Home > Grandparents caring full-time for grandchildren owing to parental drug use.

Grehan, Martin (2016) Grandparents caring full-time for grandchildren owing to parental drug use. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 56, Winter 2016, pp. 17-18.

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No research had been done in Ireland on the issue of grandparents caring full-time for their grandchildren in situations where parents are substance abusers before the study described here was undertaken.1 Intending their research to be an initial contribution, the authors of this study sought to examine: 

  • How do grandparents assume the caring role for their grandchildren?
  • What do grandparents identify as the positive aspects of occupying this role, as well as its associated stresses and strains?
  • How satisfied or dissatisfied are grandparent carers with the support they receive from the child protection service and, to a lesser extent, from addiction treatment services? 

Participants were recruited through the National Family Support Network (NFSN), the national co-ordination body for a network of locally-based family support groups. To be included in the study the grandparents had to have been providing full-time care to grandchildren for at least 6 months, and to have taken on the caring role because of the parent’s drug use. Eleven participants (nine individuals, one couple) came forward, and 10 semi-structured interviews were conducted using a qualitative approach. After 10 interviews the authors decided that saturation point had been reached and any additional participants were unlikely to reveal new information. As the first author was an employee of NSFN, a number of robust measures were implemented to reduce bias, including involving a researcher who was not a NFSN employee.


The main themes and sub-themes that emerged from the interviews were: 

  • the decision to care
  • the challenges of being grandparent carers
      • health and behavioural needs of grandchildren
      • financial difficulties
      • relationships with the family
      • physical and mental health problems
  • support from social and health services
    • the child protection system
    • addiction services
    • financial payments from statutory bodies.


This article will focus on two themes – the decision to care, and the grandparents’ experiences of interacting with addiction services.


Decision to care

Most grandparents became carers because of a sense of responsibility, to keep their grandchildren out of non-relative foster care, or to ensure that the children received an adequate level of care that they were not receiving from their own parents.


The HSE…gave me a phone call one morning from [sic] work, and when I came home they had the two children in my sitting room with a carrier bag; and it was take them for three months or they were going into care….it was a shock.


Addiction services

Participants in the study had mixed views on the addiction services they had encountered during their time as carers. Centralised treatment facilities and residential centres were viewed much more negatively than local addiction services. Some participants held the view that addiction services were unwelcoming to relatives, and that the services were reluctant to challenge their children regarding their negligence as parents. Some of the participants had funded several residential treatment stays for their child:


We paid for private rehab … you name it she has been in it. It must been 14 rehabs. One of them, we re-mortgaged our house for €10,000 and sent her to Liverpool. She walked out after a week.


On a more positive note, family support services, which were normally located in community-based addiction services, were accessed by eight of the participants and were highly valued by those who accessed them. Grandparents learned about concepts of addiction for the first time, although this was often in an unstructured manner. ‘Enabling’ was the concept most mentioned by participants. Having learned about it, many grandparents began to refuse requests from their child for monetary or other forms of assistance. The authors noted that grandparents did not perceive the introduction of the concept of enabling as placing primary blame on them for their children’s drug use.


A related theme to emerge from the study was the relationship between child protection services and addiction services. The authors noted in the introduction to the report that in Ireland there is an absence of integrated responses to addiction and child protection issues. This issue was highlighted by the participants, with specific complaints about the lack of expertise of child protection social workers in relation to addiction.



The authors concluded that the participants faced several hardships in their role as carers. These included mental health difficulties, refusal of support from statutory bodies, and difficulty accessing statutory payments and the associated financial difficulties. The authors suggested that many of these difficulties could be addressed without any further research. More cooperation between child protection and addiction services, including the capacity of non-specialist social service and health professionals to deal with addiction issues, could help alleviate the difficulties faced by grandparents. 


1 O'Leary M and Butler S (2015) Caring for grandchildren in kinship care: what difficulties face Irish grandparents with drug-dependent children? Journal of Social Work Practice in the Addictions (15): 352–372. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/24949/

Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
All substances
Intervention Type
General / Comprehensive
Issue Title
Issue 56, Winter 2016
January 2016
Page Range
pp. 17-18
Health Research Board
Issue 56, Winter 2016

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