Young children whose mothers abuse drugs may face a higher risk of abuse and placement in foster care, a new study finds.
Australian researchers found that infants whose mothers abused amphetamines or opiates such as heroin were 13 times more likely to become victims of neglect or abuse than other children their age. Their odds of being placed in foster care were similarly elevated, according to findings published in the journal Paediatrics.
Using data from child-protection services, Andrea McGlade of the Royal Children's Hospital in Brisbane and her colleagues found that half of the children born to drug-abusing mothers became victims of neglect or physical, emotional or sexual abuse.
Guide child protection workers
Experts have long recognised the heightened risk of harm to children of substance-abusing mothers. However, the few studies on the issue have been poor quality, and the extent of the risk has been unclear, noted McGlade.
"So if a baby is born to a substance-using mother," she told Reuters Health, "previously there was very little evidence to guide health and child protection workers as to what risk that baby may face due to the mother's drug use."
McGlade added that this is also the first study to show that children fare far better when their mothers are on methadone - a narcotic used to treat opiate addiction - than when mothers are abusing illegal drugs.
Compared with children whose mothers were compliant with methadone treatment, those whose mothers were on opiates or amphetamines had nearly three times the risk of neglect, abuse or foster-care placement.
The finding suggests that getting mothers effective treatment for their drug addiction will also help protect their children from harm, McGlade said.
52% of study group abused
The study included 119 infants of mothers who had acknowledged abusing opiates or amphetamines, or being on methadone. They were compared with 238 infants of non-drug-abusing mothers. Both groups were followed for roughly four years.
As many as 52% of the children born to drug-abusing mothers became victims of neglect or physical, emotional or sexual abuse, compared to 6% of children whose mothers did not abuse drugs.
One-quarter of children in the drug-abusing mother group ultimately entered foster care, versus 2% of the comparison group.
The findings, McGlade said, point to a need for "specific, targeted" parenting programs for women who use drugs. Adding family-planning services to substance-abuse treatment programs might also be beneficial, she noted. - (Amy Norton/Reuters Health)
SOURCE: Paediatrics, July 2009.
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