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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Drug testing parents

There is little doubt that parents who are thought to abuse drugs or alcohol (or are addicted) constitute one of the most prominent groups in child welfare populations. Efforts are often made to help the parents address their usage either through therapy or more formal residential treatment programs. Yet, relapse is common when people are working their way into and on through the recovery process.

Child protection seeks to have some assurance that recovery has enough stability that it would be safe for children to be in the care of the parents. The costs of substance use can be staggering. Consider, for example, that in Alberta, it is estimated that there are 36,000 people with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and 450 babies born annually who will be affected.

The impact of substance abuse can also be seen in neglect and maltreatment of the children as the substances gain a greater hold on the life of the parent. Not all parents become addicted and not all parents who use are neglectful. One needs to think of the "functional" alcoholic. Family life may not be stellar in such a case, but child protection is often not involved.

How then is a child protection worker to get some assurance that the parent is sober. Some might argue that the worker should take the parent's word for it in the absence of any overt indication to the contrary. To do otherwise, some might see as oppression.

Anyone who works with people in recovery know that many who relapse seek to hide it. They will lie, avoid, manipulate in order to do so. Given that, in relapse, the DAMN behaviours come to the fore, why would the parent not (DAMN = deny, avoid, minimize, numb).

The rights of the child to safety trump the rights of the parent to use. particularly if their use has placed the child at risk.

Child protection has a duty of care that can be partially satisfied by drug testing. Yet that too is no panacea. Hair follicle testing tends to be more reliable than urine testing, although the latte is cheaper and faster. Urine testing is more open to manipulation.

Either way, the testing needs to be done by accredited labs.

If testing is going to be done, it should be done on a short notice, random basis to limit the opportunities for "cheating".

Drug testing needs to be used when it fits into an overall plan of case management. It also should not be done unless there is a clear connection to the child protection issues. It should never be done as a "fishing expedition" to see what might be found.


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