As specialist children law solicitors we are asked if the family court will order that a husband or wife or an ex-partner cannot have contact with their child because of parental alcohol addiction. There isn’t a yes or no answer as in every case the court will look at what is in the best interests of the child. In this blog we look at the topic of alcohol addiction in children law proceedings.
Can alcoholism stop child contact?
Children solicitors will tell you that it is too broad a question to ask ‘’can alcoholism stop child contact?’’ as so much depends on:
- Whether the alcoholism has an effect on the parent’s behaviour towards the child or the other parent
- The age of the child
- The effect (short and long term) of not having an ongoing relationship with a parent
- The measures that could be put in place to make contact safe and rewarding for the child
- The help available for the child and parents.
When a children law solicitor is asked about alcoholism and child contact they will normally want to know how one parent’s alcohol use affects their daily life and their behaviour towards their child. That is because there are many people with ‘’functioning alcoholism’’ who are able to work and enjoy relationships whereas sadly that isn’t the case for others.
That is why it is so important that children law solicitors take the time to discuss your particular family circumstances and drill down to what it is about the alcohol usage that makes you want to stop child contact.
A case study of how alcohol affects child contact
One mother whose ex-husband was a highly successful business owner and functioning alcoholic wanted to stop contact between her two teenage sons and their father because of his alcoholism.
What was actually her ‘’drilled down ‘’ cause of concern was her ex-husband insisting that he was ok to drive the children and her fears for their safety. From the mother’s perspective, it was good that her children continued to see their dad so that they knew he was all right and that they didn’t worry about him or hold him on a pedestal because she had stopped contact.
In this mother’s case the best thing to do was to listen to her and help her find the right solution for her children. She knew, from past experience, that as her husband didn’t want to deal with his functioning alcoholism, no amount of requests from her would make him see a counsellor or get help. Likewise, after discussion and legal advice, she knew that one of her teenage sons would blame her if contact stopped whereas the other one found contact embarrassing and wasn’t bothered about going.
Some children law solicitors see an application for a child arrangements order or a prohibited steps order to stop contact as the answer to all problems over contact. It isn’t necessarily the solution. In the mother’s case, after she had taken legal advice on her options, she had the experience to realise that if she applied for a child arrangements order the father would deny his alcoholism and refuse to take part in any testing ordered by the court or psychological assessment or any recommended follow up treatment or support.
Whilst the court has the power to order tests and assessments in child arrangements order applications, the court cannot make a parent undergo alcohol or substance testing or assessment if the parent refuses to do so. All the court can do is draw inferences from a parent’s unwillingness to participate in testing or assessment.
The court’s ability to make inferences is often a powerful motivator in a parent’s willingness to participate in testing and assessment. That is because of the parent’s belief that the testing results should be better for them than inferences based on a lack of cooperation after the other parent has raised sufficient concerns for the court to be willing to sanction testing or assessment.
When it comes to alcoholism and child contact, an application for a child arrangements order can bring about a lot of change as the court arena can make parents realise just how seriously the other parent views their issue with alcohol. In other families compromise can be the better option for the family.
So you may wonder how the mother of the two teenage boys resolved her dilemma over her ex-husband’s alcoholism and her fears for her teenage sons travelling in a car driven by their father. She looked at what was best for her sons and concluded that maintaining a relationship with their father was the best option for them. Whilst he was unreliable as a father and let the children down he was nonetheless their father and the youngest would blame her, rather than his father’s alcoholism, for the lack of contact.
The mother set about problem solving and instead of the boys going to visit their dad at his home, where there was alcohol and films she didn’t approve of, contact became centred on football matches and she asked her brother in law and the children’s uncle to help provide support and a safe means of transport.
Did the solution work? It certainly wasn’t without its difficulties and it put the teenagers in a position of reporting if there were issues. This was not something the mother felt very comfortable about but she concluded, on balance, that it was the right thing to do even if on occasion she was used as a taxi service and the boys were let down when their father didn’t show up.
Would the child contact solutions have been different for another parent? As children law solicitors we would say yes. For example:
- If the parent’s alcoholism was more recent in nature and the parent was more likely to agree to testing and assessment as part of a child arrangements order application
- The parent’s behaviour, fuelled by their alcoholism, made it dangerous for the other parent to come into contact with them and meant that they needed injunction orders to protect themselves
- The child wasn’t old enough to help safeguard themselves. In that scenario contact fully supported by grandparents or taking place within a contact centre may be the best option for the child
- The child was of an age to say that they didn’t want to see their parent and the other parent fears that forcing them to have contact isn’t actually best for the child. Sometimes family counselling is one way forward if a child and parent will agree to this so an older child can explain , in a safe and neutral setting, how they feel and how not turning up for pre-arranged contact or any other effects of the alcohol addiction makes the child feel.
Recreational use, binge drinking, dependence or alcohol addiction
Children law solicitors will tell you that one of the biggest issues in trying to resolve parenting and childcare arrangements when there are alcohol or substance use concerns is the parent’s differing perception of the issue.
Many dedicated and caring parents say that they are ‘’recreational users’’ of substances or over imbibe and binge drink at the weekends. Should that affect their contact with their child? It all depends on the parenting arrangement as, for example. alternate weekend contact and midweek contact may meet the child’s needs and not affect the parent’s lifestyle choices. It can sometimes be hard for the other parent to accept that such contact could be in a child’s best interests when they have lived full time with the parent’s binge drinking behaviour.
It is equally hard when one parent believes that the other is alcohol dependent and the other disputes it. Sometimes practical, non-judgemental examples of how a child feels can help make contact work, for example, saying how the child feels if the parent doesn’t turn up for contact or arrives late.
If you think that your ex-partner is alcohol dependent or their substance misuse is affecting the quality of their contact then you can ask the court to:
- Make a child arrangements order to restrict contact, for example, so contact takes place at a contact centre or is supervised by a family member
- Make a child arrangements order subject to conditions so that the parent must comply with conditions such as not drinking for twenty four hours before a contact visit
- Stop direct contact between parent and child. Indirect contact such as letters, cards, presents, phone calls and Skype may all be appropriate depending on their content and whether the child gets very distressed if the parent makes promises about Skype calls but then forgets.
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Ideally, talk of starting an application for a child arrangements order can make a parent realise just how worried the other parent is and even if they don’t see their drinking as a problem they will try to modify their behaviour and drinking around contact times.
What to do next?
If you are worried about your child because you think that your former partner’s alcohol or substance use is affecting their relationship and contact is having an adverse effect on your child then before you stop or change contact it is best to take legal advice from a children law solicitor and professional advice. Speaking to someone else can help you come to a balanced view on whether an application for a child arrangements order is in your child’s best interests and your alternative options.
If you are a parent who has had allegations of drug or alcohol abuse made against you then the best advice is to take legal advice. That is because the first thing many parents do is deny there is a problem. Sometimes there isn’t a problem. However, if there is an issue with alcohol consumption, then denying that the problem exists makes it more likely that the court will make a child arrangements order that you are unhappy with whereas that outcome can potentially be avoided through cooperation and representation.