It’s important to challenge those who seek to demonise parents who use alcohol and drugs as “bad parents”, according to Donna Ribton-Turner, Director Clinical Services at UnitingCare ReGen.

Rather than scapegoating parents with alcohol and drug issues, they deserve appropriate support and care, she says.


Stigmatising vulnerable families only makes things worse

Donna Ribton-Turner writes:

As the Mother’s Day afterglow recedes for another year and women everywhere get back to the work that will often go unrecognised over the next year, it is worth reflecting on particular challenges experienced by some of the most vulnerable mothers within our communities.

Being a mum is a tough job at the best of times. The pressures of parenthood take a toll on all of us at some point and the feeling of being overwhelmed by responsibilities to our children, others’ expectations and sheer exhaustion is a common one.

Some of us cope with these events, regather our energies and move on.  Some of us seek support from counselling or medication. Some of us self-medicate with alcohol and other drugs.

For those of us with strong support networks, low levels of stress and disadvantage, these feelings are a temporary challenge to be overcome.

For those whose lives are already burdened with physical and/or mental health concerns, poverty, family violence, homelessness or personal trauma, the ongoing and evolving responsibilities of parenthood can be another drop into a cup that is already overflowing.

For many, it is a catalyst for changing their circumstances.  Often, it is both.

ReGen’s experience in working with mothers (both those concerned about a child’s substance use or their own) shows the powerful benefits of working holistically with affected families to support change.

By recognising the needs of all family members, supporting parents and keeping children safe, Family Inclusive Practice helps to build resilience within family units and reduce harms associated with alcohol and other drug use.

When provided with appropriate supports, families can achieve remarkable transformations. However, the stigmatisation of affected families (particularly, of parents – and especially mothers – who use AOD), is a significant barrier to change.

Behind the simplistic assumption of personal failure and dysfunction that is applied to such families lay the fears of all parents who lie awake at night worrying about how their own behaviour is affecting their children or how to protect them from the potential dangers their children face when they encounter alcohol and other drugs.

It is too terrifying to identify with these families who aren’t, after all, that different from our own.  So we isolate them, fearing contagion.

The demonisation of AOD-using mothers is particularly damaging.

While parental AOD use is a significant risk factor for child abuse and neglect, and there are many documented cases of children being directly harmed as a result of their parents’ use, it is by no means true that all that all mothers with problematic AOD use are ‘bad parents’.

Wherever we can, ReGen seeks to challenge such assumptions, based on our own experience and established research

So it was heartening to see recent Scottish media coverage of a senior public servant challenging a proposal to introduce parental AOD use as automatic grounds for removal of children from their care (Addict parents ‘not all bad & Addict can be good parents).

The Commissioner for Children and Young People’s call to avoid blanket judgements and focus instead on individual assessments of families’ strengths, as well as risks to children.

It would be tremendous to see similar voices raised here the next time AOD-using parents are scapegoated in Australian media.

Mothers are already too subject to judgement and stigmatisation.  Isn’t it time we offered them more support for what is one of the most difficult jobs imaginable?  For those who need help responding to AOD harms within their families, there is help available.

In Melbourne, AOD treatment providers such as ReGen, Odyssey House and SHARC provide free, family-specific programs to support mothers and other family members.  There are others around the country.

If you are (or you know) a mother who is affected by the impacts of problematic AOD use, there is help available.  Make the call, check the websites.  You don’t have to do it on your own.

• Donna Ribton-Turner is Director Clinical Services, UnitingCare ReGen






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