Social workers face challenging circumstances when dealing with families where children have been taken into care because a parent has both substance abuse and mental illness.
In his presentation on that topic Friday afternoon, Memorial University professor Dennis Kimberley said those "concurrent disorders" affect the adult's ability to parent as well as the child's development.
When people are dealing with several disorders, Kimberley said, a child who is placed in care once will likely end up in care again.
Parents with mental illness and substance abuse problems are known for frequent returns to treatment, leaving treatment prematurely and for having trouble functioning day-to-day, he said.
A professor in MUN's school of social work, Kimberley has more than four decades' experience working with families with multiple problems that affect their parenting skills.
He asked members of his audience (the majority of whom work in the area of child protection) to read the disclaimer on the front page of his presentation.
It notes that his intent was not to oppress or marginalize people with addiction and mental health challenges. He said he doesn't assume that all, or most, parents with substance abuse or mental illness are unsuitable for child care or parenting.
Instead, Kimberley said his presentation was based on "informed assumptions" from his research and direct experience.
During an interview prior to his presentation, Kimberley said some drug combinations can worsen a person's mental health symptoms, and social workers are dealing with powerful drugs such as ecstasy that weren't available decades ago.
When parents aren't well enough to care for their children, it's not unusual for children to take on the parenting role, he said.
"I've seen children as young as eight manage a household, make sure meals are ready and that other children get ready for school because the parent is not able to optimize their personal or social functioning because of their difficulties."
Ron Fitzpatrick is director of Turnings, a non-profit organization working with offenders and ex-offenders. Many of the people his organization helps have had their children taken from them because of drug addiction and mental health issues.
In some cases, Fitzpatrick said, parents who did get their children back have had them taken again after the parent went back to using drugs.
There are also other times, he said, when a parent is working hard to stay off drugs and is co-operating with Child, Youth and Family Services to get custody of their children. A change in social workers can set the process back, he said.
"Just as things start to go smoothly for them, their worker gets changed, then that new worker has to be brought up to speed on everything. Sometimes it's like they are always starting over," Fitzpatrick said.
There have also been occasions when the child's grandparents offer to care for the children, he said, but it could take months until a decision is made about the grandparents' ability to parent. Meanwhile, siblings are separated until the decision is made.
Fitzpatrick says he understands how stressful a social worker's job can be. He believes they fear if they make a mistake in judgment and something happens to a child, they could lose their job.
Kimberley said that while people with addiction and mental health issues require a high level of health care and, often, justice services, children who have been living in this environment also need specialized services when they come into care. Often specialized care is not available, he said.
"The things that we know work better are hard to get in most provinces," he said, "especially when you go outside the larger centres."