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Hidden harm: Alcohol's devastating impact on children and families

A new study has revealed the full extent of alcohol-related family and domestic violence in Australia. More than one million children are estimated to be affected in some way by others drinking, 140,000 are substantially affected and more than 10,000 are in the child protection system because of a carer’s drinking.

The new study was officially launched at New South Wales Parliament House by Rosie Batty, family violence campaigner and 2015 Australian of the Year. Funded by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) and undertaken by the Centre for Alcohol Policy Research (CAPR), the study, ‘The hidden harm: Alcohol’s impact on children and families’, examined the prevalence and effects of heavy drinking on families and children and the extent to which they persisted or changed over time.

The study is a further example of the increasing attention being paid internationally to the adverse effects of alcohol on people other than the drinkers themselves, particularly family members and children, the phenomenon sometimes referred to as 'passive drinking'. In 1998, The Institute of Alcohol Studies, in association with Eurocare, prepared for the European Commission a report on alcohol and harm to families in the European Union, and in the UK there have been a large number of subsequent reports on the subject, and some political action, with improvements being made to the national response to family members damaged by the harmful drinking of another, normally a parent. In 2011, in furtherance of a commitment by the Coalition Government, the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse in England issued guidance to improve service provision:'Supporting information for the development of joint local protocols between drug and alcohol partnerships, children and family services', and a pioneering alcohol and drug family court had already been established in 2008.

Australian findings

The Australian study found that, in 2011, there were almost 30,000 police-reported incidents of alcohol-related domestic violence in just the States and Territories where such data is available, with the figure excluding alcohol-related assaults in Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory.

The new study draws on two national surveys of alcohol’s harm to others, service system data from policy and child protection services and information gained from qualitative interviews with families affected by others’ drinking, which revealed that children experienced a range of harms.

The harms reported by families varied. Children were verbally abused, left unsupervised, physically hurt or exposed to domestic violence as a result of others’ drinking. Most commonly, children witnessed verbal or physical conflict or inappropriate behaviour.

More than one quarter of respondents reported harm from the drinking of family members in at least one of the surveys undertaken in 2008 and 2011. These harms often persisted over time, with 50% of adult respondents harmed in 2008 also harmed in 2011 and 35% of children harmed in 2008 also harmed in 2011.

The study follows the release of the report 'The Range and Magnitude of Alcohol’s Harm to Others' (2010), which was the first Australian study to examine the harms from alcohol consumption on people other than the drinker.

With approximately half of reported domestic violence incidents and up to 47% of child protection cases involving alcohol, FARE Chief Executive Michael Thorn said the need was to understand alcohol's role in family and domestic violence and use this information to act to prevent this violence from occurring.

FARE has developed a policy options paper, in consultation with public health, domestic violence and family services, to propose a framework for action to prevent and reduce alcohol-related family and domestic violence. The policy options paper proposes a range of measures which can be implemented across the community, that focus on preventing violence before it happens, intervening early to prevent further harms for victims of violence and ensuring that service responses are appropriate. Mr Thorn said there was no one single solution to reduce alcohol-related family violence.

"If we are serious about reducing alcohol-related family violence, we have to consider a wider range of policy measures," he said. "We need national public education campaigns that acknowledge and address the role of alcohol in family violence; we need targeted screening of young people at greater risk of harm; and measures that reduce the availability, target the price, and regulate the promotion of alcohol; together with efforts to improve the way in which the alcohol and other drugs sector collaborates with domestic violence, child protection and mental health services."