The impact of drug abuse in child arrangement matters

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Negotiating child arrangements following a separation can often be difficult for parents, especially in circumstances where there are concerns that one parent might be using drugs. This blog post will look at the court’s approach to drug use in private family law matters.

What can I do if I think my child’s other parent is using drugs?

There is always a need for a parent to feel that their child will be safe when they are spending time with the other parent. In circumstances where you think your child’s parent might be being dishonest about their drug use, it might be appropriate to ask them to voluntarily engage in a drugs test.

You can also ask the court to make an order that the parent undergoes drug testing within children proceedings. If the parent refuses to be tested and there is substantive evidence that they have been taking illegal drugs, it might be appropriate to draw negative assumptions from their refusal, which would impact the overall likely child arrangements ordered.

Will the court stop all contact between a child and parent in circumstances of a positive drugs test?  

It is true that a positive drugs test will be a key factor that the court will want to consider as part of their overall evaluation as to what arrangement will be in the child’s best interests.

If one party receives a positive drugs test, it does not automatically mean that the court will order to stop direct contact between that parent and the child. However, there is no denying that illegal drug use is a matter that will be taken very seriously by the court as this is a real welfare concern.

As with any child arrangement matter, the court will consider the following factors listed as section 1(3) of the Children Act 989 to determine the appropriate outcome. These factors are known as the welfare checklist.

(a) the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child concerned (considered in the light of his age and understanding);

(b) his physical, emotional and educational needs;

(c) the likely effect on him of any change in his circumstances;

(d) his age, sex, background and any characteristics of his which the court considers relevant;

(e) any harm which he has suffered or is at risk of suffering;

(f) how capable each of his parents, and any other person in relation to whom the court considers the question to be relevant, is of meeting his needs;

(g) the range of powers available to the court under this Act in the proceedings in question

Looking more closely at this checklist, if there is evidence that one party has been using drugs regularly, then the court is going to be extremely concerned that the parent is unable to provide a suitable and safe environment for that child. More specifically, drug use /abuse could foreseeably prevent the parent from meeting the child’s basic needs (b) and calls into question the capabilities of each parent in terms of keeping the child safe (f). If one parent is a drug user, the parent could foreseeably put that child at direct risk of harm (e), especially if that parent is taking drugs in front of the children. The court might therefore want to restrict direct and unsupervised contact on that basis – the court would want to consider how the risk of drug use can be managed in respect of any contact ordered.

Will the court consider the circumstances of a parent’s drug use?

Yes – the court will want to ensure that they fully understand the context of a parent’s drug use, as this will be key in understanding the extent to which the children are at risk. They will also want to see that the parent is taking responsibility for themselves and are seeking professional medical support if appropriate.

The court will also want to understand the type of drugs that one parent is using and the extent to which that parent uses drugs. These factors can usually be identified by way of a drugs test.

The court might be interested in the following questions:

  1. Do they have a historic drug problem?
  2. What is the severity of the drug use?
  • Have they taken drugs in front of the children?
  1. Are there any drugs kept in the environment to which contact is taking place?
  2. Have they taken drugs shortly before, or during, contact with the children?
  3. Are they seeking professional support?

What steps can be taken to ensure that direct contact is safe when one parent has been using drugs?

In order to ensure that contact is safe, the following steps might be appropriate to consider:

  1. Should contact be supervised?
  2. Should contact be limited to a shorter period of time?
  • What conditions should be placed on the contact?
  1. Is a period of ongoing drug testing appropriate?

What third party support is available?

We recognise that substance abuse by one party can sometimes have a significant impact on the wider family. Therapeutic or emotional support can often be invaluable in these circumstances. Below our Director of Client Wellbeing, Kim Crewe shares her insight into the support that is available in these circumstances.

If you do have concerns that your child’s other parent is using drugs inappropriately, the first step, if you are on speaking terms is to talk to them and explain your concerns. If you explain your concerns in an open and enquiring way and focus on the impact on the children, you are more likely to get a more comprehensive response.  If you are not reassured and are still worried that your child is at risk of harm you should contact Children’s Services.

Children can often struggle when they are not seeing a parent or having restrictions on the time they spend with mum or dad or other significant adults. However, living with substance abuse can impact their emotional and physical development. It can also impact their ability to concentrate on school work.  Children can find it difficult to understand what is happening particularly if their usual contact with the other parent becomes supervised by another adult. Parents need to protect their children and give them age-appropriate information so they can make sense of the changes.

A family consultant or family therapist can help parents find the language to talk with their children or will meet with the family as a whole so everybody gets an opportunity to talk. It is important that these issues are not swept under the carpet and children feel that their worries can be spoken about.

If children are struggling, the NSPCC offer advice on how to support your child, they can be reached at https://www.nspcc.org.uk/keeping-children-safe/support-for-parents/alcohol-drugs-parenting/.

How can we help?

If you have concerns that your child’s father is using drugs and is putting your children at risk, then it is important that you seek specialist legal advice as to the child arrangements.

Likewise, if you are subject to allegations of drug abuse which have had an impact on your child arrangements then we also recommend that you seek specialist advice.

Please do not hesitate to contact one of our specialist family lawyers on who are entirely committed to resolving children disputes in a constructive manner.

Rosa Schofield is Solicitor in our London office.

 

 

 

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