Strengthening child protection in England for children affected by parental substance misuse

Lead Research Organisation: University of York
Department Name: Social Policy Social Work


It is well established that parental substance misuse can impair parents' capacity to meet their children's developmental needs, and it has been identified as a major risk factor in child maltreatment. Research studies and serious case reviews have identified several failures of children's social care services to respond to parental substance misuse and protect children from the associated harms. Parental substance misuse frequently remains unaddressed in child protection cases, and children can continue to live with parents who have drug or alcohol problems, leading to re-abuse and neglect. Further research is urgently required on the responses by child protection services to parental substance misuse.

My PhD thesis aims to examine responses to caregiver substance misuse by four child protection agencies in England. My research objectives are:
1. To examine child protection policies and practices with regards to parental substance misuse.
2. To compare responses to parental substance misuse by child protection services in four different local authorities.
3. To compare child protection practices in cases involving concerns about parental substance misuse with practices in cases not involving concerns about parental substance misuse.
4. To identify factors that influence professional practice in child protection cases involving parental substance misuse.

My PhD will have several components - case file analysis, interviews with social workers, document analysis and secondary data analysis, as detailed below.
- The case file analysis will link to an international study on child protection systems which is currently being undertaken in SPSW. I have been working on this study as a full-time Research Fellow, while studying for my PhD on a part-time basis. For this wider study, 400 social work case files were analysed across four local authorities in England. For the purpose of my PhD, I devised an additional set of questions on parental substance misuse which I added to the data collection schedule. Of the 400 case files analysed, 126 were found to involve professional concerns about parental substance misuse. For my PhD, I will investigate decision-making and intervention in these cases and will compare them to the other 274 cases in the dataset.
- I will conduct semi-structured qualitative interviews with 12-16 social workers across the same four sites, to explore policy and practice in relation to parental substance misuse in their agencies, and gain insights into the reasons behind any patterns found in the data from case files.
- I will examine local child protection policy guidance and training documents, in relation to parental substance misuse, which I will obtain from multi-agency Local Children's Safeguarding Boards and local authorities in the four sites.
- I will examine local 'children in need' statistics published by the Department for Education. These show the numbers of children assessed by individual local authorities, including the numbers of cases involving concerns about parental substance misuse. These statistics will provide context that will aid the interpretation of my primary data.
All of the above activities will be undertaken specifically for my PhD and not as part of the wider funded study.

I intend to complete my fieldwork and data analysis by September 2018 (after having converted to full-time study in 2017) and submit my thesis towards the end of 2019.

The beneficiaries of my PhD will be local authorities, who are responsible for child protection services and will benefit from an increased evidence base for decision-making and intervention in response to parental substance misuse. Ultimately, my work has the potential to enhance the quality of services for children affected by parental substance misuse, thereby also benefiting service users.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000746/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
1943866 Studentship ES/P000746/1 01/01/2016 15/03/2021 Helen Baldwin