The government is to invest £6m over the next three years to improve the lives of an estimated 200,000 children in England who live with alcoholic parents.
Up to £4.5m will be channelled to local authorities to develop new approaches to the issue, such as early intervention programmes that avoid the need for children of alcoholic-dependent parents to be taken into care, and outreach schemes that help more parents access addiction treatment. In addition, £1m will go to voluntary sector organisations to deliver projects that develop national capacity and £500,000 will enable the expansion of a national helpline for children of alcoholics.
The funding, provided by the Department of Health and Social Care and Department for Work and Pensions, followed the publication last year of a report by the all party parliamentary group (APPG) for children of alcoholics which showed no local authorities had a strategy for supporting this vulnerable group of children despite evidence of rising levels of alcohol-related hospital admissions. It also found wide variation among councils in the proportion of problem drinkers accessing treatment and the amount spent on alcohol cessation services (see graphic).
Latest Department for Education data shows that alcohol was identified as a factor in 18 per cent of child in need assessments carried out by authorities in 2016/17. This proportion has remained relatively constant over the past three years. Despite this, local support services for children of alcoholic parents, many funded by councils, have been substantially cut recently says Hilary Henriques, chief executive of the National Association of Children of Alcoholics (Nacoa).
"In the last seven to 10 years we've seen fewer local agencies and services to refer young people that contact us to," says Henriques, whose organisation runs a national helpline offering advice to children and adults affected by parental drinking.
"Services are losing funding and closing at short notice meaning children they have built up a relationship with being left high and dry.
"We can signpost people to support, but you need agencies on the ground to provide help."
Henriques welcomes the new funding for councils and stresses the need for it to be used to develop support that "is not time limited" nor focused on "doing something to young people". Instead she wants to see drop-in support centres.
"Young people can then drop in at a time that suits them and there is no ‘contract' where they have to attend a certain place at a certain time," she explains.
"Drop-in centres are also good for providing a listening service with professionals and a communal area for young people to meet others with a common problem."
Offering support that helps young people to understand "life's problems are not solved by alcohol" is also important in reducing the risk of becoming a problem drinker themselves.
Research by Nacoa found that children of alcoholic-dependant parents are three-times more likely to become alcoholics themselves as adults, and be significantly more at risk of developing eating disorders, mental health problems and drug addiction in childhood and adulthood.
Henriques says some children will take on caring responsibilities for siblings which adds to the pressure and stress of the situation. She adds that embarrassment about speaking out over the issue means that current figures are a gross under estimate of the problem.
This is borne out by NSPCC research that shows a 30 per cent rise in calls to its helpline in the past year over the welfare of a child due to a parent misusing alcohol.
Last month, the government committed to implementing a national alcohol strategy, but the APPG says a dedicated strategy for children of alcoholics is needed.
"This is a huge group of people," says Henriques. "If we don't fund services for them when they are young they are likely to go on to have troubled lives."
Public Health England has produced a new toolkit to help commissioners of alcohol and drug services and children and family services to better understand the impact of parental alcohol misuse. The tool, based on research findings from Newcastle University, will help councils to:
- Speed up identification of parental substance misuse
- Ensure services have sufficient capacity to meet needs
- Commission interventions to reduce harm to children
- Address the effects of adverse childhood experiences
Source: Problem Parental Drug and Alcohol Use: A Toolkit for Local Authorities, www.gov.uk