Evidence linking alcohol and other drug abuse with child maltreatment, particularly neglect, is strong. But does substance abuse cause maltreatment? In a recent article in The Future of Children volume Preventing Child Maltreatment, authors Mark Testa and Brenda Smith found that co-occurring risk factors such as parental depression, social isolation, homelessness, or domestic violence may be more directly responsible than substance abuse itself for maltreatment. Interventions to prevent substance abuse–related maltreatment, say the authors, must attend to the underlying direct causes of both.
Research on whether prevention programs reduce drug abuse or help parents control substance use and improve their parenting has had mixed results, at best. The evidence raises questions generally about the effectiveness of substance abuse services in preventing child maltreatment. Such services, for example, raise only marginally the rates at which parents are reunified with children who have been placed in foster care. The primary reason for the mixed findings is that almost all the parents face not only substance abuse problems but the co-occurring issues as well. To prevent recurring maltreatment and promote reunification, programs must ensure client progress in all problem areas.
At some point in the intervention process, attention must turn to the child’s permanency needs and well-being. The best evidence to date suggests that substance-abusing parents pose no greater risk to their children than do parents of other children taken into child protective custody. It may be sensible to set a six-month timetable for parents to engage in treatment and allow twelve to eighteen months for them to show sufficient progress in all identified problem areas. After that, permanency plans should be expedited to place the child with a relative caregiver or in an adoptive home.
Investing in parental recovery from substance abuse and dependence should not substitute for a comprehensive approach that addresses the multiple social and economic risks to child well-being beyond the harms associated with parental substance abuse.