Thursday, June 17, 1999 Published at 09:26 GMT 10:26 UK
Child drug services 'need big cash injection'
Drug services are seeing younger and younger children
Children with drugs problems are missing out on the treatment they need because of a lack of investment in specialist services, say leading charities.
They are calling for a "substantial investment" in child-centred services and for a clarification of the legal area surrounding treating young people without their parents' consent.
On average, young people under 16 are waiting three months for drug treatment, but many face much longer waits.
This is despite evidence of an increase in drug use, particularly heroin, among the young.
Up to 40% of young people are estimated to have tried illegal drugs by the time they are 16, with 11% being regular users.
Since 1996, the number of drug users under 20 requesting drug services has increased by 2%, including those under 15 whose main drug of use is heroin.
Children aged between 14 and 15 now constitute the most at risk group in the new heroin epidemic which police say is sweeping the country.
The Children's Legal Centre and the Standing Conference on Drug Abuse (Scoda) say child drug users need different services from adults.
They have set out a 10-point plan for professionals working with child drug users.
The plan calls for a four-tier strategy for combating drug problems, including education, counselling and specialist services for serious misusers.
It says professionals need special training in dealing with young people and that special considerations are needed for vulnerable groups, such as young offenders or the homeless.
Annette Dale-Perera of Scoda said: "Services must take all drug use seriously yet they must avoid a knee-jerk overreaction to a young person who is taking drugs.
"All professionals working with young people must know when and who to refer a young person to when problematic drug misuse is suspected."
The plan also outlines the legal minefield faced by drug workers who deal with children, including areas such as confidentiality.
It advises that, wherever possible, young people should be encouraged to involve their parents in attempts to reduce their drug use, but says a small number may have to be treated without their parents' consent.
Drug experts say the legal area surrounding parental consent is notoriously cloudy.
A spokesman for the drug and alcohol charity Turning Point said this led to drug workers often feeling "a bit unprotected and vulnerable" when working with young children.
Scoda and the Children's Legal Centre say that drug workers have to balance legislation such as the Children Act and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which put the interests of the child first with the need other legislation related to underage children.
"We are not saying all children should be treated without their parents' consent, but it is a question of harm minimisation and building a relationship between a child and a drug professional, like that of a doctor and patient," said a spokeswoman.
In the case of children deemed at risk, confidentiality would have to be broken, she added.
Turning Point believes the grey area will probably not be resolved until a test case goes before the courts.
It was forced to close one of the few residential centres for young drug users last year because of lack of funding.
Ironically, the centre may have been able to stay open if it could have hung on one year longer as the government has recently announced a £217m investment in drugs for the next three years.
The spokesman said: "Young people sometimes have to wait up to a year for drug services. If they have a chaotic drug problem, they are not in a fit state to get through all the waiting.
"They may get involved in the criminal justice system. They are not likely to hang around for a doctors' appointment."
He added that funding for drug programmes had to be more long-term and get to young people before their habit became ingrained.
"Effective treatment is the only way and it is cost effective. Research shows for every £1 spent on drug treatment £3 is saved in crime and other costs."
The government's drugs czar Keith Hellawell, who is backing the Scoda/Children's Legal Centre plan, called specifically for improvements in services for under-25-year-olds in his first report to the government.
He proposed a reduction in the number of young people using heroin and cocaine by 50% by 2008.