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'Cookie cutter' approach inappropriate for parents with addiction

A number of children have been separated from their parents as a result of the current opioid epidemic, but broad assumptions and ‘cookie-cutter’ responses are not the answer in these cases, Alberta child protection specialist Melani Carefoot writes in The Lawyer’s Daily.

“News reports on drug-related deaths rarely indicate if the deceased are parents, but through my professional work as a registered social worker, I am aware that this is sometimes the case. I also know that the opioid crisis has highlighted concerns of those who have children in their care that they risk losing them,” writes Carefoot, owner and principal of Positive Choices Counselling & Consulting.

Parents who are addicted to intoxicants are often labelled by society as inadequate, feckless and irresponsible, and Carefoot says this stigma can lead to individuals becoming secretive about their substance use, which discourages them from seeking help and treatment.

“The perceived threat of children’s aid services, or an ex-partner, taking custody of a child may be strong enough for someone to further deny or conceal a drug habit. If the fear of punishment for seeking out resources is present, the likelihood of parents addressing their addiction is limited. If addicts do reach a point where they seek out treatment, the question that should be answered is, ‘Are they the most motivated or the most desperate?’” she writes.

As such, she says, in order to counter this knee-jerk reaction, it is important to consider the position of children and how they can be kept safe while still maintaining a relationship with their parents.

“Few options are available to addicted parents who wish to continue to care for their children. Drug treatment centres in Canada do not allow children to reside with parents, and some parents’ strong desire to remain with their children may be one of the reasons that people delay getting professional help,” writes Carefoot.

Once a parent has been identified as being addicted to drugs, Carefoot says an individualized assessment should be completed to record how the substance is affecting the individual physiologically and psychologically.

Areas to be assessed, she says, should include their baseline skill level, parenting capacity for their own child, their ability and willingness to engage in parenting, attachment issues and social support network. Other information that should be gathered includes prenatal history; the length, type and amount of drug use; pre-existing parental issues, such as birth defects; mental health issues; physical challenges; and socio-economic challenges, such as poverty, housing and access to appropriate supports.

“When all relevant data are analyzed, an informed decision can be made concerning whether the parent is unable to care for the child due to opioid dependency or if there are other factors that can be mitigated with structured supports,” she writes.

As Carefoot notes, if an opiate-dependent parent is assessed as being unable to provide safe and appropriate care for a child, the family support system should commit to working together to plan for alternate care.

“The child should be able to maintain contact with the parent, and if face-to-face contact is not assessed as being appropriate, other modes of communication should be actively explored, such as letters, emails, texts or video phone calls, with the commitment to review this plan regularly.”

Ultimately, she explains, “Broad assumptions made by child-protection social workers, judges, ex-spouses and the media that all drug users are automatically poor parents lead to ineffective interventions and less likelihood that those most in need of treatment will seek help.”

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