A UK-wide survey of councils published today finds that hundreds of pre-teens are being referred to specialist drug and alcohol treatment services because of potential substance abuse issues.
As the statistics were released under Freedom of Information laws, it emerged that children as young as 12 in Scotland are being referred for help over alcohol or drug abuse.
The survey asked councils about the age of referrals, which are carried out either when a child has started abusing substances themselves or if they are vulnerable through exposure to drug and alcohol misuse by a parent or other relative. In South Ayrshire, children as young as 12 have been referred for drinking and taking drugs themselves, while one child aged four has been referred because of their parents’ drink or drug problem.
In East Ayrshire, there have been 22 referrals for either personal misuse or parental misuse, with the youngest child aged eight, while a child aged nine received help in the Borders.
Elsewhere, 12-year-olds were also referred in East Renfrewshire, Midlothian and Shetland, while a 13-year-old received help in West Dunbartonshire.
Staff in Inverclyde and Renfrewshire saw children as young as 14. All other Scottish councils failed to respond to the request for information.
In England and Wales, the figures showed that eight-year-olds had been referred to services in Waltham Forest, north-east London, while nine-year-olds had been referred in Herefordshire, Liverpool, Oxfordshire, Rutland and West Berkshire.
Authorities in Bury in Greater Manchester, Calderdale in West Yorkshire, Halton in Cheshire, Hull, Monmouthshire and Rochdale had seen ten-year-olds referred.
Treatment experts said the most common reason for children to come into contact with drugs and alcohol was through their parents, and preventative work was key to heading off misuse among youngsters.
Andrew Brown, director of programmes at charity Mentor UK, which works to protect children from drug and alcohol misuse, said he was shocked at the findings.
He said: “We think it is vital alcohol and drug education improve. Our own survey of teachers suggests that, at the moment, delivery is inconsistent and that the norm is to timetable only one or two sessions a year.
“This may sound sufficient, but evidence would suggest that longer programmes that systematically build skills and values are much more likely to prevent young people from coming to harm than one-off lessons.”
South Ayrshire Council said the four-year-old child referenced was affected by their parents’ substance abuse and did not have their own drug or alcohol issues.
Kenny Leinster, the council’s head of community care and housing, said: “We fully recognise the impact of substance abuse on people of all ages, which includes children affected by parental substance misuse.
“The Freedom of Information request provided in response to a press inquiry included details of children affected by parental substance misuse.
“We can confirm the youngest person in South Ayrshire referred to specialist services for their own substance misuse was aged 12, similar to those in other local authority areas.
“We work in partnership with organisations in South Ayrshire and beyond to support individuals, families and communities affected by substance misuse and will continue to use every means possible to tackle the harm caused by substance misuse.”
Eddie Fraser, director of health and social care at East Ayrshire Council, said: “We are not in a position to comment on any particular case but we can advise that young people who are vulnerable due to the impact of alcohol and drug dependency are referred for specialist help through schools and social workers. They are then passed on to Barnardo’s who deliver support for the whole family .”
Figures from Public Health England showed that 366 children aged 12 or under were referred for treatment in 2012-13.
More than half – 59 per cent – received treatment after taking cannabis, while a third were treated for alcohol misuse.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Substance misuse education is delivered in schools through Curriculum for Excellence. By educating children about substance misuse and the impact it can have on their life and health, this can help them make the right choices in the future.
“We are committed to supporting local agencies to ensure fast and effective protection for all children and young people at risk from substance misuse issues.”