Supporting a Child Whose Mom has an Addiction

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Reader’s Question

My husband and I are now taking care of a 10-year-old girl, because her mom is an addict who won’t get help. We have had her for approximately four weeks. She sees her mom two days a week, and texts her twice a day.

Tomorrow she is going to her mom’s, and for the second time, she got a belly ache and couldn’t sleep. Sick to her stomach! I went in to talk, because I noticed that both times this happened, it was the night before she was going home. I told her that, and asked her if she was okay going home. She told me that every time she heard a noise during he night, she thought my husband and I were having sex.

When I asked her why she was feeling this way, she told me that she caught her mother having sex three times with three different men, and the thought of this made her feel sick. I assured her that kind of behaviour wouldn’t happen here, and I explained marriage to the best of my ability, and I talked to her about love between a mother and a father. I assured her she would always be safe with us. I told her I couldn’t guarantee her mother’s actions, but if she heard sounds at home, she should stay in her room. I also said that she could talk to me anytime. Is there anything else that I could or should do now?

I love this child and would like to see her escape this unharmed. I know this is impossible, but I want to do my best to do the right thing for her.

Psychologist’s Reply

You seem to have good instincts about how to handle your young charge’s questions in the moment. Talking to her about the role of sex in a relationship, as well as helping her come up with a safety plan while with her mom, are both great ways to address the issues she brought you. However, the bare bones of the situation you sketched suggest that her overall mental and physical safety are in question when she is in her mom’s custody.

Given the lack of details given in your question, I’m going to tackle this from several different possible angles. In each, however, the primary goals are to keep this girl safe, and to facilitate an improved relationship with her mother. You have not said that the mother is actively harmful to her daughter, but that she is an addict with a promiscuous sex life. Unless she is in danger of physically harming her daughter through abuse, violence or extreme neglect, it is likely that there is still something worthwhile in this parental relationship. It is in the girl’s best interests that a serious salvage effort be made so that she does not lose her relationship with her only parent. On the other hand, if you believe that this girl is in immediate danger upon returning home, or that she is being seriously neglected (not taken to school, not being fed, etc.) then you should immediately call your area’s child protection agency to report the situation and ask for assistance for this girl.

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If you are a relative, especially a grandparent, of this girl, there is a chance you might have some legal rights which would allow you to set up a more permanent custody arrangement. If this is the case, I highly recommend speaking to a family attorney so that you can become clearer about what the possibilities are. If her mother is motivated to receive help from you in raising her daughter, you may be able to come to an arrangement together that would involve such things as visitation at your home or in another safe location so that the girl is not exposed to dangerous items or individuals in her mother’s house. They could also involve a commitment by both parties to getting the girl mental health services to help her cope with the turmoil in her young life. Changes in custody would likely be predicated on the mother successfully completing a rehab program or submitting a certain number of ‘clean’ drug tests. Keep in mind that total sobriety is a long process for some, and that a parent can be a positive influence in their child’s life while on the road to recovery even if they still struggle with their addiction. On the other hand, if her mother is hostile to the idea of you taking legal action to attain custody, your family attorney will be in the best position to advise you about the likelihood of your success if you take the case to court.

If you have no blood ties to your young friend, you still have several options. One would be to contact her school to discuss the situation with the school counselor there. The counselor might not be able to give you any information, due to confidentiality issues, but there is no reason you could not tell her your concerns. This would alert the school, if they were not aware already, of the unstable living situation in this girl’s home. Most school teachers and counselors are mandated reporters as well, and thus are in a position to contact your local child protection agency if they see evidence of abuse or neglect.

You also have the option of making a call to the child protection agency yourself, to seek advice on how to proceed. By calling, you have the opportunity to learn more about how you might connect the girl and her mother with a social worker who could monitor the home situation and be an advocate for the girl’s welfare. You can also ask for information about what the standard in your area is for reportable abuse or neglect, as the threshold can vary depending on where you live. Request information as well on low-cost or free counseling services available for children in your area. Even if this girl’s mother is not willing to seek out treatment for herself, she seems to have some insight into the fact that her daughter needs more support than she is able to give; she might be open to having her daughter see a therapist, particularly if you are available to provide transportation or other support.

Above all else, please continue your efforts to be an emotional support to the girl and, if possible, to her mother. Reducing their isolation will benefit both of them, as well as allow you the intimacy you will need to make sure that this child is safe.

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