Public Defenders

Early Exposure to Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse

Executive Summary

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Research shows that children in families with parental or carer substance abuse are at greater risk of a range of adverse developmental outcomes.1 Living in a household where misuse of alcohol and other drugs occurs is may increase the likelihood of children being substance misusers themselves and being involved in the juvenile justice system.2

The direct effects of childhood exposure to alcohol and other drug abuse may include:

  • emotional and physical abuse;
  • maltreatment;
  • modelling of poor drinking and substance abusing behaviours;
  • inadequate supervision; and
  • separation from parents due to incarceration and hospitalisation.3

The separation of children from parents and caregivers through parental imprisonment for drug-related offences may result in a child remaining with the other parent, ending up in informal kinship care, or being placed in out-of-home care by care and protection authorities.4 Parental incarceration and experiences of out-of-home care are themselves factors which may increase the likelihood of a person coming into contact with the criminal justice system.5

The potential relevance of evidence of early exposure to alcohol and other drug abuse in sentencing proceedings includes an assessment of moral culpability; moderating the weight to be given to general deterrence; and determining the weight to be given to specific deterrence and protection of the community. There may also be issues relating to the likelihood of hardship in custody, a finding of special circumstances and the shaping of conditions to enhance prospects of rehabilitation.


[1] Australian Institute of Family Studies, Child Maltreatment and Substance Abuse (NCPC Discussion Paper No 2, 1996); Anne-Marie Laslett et al, The Range and Magnitude of Alcohol's Harm to Others (Report, AER Centre for Alcohol Policy Research, Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre, Eastern Health, 2010); Australian Institute of Family Studies, Improving Outcomes for Children Living in Families with Parental Substance Misuse: What Do We Know and What Should We Do (NCPC Issues No 29, 2008); National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction, From Policy to Implementation: Child and Family Sensitive Practice in the Alcohol and Other Drugs Sector (ANCD Research Paper, October 2013) 1; Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, The Hidden Harm: Alcohol's Impact on Children and Families (Report, February 2015) 1.

[2] Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, The Impact of Drug and Alcohol Misuse on Children and Families (Report, December 2006) 1.

[3] Ibid.

[4] See, eg, Frank Ainsworth, 'Drug Use by Parents: The Challenge for Child Protection and Drug and Alcohol Services' (2004) 29(3) Children Australia 4, 7.

[5] Refer also to Bar Book chapters Incarceration of a Parent or Caregiver and Out-of-Home Care.