share a fear that revealing a drug problem will result in their separation through being taken into care, which is not always the case. Most often workers do all they can to keep families together. And for services, the dilemma is of course balancing the necessity to protect children, while maintaining the confidence and support of parents. Of course child protection is paramount and should be be at the forefront of our minds, leading our actions.

So how can we move forward? Hidden Harm recommended a co-ordinated range of resources capable of providing real support to families with drug problems, directed both at assisting parents and helping children, but this failed to go far enough. Once again I believe the role of peers with lived experience, who can support and listen to people who use drugs, could be pivotal.  Parents struggling with drug use should have access to people who will talk to them in a non-judgmental way, without fear of persecution.

Projects such as Cardiff’s Voices Action Change, or the Naloxone Peer 2 Peer services run for and by service users, have highlighted how important a strong peer network is to maintain recovery. Could we, with training and proper financial support, walk alongside parents and find the right answers to supporting families. With an established peer network, that includes CRAFT trained family members supporting other family members, perhaps we could better understand what services would engage a parent, what support would work best for them and their children. What we know about problematic drug use is that many parents have themselves suffered an adverse childhood experience. Much parenting is learnt from our experience of being parented, and so we need a trauma informed approach and trained workforce to support people to be better parents.

I remember being the Executive Member at the Council for Children’s services in Kingston. It was a challenge then to recruit staff, and social workers often struggled to engage well with people visiting Kaleidoscope. Kingston was graded as a ‘good’ children’s service in my time, and I admit thinking that if we were good, what did that say about other local authorities. The question remains as to why we fail to properly support and then protect children. In my view, many counsellors do not recognise that they have a duty of care to children in the Council system.

The crisis in children’s services is alarming, not least for agencies such as Kaleidoscope. Our community of parents who use drugs are often fearful of their children entering the care system. In March 2021, there were 80,850 children in care in England, the highest on record. Social services’ caseloads are increasing, and 10-15-year-olds have become the fastest growing group of children entering care. The former Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield (5) defined the system as “Unfit for purpose”, one that is “supposed to protect vulnerable teenagers but is frequently putting them in even greater danger. Often, we may as well be handing over children directly to ruthless gangs and criminals”. We know the age of vulnerable teenagers at risk of exploitation and entering the care system is increasing, with more complex and expensive needs, putting an enormous strain on the whole children’s social care system.

It should be noted that the majority of people using drugs are good parents. Those who struggle looking after their children should be offered support that works for them and we must look at different ways of working. This will require better investment and improved access to treatment services. Services that offer an element of respite care with specialist nursery provision. The creation of respite care for the child and parent that follows a holiday model could help to reduce stigma. Ultimately I believe co-production could be key to better engage parents, and ensure the service is built around their needs.


Martin Blakebrough

CEO at Kaleidoscope