BMC Public Health. 2009; 9: 377.
Published online 2009 October 8. doi: 10.1186/1471-2458-9-377
New estimates of the number of children living with substance misusing parents: results from UK national household surveys
Victoria Manning, David W Best, Nathan Faulkner, and Emily Titherington
The existing estimates of there being 250,000 – 350,000 children of problem drug users in the UK (ACMD, 2003) and 780,000 – 1.3 million children of adults with an alcohol problem (AHRSE, 2004) are extrapolations of treatment data alone or estimates from other countries, hence updated, local and broader estimates are needed.
The current work identifies profiles where the risk of harm to children could be increased by patterns of parental substance use and generates new estimates following secondary analysis of five UK national household surveys.
The Health Survey for England (HSfE) and General Household Survey (GHS) (both 2004) generated consistent estimates – around 30% of children under-16 years (3.3 – 3.5 million) in the UK lived with at least one binge drinking parent, 8% with at least two binge drinkers and 4% with a lone (binge drinking) parent. The National Psychiatric Morbidity Survey (NPMS) indicated that in 2000, 22% (2.6 million) lived with a hazardous drinker and 6% (705,000) with a dependent drinker. The British Crime Survey (2004) and NPMS (2000) indicated that 8% (up to 978,000) of children lived with an adult who had used illicit drugs within that year, 2% (up to 256,000) with a class A drug user and 7% (up to 873,000) with a class C drug user. Around 335,000 children lived with a drug dependent user, 72,000 with an injecting drug user, 72,000 with a drug user in treatment and 108,000 with an adult who had overdosed. Elevated or cumulative risk of harm may have existed for the 3.6% (around 430,000) children in the UK who lived with a problem drinker who also used drugs and 4% (half a million) where problem drinking co-existed with mental health problems. Stronger indicators of harm emerged from the Scottish Crime Survey (2000), according to which 1% of children (around 12,000 children) had witnessed force being used against an adult in the household by their partner whilst drinking alcohol and 0.6% (almost 6000 children) whilst using drugs.
Whilst harm from parental substance use is not inevitable, the number of children living with substance misusing parents exceeds earlier estimates. Widespread patterns of binge drinking and recreational drug use may expose children to sub-optimal care and substance-using role models. Implications for policy, practice and research are discussed.