Blending Perspectives and Building Common Ground. Extent and Scope of the Problem

04/01/1999

While parents abuse alcohol and other drugs at lower rates than do persons without children, 11 percent of U.S. children, 8.3 million, live with at least one parent who is either alcoholic or in need of treatment for the abuse of illicit drugs.  Of these, 3.8 million live with a parent who is alcoholic, 2.1 million live with a parent whose primary problem is with illicit drugs, and 2.4 million live with a parent who abuses alcohol and illicit drugs in combination.  These children are distributed relatively evenly across the childhood age span, although child welfare agencies are more likely to encounter younger children.  While they have received the majority of attention, children prenatally exposed to drugs and alcohol represent only a small proportion of the children affected and potentially endangered by parental substance abuse. 

Few of the children living with parents who have substance abuse problems come into contact with the child welfare system.  Of children prenatally exposed to drugs, most studies find that approximately 10 to 20 percent enter foster care around the time of birth and that about a third do so within a few years.  Others are cared for by relatives who may or may not have legal custody.  Most remain in their parent(s)' care for all or most of their childhoods. 

Parents who are alcoholic or are in need of treatment for the abuse of illicit drugs are demographically quite similar to the U.S. population as a whole.  They are as likely to be fathers as mothers, although mothers with substance abuse problems are much more likely than fathers to be reported to child protective services.  African American women with substance abuse problems are more likely to be involved with child welfare agencies than are similar women of other races.  Many parents, especially mothers, who enter substance abuse treatment are motivated to do so out of concerns about their parenting and how their substance abuse is affecting their children. 

For many children who are reported to the child welfare system, parental substance abuse is a critical factor.  While figures vary for methodological reasons, most studies find that for between one-third and two-thirds of children involved with the child welfare system, parental substance abuse is a contributing problem (lower figures tend to involve child abuse reports and higher findings most often refer to children in foster care).  Children with open child welfare cases whose parents have substance abuse problems are younger than other children in the child welfare system, are more likely to be the victims of severe and chronic neglect, are from families with more problems overall, and are more likely than other children to be placed in foster care rather than served while remaining at home.  Once in foster care, children whose parents have substance abuse problems tend to remain in care for longer periods of time than other children.