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Addiction a complex issue for family courts

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How many of us get that ‘Friday feeling’?  The office is locked and the weekend beckons – so what’s the priority? Straight to the pub or in the queue at the local chippy?  Decisions, decisions.  Either way, at the end of a stressful week, all we want to do is to forget it and relax.

But stress isn’t just confined to a working life. Sadly, stress can come at us from all angles, whether it’s money, relationships, looking after the children, caring for a sick relative or bereavements.  We’re only human and there are times when things can get too much.

The unmanaged stress of daily life and family living can have a major impact on health and happiness.  More than ten million working days are lost each year as a result of stress and related anxiety or depression. One in four of us will suffer from some form of related mental illness.  If we don’t manage to sort ourselves out stress can lead to major long term health risks affecting the heart, resulting in strokes, cancer and diabetes.  

How we act and react and deal with stressful situations depends upon what sort of people we are.  We have instinctive responses to stressful situations. Some of these are damaging, including avoidance or turning to drink or drugs to feel better rather than actually acting positively to sort things out. 

Years of experience have shown that many families find themselves in very difficult situations because of the presence of drink and drugs. Much is written about parental alcohol issues and the impact upon children and we now have startling statistics suggesting that one in five children live with a parent who drinks problematically. What’s more, one in ten children live with a parent who is dependent on alcohol.  

A drugs problem is even more significant. Statistics suggest that around two-thirds of cases where children are considered to be at risk of harm in the family unit is because of a parent’s drug problem. 

The impact upon families and children is dramatic. Consider the potential thousands of children who are not included within these figures and who fall under the radar.  The very nature of addiction for many is the secrecy that surrounds it. 

It is a common misconception that addiction is limited to one particular area of community or a particular income bracket - it is not.  Just like issues of domestic abuse, it is spread across our towns and can touch anyone anywhere – some families are just better at hiding it than others. 

When parents are struggling with an addiction, the need takes priority over everything else, including the welfare of their children, their own welfare and that of their partners.  It can manifest itself in children having to care for themselves – getting up in the morning and getting ready for school, having no-one come to collect them from the school gates, having to find their own meals and worrying about a parent who is still asleep.  They can become the carers for the adults. Such families come to the attention of social services and regularly come before the court. Commonplace in such cases are allegations of failing to look after children because of problems with drink and drugs.  Decisions have to be made about whether parents can overcome their problems so that children can remain at home.

For other families who are not involved with social services, relationships can regularly break down with separations and disputes about where the children should live in order to protect them from the addictive behaviours.  Many of these are also coming before the family courts.

Many addicted parents are ashamed of their personal problems and feel it only becomes worse when they are out in the open and potentially in the court system. So how does the family court deal with these serious and complex issues?  

2008 saw the creation of the Family Drug and Alcohol Court to help families affected by drug and alcohol misuse. It works with parents and professionals to help combat addictions and to keep families together if possible. It is also for those families who are at risk of having children removed into care due to concerns about their welfare and safety.  The court recognises that unless a dependency is addressed the parents will continue to struggle to care for their children. To qualify, there must be a significant problem and the parents must be willing to tackle it.  

The government has set guidelines to the courts which normally require a decision in these cases to be made for children within 26 weeks and many know that for a parent to show abstinence within that limited time frame is very difficult, perhaps almost setting them up to fail.  However, for parents within the scheme, there is an exemption to this timescale if certain criteria are met. It involves families engaging in a highly intensive programme.  Parents are told it is the best chance they have of turning their lives around and the good news is that current outcomes suggest that it works, with some spectacular successes. Unfortunately it isn’t a national scheme yet although the proposal is to roll out more of these specialist courts.

For those struggling with an addiction, there is a simple message. Don’t battle an addiction in silence. It will have serious consequences for you and your family. Get help and support from loved ones and speak to specialist professionals to break the cycle.