The NSPCC defines ‘Parental substance misuse’ as ‘the long-term misuse of drugs and/or alcohol by a parent or carer’ [1]. They continue, explaining that ‘parents and carers who misuse substances can have chaotic, unpredictable lifestyles and may struggle to recognise and meet their children’s needs. This may result in their children being at risk of harm’ [1]. It is important that we safeguard children from any harm or neglect that may be a result of parental substance misuse.  

Chris Miller, LSCB Chair Harrow spoke at our conference, The 2nd Annual Working Together To Safeguard Children & Young People Conference. Chris shared the outcomes of a pilot in Harrow which utilises technology that gives real time recordings of the alcohol or drugs in an individual’s system. This case study shows us how we can deploy technology to keep children safe in complex family environments. 

What is the problem? 

Living in a household where a ‘parent or carer misuses substances doesn’t mean a child will experience abuse, but it does make it more difficult for parents to provide safe and loving care and this can lead to abuse or neglect’ (NSPCC).  

However, Public Health England reported that, from 2015 to 2020, ‘nearly a fifth of families with a child on a child protection plan also had someone dependent on drugs or alcohol’ [2]. Analysis has shown that factors such as domestic abuse, parental mental health problems, adverse childhood experiences and criminality all often interact with drug and alcohol misuse. The more factors present the higher the cumulative risk [2]. 

Furthermore, statistics from the Department for Education (DfE) indicate that when a child has educational difficulties it can often be linked to parental substance misuse. DfE reports that parental substance misuse is also a common feature in serious case reviews, with parental alcohol and drug misuse ‘both recorded as present in over a third of reviews (37% and 38% respectively)’, and ‘at least one of these in 47% of cases’ [3]. 

How is Harrow council tackling this? 

To help reduce alcohol and substance misuse the Harrow pilot adopted two pieces of equipment. The first simply requires the individual to place their finger on the device. The device then assesses the drug metabolites present in a person’s system through the collection of their finger sweat, providing a real time measurement. This has proven successful due to its non-invasive measuring (it doesn’t require spit or blood) and its ease of use [4].  

The second is a simple, transportable, alco metre. For the alcohol test, volunteering parents agree to provide three breath samples a day at home. With each sample a photograph is taken, and social workers are provided results in real time. Equally, they are informed if there is a series of missed tests or significant excess alcohol readings [4].  

The requirement of self-regulating alongside the regularity of the tests, creating routine, allows for the individual to see little steps of progress. Furthermore, the “all facts friendly” nature of the results leads to better informed, more honest discussions with social workers [4]. In turn, this moves the case on, reducing drift and delays. 

What have the outcomes been? 

Chris talked us through a couple of example case studies. The first showed how the technology had helped the parent’s recovery and enabled them to prove their sobriety, consequently they were allowed to keep the children in their care [4].  The second showed how the technology could allow the social worker to see there had been no recordings of sobriety. Therefore, they were able to confidently keep the children in care and move the mother onto an alcohol treatment programme [4].  

Harrow council employed an independent researcher to gain the parent’s/client’s perspective of the pilot. They recorded an “overwhelmingly positive” response [4]. The research quoted individuals [4]: 

“I want to resolve things. The fingerprint tests are helping me to improve contact with my daughter” 

“It makes things easier having the results immediately, and if there is an issue then you can talk right there and then.” 

This pilot has shown how to deploy technology to keep children safe. Furthermore, the difference in cost of intervention from a looked after child, costing £66,000, to the Child in Need Plan, costing £1754 is significant [4]. Besides this use of technology making much more sense financially, if a child can stay safely with their parents that is obviously the best outcome.  

Chris shared the following proposals [4]: 

  • Mainstream the use of alcohol monitors in cases where they might protect children  
  • Develop home based solutions to the drug testing  
  • Combine these interventions with Domestic Violence interventions for perpetrators and victims (where Domestic Violence is accompanied by drugs or alcohol dependency) 


[1] NSPCC. 2020. Parental substance misuse. 

[2] Public Health England. 2018. Safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children affected by parental alcohol and drug use: a guide for local authorities. 

[3] Department for Education. 2016. Pathways to harm, pathways to protection: a triennial analysis of serious case reviews 2011 to 2014  

[4] Miller, C. 2020. The 2nd Annual Working Together To Safeguard Children & Young People Conference 

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This case study examines a pilot in Harrow which utilises technology that gives real time recordings of the alcohol or drugs in an individual’s system. It shows us how we can deploy technology to keep children safe in complex family environments.

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