Family law courts frequently grapple with the question of substance abuse and its impact on a person’s parenting capabilities because parental alcohol and drug abuse can profoundly damage the lives of children.
Parental substance abuse places these youngsters at higher risk for emotional, physical and mental health problems because it interrupts a child’s normal development. Parental abilities become compromised because parents who abuse alcohol or other drugs are more likely to be involved with domestic violence, divorce, unemployment, mental illness and legal problems. Depression, anxiety, eating disorders and suicide attempts are more common among children of alcoholics and other substance abusers (COA/COSA) than among their peers, and COAs are three to four times more likely than others to become addicted to alcohol or other drugs themselves.
Courts take action when substance abuse – in the form of alcohol and/or prescription or illegal drugs – hinders a parent’s ability to care for his or her children or poses a danger to the children. If the issue is raised during a child custody hearing, the judge investigates the allegation and whether the abuse has an impact on a parent’s ability to properly care for the children. In all jurisdictions, the best interest of the child standard is used to determine child custody. This standard takes each parent’s general fitness – as well as alcohol and/or drug use – into account. When there is a documented history of past substance abuse, the judge considers a parent’s actions during that time period before making a custody determination.
When a parent is concerned about a former spouse’s alcohol or drug use, he or she can raise this issue with the court and take steps to document any incidents that support the claim. This might include police reports, DUI charges, or similar evidence. It’s important to have a record not only of the other parent’s substance use, but documents that indicate that the substance use renders the parent unsuitable. Concern for a child is a valid reason to seek supervised visitation.
According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, 50% of the nation’s children – more than 35 million – are exposed to parents who use illegal drugs, abuse alcohol, and use tobacco. According to CASA, 13% of children under 18 years of age in the United States live in a household where a parent or other adult uses illicit drugs and 24% of children live in a household where a parent or other adult is a binge drinker or heavy drinker.
Joseph A. Califano, CASA chairman and president, and former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, says what every pediatrician knows and needs to remind their patients’ parents about disease prevention: “Kids don’t read their parents’ lips, they watch their parents’ actions.”
In families where alcohol or other drugs are abused, behavior frequently becomes unpredictable and communication unclear. Chaos and unpredictability characterize family life, with behavior on a spectrum from loving to withdrawn to crazy. Structure and rules may be either nonexistent or inconsistent. Children become confused and insecure because they may not understand that their parent’s behavior and mood is determined by the amount of alcohol or other drugs in their bloodstream. Children love their parents and worry about them, and yet feel angry and hurt that their parents do not love them enough to stop using. Children blame themselves for their parent’s substance abuse, and many times, children of substance abusers are frightened. Physical and sexual abuse of children is more likely when a parent abuses substances. Some COAs/COSAs have a limited social life. They may avoid bringing home friends, or going out in public with their parents.
Even if the children themselves are not victimized by family violence, simply witnessing violence can have emotionally destructive consequences. COAs are six times more likely to witness spousal abuse than are other children.
Because of stress, COAs and COSAs often have difficulty in school. They may be unable to focus on their schoolwork due to the conflicts and tensions at home. They are also more likely than their peers to have learning disabilities, be truant, repeat more grades, transfer schools and be expelled.
A parent’s drinking or drug problem might also compromise a child’s health. The child might develop stress-related health problems like gastrointestinal disorders, headaches, migraines, or asthma, causing them to miss school. And a child whose parent’s substance abuse causes neglect might become injured because of failure to adequately childproof the house or because of inadequate supervision, or even lack immunization and other routine well-child care.