"Parental drug use does not automatically put a child at serious risk of harm" ... Dr Stephanie Taplin, a visiting fellow at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre. Photo: Rebecca Hallas

MANY mothers with a history of serious drug use are still capable of caring for their children, given the right support, a new study has found. But most mothers in the state's methadone programs were not getting the services they needed.

The study found a child was more at risk of abuse or neglect because of a mother's mental health problems and social isolation than from the drug problem itself. ''You can't say all drug-using parents are abusive; some are quite together,'' said the co-author of the study, Stephanie Taplin, a visiting fellow at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre.

Dr Taplin interviewed 171 mothers who attended methadone programs in Sydney over three years. Nearly all had been heroin users, and 37 were still using the drug. Many were caring for children but a third had at least one child under 16 removed by Community Services; about half had been given up at birth.

Dr Taplin found mothers, regardless of the severity of their drug problem, were less likely to have children removed if they were in daily contact with their own mothers, were not on medication for mental health problems such as depression and had fewer children.

''Parental drug use does not automatically put a child at serious risk of harm. It's important to look at the whole picture, including the level of dependence, the type of drug used, and if they use around the children,'' she said.

But some women had told her Community Services expected total abstinence for them to be able to keep their children or have them returned. ''In some cases, it was clear the decision to remove the children was right, in some cases it seemed harsh,'' she said.

The study found women who attended methadone programs in the Redfern-Waterloo area were much more likely to have had children removed after notification to the local Community Services office than were women in other parts of Sydney - 50 per cent compared with 29 per cent.

Dr Taplin said that the disparity should be investigated, given the women did not appear to differ in any important characteristics.

The study, with Professor Richard Mattick, found most women on the methadone program were not getting the mental health services and social support they needed.

''We should be doing more to reduce the high rates of intergenerational abuse, trauma and disadvantage,'' Dr Taplin said. ''The provision of women-only services is critical.''

The women, average age 37, came from deeply disadvantaged backgrounds, the study found. Two-thirds had experienced physical or sexual abuse, and more than a third an ''upsetting sexual experience with a relative or person in authority''. On average the abuse had occurred at age 10.

Dr Taplin said all girls who suffered sexual abuse needed access to intensive psychological help. They were at higher risk of mental health problems, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy and removal of their children. ''More has to be done for these young women before they become mothers,'' Dr Taplin said.

Removal of children would not stop intergenerational harm as many gravitated back to their mothers from care.

The overwhelming proportion of mothers said the methadone program had improved their parenting abilities.

Source: www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/life/addicts-arent-necessarily-bad-mothers-study-finds-20111204-1odfa.html