By Nathaniel Powers and Justin Moore
Back in 2003, I knew a certain mother of two. She was a friend of my roommate, and she would come over on weekends for drinks and such. Initially, I thought nothing of her visits. She was college educated, worked part-time, and I’d usually see her with her children at the grocery when she wasn’t at our place. Over time, however, something began to dig at me. She came over more frequently, and stayed longer, to the point where she was with us at least once a week and would stay the night. I didn’t ask at first, but found out eventually that her ten-year-old was at home taking care of her six-year-old. As a single parent, her courtship was removing her from her children in a way that our western mindset and laws does not abide by. Here was a seemingly responsible woman ‘abandoning’ her children to fulfill her need for connection. While the rhetoric of neglect was not established in my mind at the time, I knew she lived in a risky neighborhood. I knew, also, that there were no caretakers at home with her kids. I had a multitude of questions about her decisions that went unanswered: Were her children feeding themselves? Did they have any fire safety knowledge? Were they using the stove? Were they playing outside after dark? She eventually realized the danger she was putting herself in, and that the ramifications of staying out overnight with no guardians could land her in some deep water. She stopped staying over at night, and eventually stopped coming over much at all. My roommate had something to do with this, I’m sure.
In the end, all was well. She was never violent with her kids to my knowledge, and openly doted on them in public. Of course, the risk of accidents or worse things due to neglect was surely there, and fortunately, to my knowledge, no long term damage was done, perhaps because, to my knowledge there was no substance abuse issues. This may be considered only a minor incident, but a clear real life example of what our culture may define as neglect nonetheless.
Unlike my friend and her situation, other families may not realize the wrongs they are committing, or perhaps, if they do realize, lack the awareness or desire it takes to change. Research demonstrates that child neglect and parental substance abuse go hand in hand . The following will be an exploration of this relationship.
Merriam-Webster Online describes neglect as “failing to take care of or to give attention to someone or something” . In my friend’s case, her children were the victims of their mother’s absence. One may consider them fortunate that seemingly no ill effects became of her absence; however, some cycles of neglect can never be rectified and may result in far more dire outcomes. What makes issues of parental substance abuse and neglect so important to service professionals is not only the prevalence of such occasions, but the variability of these occasions. Families are living entities, and each has nuances that differ from the next. Having a solid hold on how to approach each one individually is essential to addressing the core issues of neglect and parental substance abuse.
In addition to substance abuse, the greatest parental contributors to childhood neglect are teen parenting and personal features . ‘Personal features’ here refers to issues that parents may be individually having difficulty coping with, such as depression, disability, overworking, or other conditions that translate into neglect in the home. Other causes of neglect are ‘child factors’, ‘family factors’, and ‘community and environmental factors’ . Child factors are childhood disabilities that require extended care. Family factors may include such things as single-parent households (as in the case of my acquaintance) or violent relationships between parents. Community/Environmental factors may include neighborhoods that are simply bad for anyone, or conditions of abject poverty, in which maintaining self-care and subsequent family-care are made exponentially more difficult due to low wages and poor resources.
A certain Princeton study, detailed that “children who have been abused and neglected are more likely to perform poorly in school and to commit crimes against other persons . These abused/neglected children more often experience emotional problems, depression, suicidal thoughts, sexual problems, and alcohol/substance abuse” . This is to say that abuse and neglect, which can be a direct result of parental substance abuse as will be discussed later, may affect the child or children on many levels.
English found that “between 50% and 80% of families involved with child protective services are dealing with a substance-abuse problem . When we combine the above factors in a poverty setting, “unrealistic expectations, depression, isolation, substance abuse, and domestic violence … increase the likelihood of maltreatment” .
What We’ve Learned
The overall landscape of childhood abuse and neglect in regards to parental/caregiver substance abuse goes deeper than a parent who simply has a problem of using. Cultural, economic, and environmental factors all contribute to the issue at hand. Alcohol and substance use alone does not beget violence in the home, but it can accentuate stressful situations and reduce inhibitions that may otherwise be employed in the prevention of physical or emotional violence and/or abuse. To view the incidence of childhood trauma as solely generated from a drug or alcohol is dangerously myopic. Treating such issues cannot be done by way of any one-shot regimented treatment, but should be done on a case-by-case basis. We feel it important to note that, “Family and friends influence the decisions of persons with substance abuse problems to get help, complete treatment, and maintain sobriety” , therefore it would be beneficial for service professionals to pay close attention to a drug abusing individual’s social support system. We have to remember as well that the great majority of parents with problems do want to be good parents to their children. Focusing on the parent’s social support system by the service professional may go a long way in changing the way the parent deals with stressful situations, and possibly rids ‘abusing the child’ as an option of coping.
Parents who abuse or neglect their children may in fact desire to be good parents, but the fact still remains that abuse and neglect have consequences – not just for the child, but also the parent. Abusing the child may lead to the parent being depressed over the idea that they are “bad parents”. This depression may lead the abusing parent or parents to feel helpless to change.
Children who have experiences of violence or neglect and exposure to parental substance abuse at a young age, while not guaranteeing proliferation of those behaviors throughout the lifespan, nevertheless “compromises the development of some but not all children” . Individual resilience on the part of some children can play a significant role in long-term development, and whether or not kids take the bruises of their childhoods with them into adulthood. In other words, ‘tougher’ kids make it out with fewer lasting scars. But not everybody can be tough, and sometimes toughness is a mask for something deeper that has only been successfully hidden.
Predicting the Future
While no one can say exactly what to expect when we’re addressing neglect and substance abuse in the home, we can say certainly that all scenarios are unique. A linear attempt at solving the issue via drug arrests or short-term therapy programs is likely to fail. There is a deeper cultural undercurrent that is keeping the flow of destabilization alive and it is this undercurrent that must be treated. In seeing the problem as such, we would do best to interpret that, while therapy for individual cases is essential to fixing the problem, it is by no means the only way out. In conjunction with therapy, preventative practices would play handily toward recovering individuals and communities affected by substance abuse related neglect and violence. Preventative practices, in this case, may be things such as a child never using drugs to begin with, or perhaps politicians lowering the penalty for petty drug crimes, or encouraging communal activities that bridge interpersonal connections between community members. That is to say, there are many different possible preventative possibilities that range from the individual level, to the community level, to the societal level. There are, of course, deeper issues such as ‘the economy’ that have a heavy hand in the cases of poverty and stress-related violence. The long and short is that each scenario is its own landscape of emotions, reasons, and origins, and each will have a different solution in the end.
Poetry is life in sound and pattern, and we felt that a poem would convey not only a story, but an image of pattern between single households and the greater human community. Each experience is different, and we hope the poem Let Yourself In encapsulates that difference in some way. In addition, if further interest is generated by this blog, two excellent resources for this subject are www.childwelfare.gov and the more personal discussions of domestic violence and abuse at https://www.reddit.com/r/domesticviolence/.
 English, E. (1998). The extent and consequences of child maltreatment. Future Of Children, 8(1), 39-53.
 Phillips, S. D., Gleeson, J. P., & Waites-Garrett, M. (2009). Substance-Abusing Parents in the Criminal Justice System: Does Substance Abuse Treatment Improve Their Children’s Outcomes?. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 48(2), 120-138.
This post was written by Nathaniel Powers and Justin Moore, guest bloggers for the MFLN Family Development (FD) team which aims to support the development of professionals working with military families. Nathaniel and Justin are masters-level marriage and family therapist (MFT) in training enrolled in the Marriage and Family Therapy Department at Valdosta State University.