Alcoholism casts a long shadow across our society, but its most innocent victims are the 200,000 children who pay the price for their parents’ drinking.
The figures are startling. A child whose parent has an alcohol problem is twice as likely to struggle at school and five times more likely to develop eating disorders than other children. They’re also three times more likely to consider suicide, and four times more likely to become alcoholics themselves, later in life.
People like Jon Ashworth, Caroline Flint and Liam Byrne deserve enormous credit for speaking out about their own experiences and pushing for change. And they’re right to say that acting now to support these families is not only important for helping children today, but can also help prevent similar tragedies repeating themselves down the generations in the future.
That’s why earlier this year, the Secretary of State announced money to pay for a significant expansion in national helplines to support children going through these experiences – this is shown to help children at risk, and can also encourage parents to get help. This week we are going further, with £1million for charities to raise awareness of this issue and a new £4.5million fund for councils come up with smart, local plans to target these families with the different services they need.
Local authority pilots that successfully bid for the innovation fund will be able to use the money to better and earlier identify and support at-risk children, particularly those with care responsibilities for their parent. Pilots will be tailored to local need, but will focus on streamlining rapid access to mental health services for children and their families, getting more parents through addiction treatment and keep children from having to go into care.
We need to see this as the urgent public health challenge it is – focussing on prevention, intervention and support to target the problem at source in the community. Since alcohol abuse is also implicated in a third of all serious case reviews where a child has been seriously harmed by their parents, councils will also be required to use the funds to tackle parental conflict in homes where alcohol is a problem.
I have heard heart-breaking stories of children calling charity helplines in great distress, pleading for them to read them a bedtime story because their parents are too drunk to do it. No child should grow up in these conditions.
By encouraging local councils to focus their efforts on new and comprehensive measures to reach out to troubled families, we can help more children to escape the consequences of their parents’ alcoholism – casting off those shadows and enabling them to look forward to a brighter and more secure future.
Steve Brine is Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Public Health and Primary Care and Conservative MP for Winchester