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USDTL Research

The Association Between Environmental Exposure to Illicit Drugs and Child Abuse

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By Joseph Jones, MS, NRCC-TC Vice President Laboratory Operations

Children in an environment where illicit drugs are allowed, used, or manufactured are at high risk for a number of negative health outcomes including physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, and neglect. The ill-effects of substance abuse extend beyond the obvious self-inflicted damage caused by the use of the drug itself. The responsibility of caring for a child is very demanding and substance abuse by an adult charged with a child’s well-being is counter-productive to this task (Wells, 2009). Intoxicated caregivers will not respond appropriately and will have impaired judgment. Withdrawing caregivers are likely to be inattentive, violent, and paranoid.

The association between drug abuse and child abuse has been well documented. Several studies have demonstrated that children living in an environment of substance abuse were approximately 2.7 and 4.2 times more likely to experience abuse and neglect, respectively (White, 1995; Kelleher et al, 1994; SAMHSA, 1996). A national survey conducted by Prevent Child Abuse America reported that substance abuse in the home was one of the leading contributing factors for families reported for child abuse (Wang and Harding, 1999). A study conducted of cases before a metropolitan juvenile court reported that 43% of child abuse cases before that court involved parents engaged in substance abuse (Murphy et al, 1991). Lastly, Reid, Macchetto, and Foster (1999) reported that up to two-thirds of child abuse related fatalities also involved caregiver substance abuse.

A child who has been identified as drug exposed is also identified to be at high risk for a number of negative consequences. The primary objective for testing is to assist authorities in identifying those in need of substance abuse treatment and connect them to the appropriate resources. However, in the absence of compliance with substance abuse treatment, Wells (2009) points out that court-ordered termination of parental rights must be considered to ensure a safe and stable environment for the child.


Kelleher K, Chaffin M, Hollenberg J, et al. (1994). Alcohol and drug disorders among physically abusive and neglectful parents in a community-based sample. American Journal of Public Health, 84, 1586–1590.

Murphy, J., Jellinew, M., Quinn, D., Smith, G., Poistrast, F., & Goshko, M. (1991). Substance abuse and serious child maltreatment: prevalence, risk, and outcome in a court sample. Child Abuse & Neglect, 15(3), 197-211.

Reid, J., Macchetto, P., & Foster, S. (1999). No safe haven: children of substance-abusing parents. New York: National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). (1996). National household survey on drug abuse: main findings. Rockville, MD: SAMHSA, Office of Applied Studies.

Wang, C. & Harding, K. (1999). Current trends in child abuse reporting and fatalities: the results of the 1998 annual fifty state survey. Chicago: National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse.

Wells, K. (2009). Substance abuse and child maltreatment. [Review]. Pediatric clinics of North America, 56(2), 345-362. doi: 10.1016/j.pcl.2009.01.006

White, W. (1995). SAFE 95: a status report on Project Safe, an innovative project designed to break the cycle of maternal substance abuse and child neglect/abuse. Springfield, IL: Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

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