Author: Dr Jessica Roy


Dr Jessica Roy is a lecturer in social work and childhood studies at the University of Bristol. Jessica’s ESRC funded PhD focused on the factors associated with short- and long-term social care outcomes for children living with parental substance misuse. Prior to starting her PhD, Jessica worked as a children and families social worker and a residential care worker. Jessica is currently involved in research relating to domestic violence and abuse. She is also scoping the feasibility of developing a practice relevant resource about parental substance misuse and children.
Email: [email protected] 
Further information on Jessica and her work available here

(In)stability- parental substance misuse and child protection

‘Their recycling bin is always full of bottles’ the teacher said to me. I am a social worker doing an assessment with a child where there are concerns about parental alcohol misuse. I know that the teacher is trying to be helpful: to tell me that the parents misuse of alcohol is – potentially -longstanding. Eight or so years on, and I can more readily pick apart how the teachers words reflect wider debates and issues in child protection, not least relating to the surveillance of (some) families. The words also indicate an enduring challenge: how social workers can appropriately identify, assess and support children and families affected by parental substance misuse. 

It is important first to say that many children growing up with a parent or carer who misuses drugs or alcohol (or both) do not experience abuse or neglect. However, the two issues frequently co-occur: a study by Ryan and colleagues[1] in three London boroughs found that up to 70% of children removed from the care of their parents had experienced parental substance misuse. Despite parental substance misuse being an issue which social workers frequently come across, research has shown that they often feel unprepared to work with it.[2] Furthermore, there is a lack of empirical research to support social work practice in this field: my review of literature found little UK evidence about the factors which, beyond the misuse of alcohol or drugs itself, may increase the risk of harm to children living with parental substance misuse.[3]

My recently completed PhD study aimed to address this gap by exploring factors associated with short and long-term social care outcomes of 299 children living with parental substance misuse who were referred to children’s social care in one local authority in England. The study followed the children for two years, collecting data from social work case files. One of the key factors associated with outcomes for children living with substance misuse was (in)stability. Children who had the poorest outcomes over the two-year period were those who experienced chronic instability. This meant they had repeated changes to who their main caregivers were, where they were living and who they were living with. It also meant they experienced living in households where there was ongoing domestic violence and abuse.[4]

What does this mean for practice? Overall, my findings suggest that it is important to take a long-term perspective in work with children and families where there is parental substance misuse.  This is because instability – by its very nature – can only be demonstrated over time. One-off assessments or periods of support for children and families in these situations are unlikely to address the underlying issue.

However, while a longer-term perspective is critical to identifying and supporting children who are at most risk of harm, it is at odds with the current state of play in children’s services.[5] Much social work with children and families is short-term, constrained by financial and structural factors. There are excellent examples of practice in this field (the Family Drug and Alcohol Court to name one), however these are limited in scope and not available to the majority of children and families.  

Taking a long-term perspective does not necessarily mean keeping children’s cases open to social work services for long periods of time. But, it may mean offering long-term community based support for children and families which is not time limited. This kind of work requires adequate services, resources and funding, all of which have long been denied in the children’s sector. More fundamentally, it may also require a philosophical shift in how we plan for and do child protection work in the UK.

This will, of course take time and I hope that the next forty years of the Association can see these changes realised. For the moment, I would recommend to my former self that - rather than talking about recycling bins - I talk about stability, with professionals, with the family and – most importantly – with the child.



[1] Ryan, M., Harwin, J. & Chamberlain, C. 2006. Report on the feasibility of establishing a drug and alcohol court at Wells St Family Proceedings Court. Prepared for LB Camden LB Islington LB Westminster CAFCASS Wells Street Inner London Family Proceedings Court and Brunel University.

[2] Galvani, S. & Forrester, D. 2010. How Well Prepared are Newly Qualified Social Workers for Working with Substance Use Issues? Findings from a National Survey in England. Social Work Education, 30, 422-439.

[3] Roy, J. (2018) Children living with parental substance misuse: A longitudinal study of factors associated with social care outcomes in one local authority in England PhD thesis, University of Bristol.

[4] Roy, J. (2018) Children living with parental substance misuse: A longitudinal study of factors associated with social care outcomes in one local authority in England PhD thesis, University of Bristol.

[5] Spratt, T., Devaney, J., & Frederick, J. (2019). Adverse childhood experiences: Beyond signs of safety; reimagining the organisation and practice of social work with children and families. DOI: 10.1093/bjsw/bcz023