How can alcohol testing prevent child deaths?

A 2021 review by the NSPCC has said that parent/s or stepparent/s are most commonly the people responsible for a child’s death in criminal cases.

With the shock of multiple child deaths hitting the headlines over the last couple of months, panic has grown among some people working in and around children’s social care. Exacerbated by staffing shortages, is this a repeat of the “Baby P” story all over again?

However the emeritus professor of social policy at the London School of Economics, Eileen Munro, who carried out a review of child protection for the government in 2011, defends the social care system, insisting that; “it would be unwise to launch into a major overhaul of social care on the back of such vivid and unusual protection tragedies.”.

So what else can be done to safeguard children most at risk? 

It’s known that a large proportion of non-accidental child deaths are caused through either neglect or physical abuse, and that the parent/s are often intoxicated through alcohol or drug intake.

NSPCC found that 51% of child deaths in child abuse/neglect cases in England were being linked to maltreatment and a further 24% from physical abuse or assault. How many of these deaths were down to the parent/caregiver being inebriated? 

The news article told of how in 2019 “Child Ay”, a six week year old baby, died due to suffocation after her parents fell asleep following a night of heavy drinking. And in 2020 “Child Az” died in the most tragic of circumstances, once again the article stated that both parents had been drinking.

Monitoring of alcohol intake need not be complicated. If there are suspicions that one or both parents are experiencing problems due to alcohol, then testing can help.

Most individuals underestimate the amount they drink and are unaware of the effects it could be having on their health, mood and behaviour. Often individuals are reluctant to admit they are struggling. 

As the effects of excess alcohol can be devastating on a family, if there are concerns then testing is easy:

If long-term drinking is a concern then head hair testing and measurement of the biomarkers EtG and FAEEs can give an average result for the previous 3 or 6 months drinking on a 3cm or 6cm sample of head hair.

A blood sample can also be taken to assess the previous month’s alcohol intake.  The CDT is the most specific marker for possible alcohol misuse and other liver enzymes can also be affected by such alcohol intake.  Such a test may show whether the individuals have other underlying causes. Blood testing can also reveal underlying health conditions or potential medical problems that a person may have.

If the parent/s are unable to give blood then a simple finger pin test known as a PEth (Dry Blood Spot) test reflects the amount of alcohol intake for the previous month. It is a highly specific and sensitive test, with results available within five days. 

To get a full picture it is always best to consider doing more than one type of test and to consider repeating them as many individuals can alter their pattern of alcohol intake long enough to skew the results. At Atkinson Lewis we would recommend monitoring for at least six months and up to a year where alcohol misuse is a parental factor in child neglect. 

 At Atkinson Lewis we are in the unique position of being able to offer a medical interpretation of results, our experts having knowledge and experience in the field of diagnosing and treating alcohol misuse.

This enables us to clinically interpret the results, noting any medications that have been prescribed which are used to treat alcohol dependency or associated psychological problems. We can also identify any potential liver disease which may be associated with harmful drinking and if required offer an opinion on the potential pattern of drinking and advice on further assessment and treatment.  

For more information on alcohol testing and other services we provide, please click here.

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