Drinking too much while caring for children creates an obvious risk of abuse or neglect. It can lead to a parent losing custody and seeing their children only while supervised. Because the stakes are so high and because it can be so difficult to prove or disprove whether a parent really does drink to the point of placing their children at risk, allegations of alcohol abuse in a custody proceeding or a children’s aid investigation can create extremely challenging problems.
The challenges of proving or disproving allegations of alcohol abuse by a parent
There may be a report, whether from the other parent, another family member, or someone from the community, of serious alcohol abuse by a parent. That parent may deny the allegations altogether or say they are exaggerated, that it was a one-time thing that won’t happen again, or they may acknowledge they once had a problem but have it under control. A parent who knows the other parent drinks too much while caring for the children can be genuinely fearful for the children’s safety and frustrated by the inability to prove it in the face of denials. A parent who knows they don’t drink too much while parenting can be at a total loss about how to prove that they are sober or drink responsibly and devastated by having their relationships with their children unjustly interfered with. Even if everyone agrees that the parent’s drinking has been a problem and that the parent is now doing all the right things to seek treatment and change their behaviour, because relapses can be expected, there can still be concern about the children’s safety as the parent moves through the process of treatment and recovery.
Children’s aid society workers, lawyers, judges, and mediators all face the difficult challenge of establishing an objective basis for a solution that helps the family move forward in a way that balances child safety with minimal disruption to the parent-child relationship. In the past, urine testing, blood testing, and hair testing have all been tried as ways of providing objective evidence of whether a parent is or isn’t drinking. All of these methods of testing have known flaws that can waste time and money and still leave everyone dissatisfied.
The flaws of urine, blood and hair testing for alcohol
Because of the rate at which alcohol is eliminated from the body, urine testing and blood testing can’t realistically be done frequently enough to provide satisfactory proof one way or the other about a person’s actual drinking behaviour. People also have concerns that urine testing can be fooled and the response to that, supervised urine testing, besides missing drinking events, has the obvious potential to be experienced as humiliating and demeaning. In addition to the cost of the testing, going for blood and urine tests often means that the person being tested has to incur expenses for travel or lose income from taking time off work. This creates pressure to stop the testing before it has been done long enough for those concerned to feel confident that the person’s drinking behaviour is known and under control. Because of the doubts left by the flaws in these forms of testing, the parent trying to prove they are sober often ends up frustrated because they’ve done all this testing and people still don’t believe them.
Hair testing for alcohol also has known problems. Most notoriously, the widespread use of hair testing by the Motherisk Lab at Toronto’s Sick Kids’ Hospital became subject of a formal review and special commission because of serious flaws in its testing methodology and the interpretation and use of the results it produced. Even when hair testing is done properly, it can involve waiting many months to obtain results and those results provide only averaged data that do not give a clear picture of a person’s actual drinking behaviour. Hair testing is therefore not helpful at all for distinguishing between someone who binge drinks and someone who regularly drinks only moderate amounts, or as a way of enabling unsupervised parenting time. Hair testing therefore also can leave everyone feeling frustrated and dissatisfied.
Two technologies that provide a better way of testing
So, with all of these challenges, how can situations involving allegations of parental alcohol abuse be dealt with better? The key lies in the quality and timeliness of information about whether a parent is drinking or not. A form of testing that provides timely results and an accurate picture of a parent’s actual drinking behaviour would create the opportunity for those concerned about a parent’s possible excessive drinking, as well as the parent who wants to prove that they abstain or drink responsibly, to agree on solutions that leave them all feeling confident and fairly dealt with. Two technologies that make this possible are continuous alcohol monitoring (CAM) and remote breath testing (RB).
Remote breath testing for alcohol multiple times per day or around parenting times
We all know about breath testing for alcohol. RB is a portable, handheld breath testing device that takes a picture of the person as they provide the breath sample and then, using the cellular data system, automatically uploads the test result and photo. In a secure, cloud-based software platform, the times when tests are required are scheduled, the test results are received, facial recognition confirms that the right person provided the breath sample, and notifications are sent out by email or text to alert specified individuals of the results. Tests can be scheduled as many times per day as needed to suit the circumstances. A solution can be crafted that includes the parent testing multiple times per day every day to build up a record of sobriety and to enable children to remain in their care, while giving those concerned the assurance that if the parent drinks, they will know about it. Tests can be timed to be done before the beginning of access visits or parenting time and testing can be required at regular intervals during the visit or parenting time.
Testing for alcohol every 30 minutes 24/7 with CAM
For some cases, CAM may be the better fit. When we consume alcohol, in the same way that the body processes some of it out in breath vapour, some is processed out in the perspiration vapour that is always coming off our skin. This vapour can be tested just like breath in order to measure the level of the alcohol in the body. By embedding the technology for testing perspiration vapour for alcohol in a secure ankle bracelet, CAM enables a person to passively provide tests every 30 minutes, 24/7. This creates a compelling record of a parent’s actual drinking behaviour, whether that behavior reflects complete sobriety, moderate drinking, or drinking that is problematic. Wirelessly, the bracelet sends its test results to a small base station placed in the person’s home, and the base station uses a landline or internet connection to upload the results to the monitoring software. A reporting protocol is established for any detected drinking, and summary or detailed compliance reports are produced as needed.
RB and CAM enable parents, and the professionals assisting them, to respond to concerns of alcohol abuse in ways that meet the unique needs of each case, in ways that are respectful and fair, that achieve a practical balance between keeping children safe and minimizing disruption to the parent-child relationship.
Future posts – case studies
In future posts, we’ll provide case studies illustrating how these technologies can help parents and everyone involved in these difficult situations. In the meantime, contact us to learn more and explore how RSC can help you create a solution for your case.