Alcohol the most toxic factor in neglect of over one million Australian kids

Smithfield Public School Principal Cheryl McBride says Government funding for children's protection services is woefully ...
Smithfield Public School Principal Cheryl McBride says Government funding for children's protection services is woefully inadequate.  Photo: 123RF.com

Media villain methamphetamine, or ice, is indeed evil. Yet when it comes to child neglect, it's the bottle, not the crack pipe that's mostly to blame.

With 2.1 per cent of Australians snorting, smoking or injecting ice annually, according to the 2013 National Drug Strategy Household Survey, compared to a whopping 22 per cent of us binge drinking monthly, it's clear why grog is the substance destroying us, and by extension, our kids.

Cheryl McBride, School Principal at Smithfield Public School, a hotbed of disadvantage, says "the...dependency on alcohol is certainly more prevalent in my experience than the addiction to ice..." and is inextricably linked with child neglect.

Cheryl McBride.
Cheryl McBride. Photo: Supplied

Ms McBride is echoed by Associate Professor Stephanie Taplin, Acting Director of the Institute of Child Protection Studies. "Foundation for Alcohol Research & Education research estimated that over a million Australian children are affected in some way by the drinking of others. It is certainly a much bigger problem in terms of numbers in relation to child abuse than ice is, because... a lot more people drink to excess than they use ice".

Alcoholism is devastating in-vitro. It can cause foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, which gives rise to a range of conditions including "...cognitive retardation, behavioural issues, impaired social skills and adjustment problems", says Ms McBride.

Out of the womb, alcohol remains a menace to children. Associate Professor Taplin says with binge drinking comes an "increased likelihood of neglect, violence and distracted, poor parenting".

Ms McBride says "parenting just goes out the window" and kids end up "effectively raising themselves". If they do manage to bring food to school at all, it will be junk; crisps and sugary sodas. Their malnutrition is almost certainly replicated at home.

And it gets worse. Drink driving is a real concern. "... We've had to ask parents not to drive their kids home..." says Ms McBride.

Kids generally experience the aftershocks of abuse and neglect well into the future. "There is some increased likelihood that children of heavy substance users will use substances themselves. There is also an increased risk of "mental health problems, poor education outcomes, homelessness, and domestic violence" facing child victims in the medium to long term, says Associate Professor Taplin.

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Often, it's left to the school to nurture these children, or at the very least, keep them from starving, as Ms McBride explains, "...where the parents can't give [the support], the school must."

It all seems rather hopeless, but its' not. Associate Professor Taplin points to the need for treatment and support for substance-abusing parents as a starting point. "None of these problems are solved quickly, they're often very entrenched and need long-term support", she says. Yet she is concerned that Government funding cuts are undermining these services.

Ms McBride puts it bluntly, her anger apparent. "Family and Community Services are not...pulling their weight". She relates that children who've been mildly or even severely neglected are ignored due to all of the (scarce) funds being directed to physical abuse cases, even though "the outcomes [for neglected children] can be as significant ..." With extra funding would come "an opportunity to break the cycle."

Sadly, her concerns ring true factually. Government figures from March this year indicate that in New South Wales, only one in four children at risk of serious harm are being seen by a caseworker for assessment.

Ms McBride continues to lead her school's efforts in the battle against alcohol-related child neglect, yet she resents this necessity. "There shouldn't be a need for crusaders. It should be people doing their jobs, and plenty of them available to do so."