Parents who use drugs: whose rights, what rights?

By Emma Wincup

On 13th May 2022, the Relations Study Team were delighted to welcome over 40 attendees to their first webinar, a mixture of researchers, practitioners and kinship carers. The theme was ‘Parents who use drugs: whose rights, what rights?’, exploring a topic that had been discussed frequently in the study’s Learning Alliance meetings.

The word 'Family'

Parental rights: a legal perspective

To set the scene Dr Simon Flacks, a member of the Study Advisory Group, helpfully shed light on the complex landscape of parental rights. He explained that parents have a range of rights.  Some of these are protected in law whilst others are less tangible and based on what society thinks is morally just. Parents have rights as individuals, as well as parents, but parental rights can be more controversial. In law the focus is on parental responsibilities but these are intricately linked to parental rights. Similarly, they are linked to children’s rights: do children have the right to have responsible parents?

Decisions about the best course of action when it becomes apparent that parents are using drugs can be difficult. It involves making judgements about risk and harm, balancing the rights of the different family members. Courts have responsibilities to decide what is in the best interests of the child, although any action taken needs to be necessary and proportionate.

Often, assumptions about parental drug use as inherently harmful may impact on how decisions are made. While the law provides guidance, there is significant flexibility for judgements to be made, and this then ties up closely to wider social meaning associated with parenting, drug use, and childhood.

Parental rights: a parent’s perspective

Lavinia, a member of the study’s Learning Alliance, reflected on her own experience of being a parent negotiating her journey from accessing drug treatment through to long-term recovery. She noted that when parents reach out for help their own rights are not at the forefront of their mind. Instead, their focus is on ensuring that their children receive the care that they need. However, parental rights should be brought to the fore as part of a wider commitment to supporting parents (as individuals and parents) navigating systems that prioritise children’s needs. Lavinia noted that her rights (or responsibilities) as a parent were rarely acknowledged when she sought help from services. She made the practical suggestion that a leaflet might be prepared outlining what rights parents in these circumstances have and how they might access support to realise them.

Grandparents: forgotten rights

At the end of the webinar we heard from two participants, both kinship carers, who reflected briefly on their own experiences of grandmothers with the challenge of looking after their grandchildren as well as their own children. Their stories provided further evidence that family members are too often overlooked by support services, and provided food for thought about the complexities of grandparents’ rights.

In case you missed it

The recording of the seminar is available.