On 27th April Queensland’s first ice summit was held in Rockhampton. Minister Shannon Fentiman released the latest research based on Queensland’s first year long study into the drug habits of families known to the Department of Child Safety. One third of children who came into the care of the Queensland Department of Child safety in 2016 had parents who use or have used methamphetamines, most commonly ice. About 60 percent of those children suffered neglect and approximately a third, emotional harm. The report found ‘ice corridors’ were emerging with use most prevalent in the Gold Coast, Beenleigh, the north of Ipswich and Brisbane, spanning to Caloundra on the Sunshine Coast.
“The new Child Safety figures are deeply disturbing and demonstrate the damaging impact of ice on communities right across the State” Minister Fentiman stated.
The study also found that the cohort of parents known to the child protection system used ice more regularly than alcohol. Approximately two thirds of those who used ice had a diagnosed mental illness and about 68 percent had experienced family and domestic violence in the past year.
Minister Fentiman viewed the prevalence of ice as a clear indicator that continued investment in early intervention and prevention services was essential “to provide mums and dads with hands-on, in home help so they can be better parents”.
Queensland’s experience of the interface between substance misuse, mental health and domestic and family violence is not unique. These are the key issues associated with child protection assessments and interventions across the country, and indeed internationally.
In Issues for the safety and wellbeing of children in families with multiple and complex problems: The co-occurrence of domestic violence, parental substance misuse, and mental health problems, the authors Leah Bromfield, Alister Lamont, Robyn Parker and Briony Horsfall outline systemic causal factors and offer various assessment options and interventions whilst cautioning that:
the severity and longevity of the effects of parental substance misuse, mental health problems and domestic violence on children depend upon the nature, extent and severity of the problem and way it affects the individual. Not all children whose parents experience mental health problems, substance misuse or domestic violence will experience poor outcomes.
They assert that parenting capacity can be evident and some children experience support and nurture in their home environments even when parents are experiencing significant difficulties. This article speaks to unpacking how mental ill health, substance misuse and domestic violence can affect individuals, their capacity to parent and, in turn, their child’s risk of experiencing abuse or neglect. It then looks for practice interventions that mitigate the risk and focus on enhancing the strengths evident through assessment.
At the forefront of all practice is the need to be cognisant that families referred to child protection services are commonly living within a broad context of isolation and disadvantage. Social exclusion manifests through multidimensional and interfacing issues including: poverty, unemployment, poor standards of housing, homelessness, crime, addiction, gaps in education, physical and mental health issues, limited employment options and financial stress.
Child protection practitioners working with families facing multiple complexities need to recognise the whole experience of parents and children. Practitioners should be supported and prepared to know how to respond to and work with these families as a matter of routine practice.
When making assessments of families with complex problems, knowing the types of problems parents are experiencing such as substance addiction and mental health issues can assist in identifying issues that may affect parenting:
An assessment of parenting capacity requires the identification of how the unique constellation of problems and strengths in the family results in children’s parenting and safety needs being met or not being met. Assessing parent–child interactions, the quality of the home environment, the parent’s perception of child behaviour, the parent’s social support networks and his or her ability to solve problems is more important for determining whether a child is at risk of abuse and neglect than simply identifying or diagnosing parental problems such as substance abuse. Observing these aspects of a parent–child relationship can enable assessment results to have a direct relationship with intervention planning.
When working with a parent who is dealing with multiple complexities, practitioners are likely to have to try to support them on different fronts. Working on resolving the immediate issues such as the need for food and housing will be required before any significant parenting intervention is likely to be purposeful. Once basic needs are met, interventions that deal with relational or self-esteem needs, such as good parenting skills, can begin. The degree to which each of the tasks of parenting can be achieved is influenced by a range of factors, including:
• the amount and type of material resources available to parents;
• individual characteristics of the parents, including heredity;
• parents’ own experiences of being parented and observing the parenting of others, their psychological make-up, relationships; and
• parents’ broader circumstances (e.g., employment, health)
In reviews of parenting intervention increasing positive parent-child interactions, encouraging parents to practise new skills, teaching parents to use “time out” and the importance of parenting consistency proved most effective.
So too were the following strategies:
• encourage one-on-one learning;
• focus on strengths rather than deficits;
• offer a shared empowerment to families;
• build strong client-practitioner relationships that are predictable and reliable;
• develop positive expectations for change and heightened self-efficacy;
• enhance problem-solving capacity;
• provide information that is clear and concise (not lengthy and complicated); and
• praise parents wherever possible
Further strategies for practitioners when working with families facing substance addiction, mental health issues and domestic and family violence:
• Take an empowering and proactive approach (e.g., structure tasks in ways that success is optimised: i.e., in small, easily achievable steps).
• Use different methods to teach skills (modelling, video demonstration, realistic pictures).
• Try to teach skills in context (i.e., where they will need to be applied – usually the home but perhaps at the supermarket or on a train).
• Play activities can be opportunities for modelling parenting skills, language and safety.
• Be aware that the parents’ own negative experiences at school may still affect their attitudes towards learning.
• Materials may need to be adapted to suit the family: for example, helping them adapt skills and knowledge to suit the age of their child.
• Provide information in small chunks; avoid long explanations.
• Offer simple explanations (e.g., it is preferable to say: “doing things over and over helps kids learn”, instead of saying: “repeating particular play activities fosters and reinforces the development of neural pathways and builds their cognitive abilities and psychomotor skills”).
• Make room for repetition, reinforcement and practice in different places or with different materials; this helps parents to feel confident in their ability to perform each step.
• Ensure activities fit the space available (i.e., play activities should be appropriate to the type of accommodation).
The role for practitioners is to focus on these multiple complexities and address them through the provision of holistic service responses. Practitioners need to be supported to work with other services to ensure that the unique needs of families are met.