Neil Sedaka had it right: ‘Breaking up is hard to do’.
Ending an intimate relationship is hard to do nicely. If the people splitting up have dependent children, the stakes get higher. Add alcohol or drug problems to the mix and the potential for lasting harm increases exponentially.
Cafcass (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) reports to courts on the welfare and safeguarding of children. They are consulting on a ‘High Conflict Practice Pathway’ designed to tackle ‘parental alienation’ - when one parent actively tries to turn a child against the other. The pathway, to be implemented in 2018, focuses attention on the needs of children when parents split acrimoniously.While extremely serious, parental alienation is not new, it forms part of the narrative of separating and divorcing couples with children. Where alcohol or other drug problems are part of the picture, drug and alcohol testing could help reduce tension and help rebuild trust.
Research shows that people who have had ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences’ (ACEs) are vulnerable to problems in later life. ACEs include all forms of abuse and neglect including growing up with domestic abuse, substance abuse, mental ill health, divorce or imprisonment of a parent.
The more ACEs a child experiences, the more likely they will develop problems in adulthood. A Welsh Government ACE study (subtitled ‘Alcohol Use, Drug Use, Violence, Sexual Behaviour, Incarceration, Smoking and Poor Diet’) describes problems adults can develop linked to negative childhood experiences.
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Thus, factors which make separation and divorce even more stressful are rooted in the childhood experiences of the adults involved.
Change is difficult
Alcohol and drug problems don’t appear overnight. They creep up on people. Nobody starts drinking or using drugs intending to develop a problem.
US research suggests around 50% of people with alcohol or drug problems overcome them without professional help. However, if this is revealed during an acrimonious split, it may be alleged that substance use has caused harmful behaviour, thus bringing into question that parent’s capacity to be an appropriate caregiver.
We also know that change rarely works first time. Learning from previous attempts can improve the chances of success. For a parent bounced into facing a substance use problem there is extra pressure to get it sorted first time. This adds pressure on them - and on professionals working to facilitate behaviour change.
At the point of separation, the relationship is at a low ebb. There may be two very different versions of events. ‘He said’ – She said’ disputes make it hard to discern what is accurate. Each parent may be telling the truth as they see it.
Professionals and courts have the task of helping families navigate this difficult period. For the benefit of the children, relationships must be re-negotiated. Parents need help to put personal grievances aside to achieve the best outcomes for children. Although legal representatives may facilitate conciliation, our legal system is adversarial: their role is to do the best for their client, not for everyone. Put simply, lawyers are paid to take sides - which means they can’t always help.
Even if the parents are willing to put aside their own hurt, when one parent has a substance use problem, doubt over their capacity to care for children is understandable.
Testing for trust
Some UK judges have mandated the use of technology to help parents show they are not drinking. Orders have required the parent alleged to have a drink problem to buy a breathalyser, and provide a reading when they collect and return their children. A positive reading can result in the cancellation of the next contact session.
There is good US evidence that breathalysing can be effective in changing behaviour. This regular testing helps prevent ‘disguised compliance’ situations, where a parent makes pledges and commitments but does not necessarily intend to change their conduct. An objective, scientific measure of alcohol use potentially helps reinforce motivation to change and could help reestablish trust.
While this approach may work in the short term, it doesn't necessarily ensure the safety of the child. After all, what is the point in a parent passing a breathalyser test only to drop the child off, go home and have a drink? Hair testing, on the other hand, indicates whether an individual has a chronic problem. Traces of alcohol and other drug use are deposited in growing hair. The testing identifies alcohol and drug use: a 3cm length of hair provides evidence of around three months’ use. This long term window into drug and alcohol use (or misuse) says far more about a parent’s lifestyle than a simple weekend spot check.
No form of drug and alcohol testing is a panacea. However, the ability to provide scientific evidence of changed behaviour can reassure both families and courts. It offers tangible evidence on the parent’s trustworthiness in circumstances where rebuilding trust is key.
It is almost always in the interests of children to maximise the chances for both parents to stay involved in their upbringing. It is likely that adults with substance use and parenting problems have experienced adverse childhood experiences. If this initiative is successful it may promote resilience in the children affected, reducing the risk that their own ACEs will lead to them repeating their parents’ mistakes. Testing technology could facilitate the process. It must be worth considering.