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  3. 10. General
  4. 10.7 Undertake the substance testing of parents
  5. Key steps
  6. 1. Overview of substance testing

1. Overview of substance testing

Substance misuse is the use of a substance not consistent with legal or medical guidelines.   

Substance abuse is a maladaptive pattern of substance use that has an effect on the brain, which leads to social, psychological, physical or legal problems.

In some cases, the substance testing of parents may be considered a necessary and important part of an investigation and assessment or ongoing intervention by the department, based on the extent and nature of the parents substance misuse or abuse history and the level and nature of harm, or unacceptable risk of harm, to the child. 

When it is considered necessary or important that parents participate in substance testing, do not rely on substance testing as the only strategy for assessing or monitoring the child’s protection and care needs, or as the only strategy for parents to address their substance misuse or abuse.   

Note: Any reference to Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs Services (ATODS) or an ATODS treatment plan in this procedure will include any other related service and the treatment plan with that service.

1.1 Consider the substance testing of a parent

If it has been determined that substance use by the parent will have a detrimental impact on the child’s emotional or physical well-being, substance testing may be used to confirm or dispute allegations of parental substance misuse or abuse.

Consider the substance testing of a parent:

  • when there are indicators that a parent is engaging in serious and persistent substance misuse or abuse and substance testing is required to inform an assessment about whether a child is in need of protection or continues to be in need of protection - this may be demonstrated by regular or heavy patterns of substance misuse or abuse, binge use or dependency
  • following the reunification of a child for a specified period, where serious and persistent substance misuse or abuse by a parent has contributed to a child being in need of protection.

If a parent is admitting to substance misuse or abuse, consideration should be given to the benefits of continuing with substance testing. A substance test can only evidence the presence, type and quantity of a substance. It cannot inform how the substance impacts on the parent’s ability to function. Further assessment is required in relation to the parent’s ability to meet the protection and care needs of their child.

Where substance testing is to be requested of a parent, primarily for assessing, responding to and monitoring the protection and care needs of a child, the department is able to meet the associated costs. Prior to requesting a parent’s participation in substance testing, consult with the team leader to obtain approval from the financial delegate for any anticipated expenditure involved in the implementation of substance testing including, the screening test, confirmation test or an ongoing testing schedule.

For information about the indicators and risks associated with parental substance misuse or abuse, refer to the practice paper Parental substance misuse and child protection: overview, indicators, impacts, risk and protective factors (PDF, 217 KB).

For information about substance misuse treatment and intervention options, including the effectiveness of specific options and practices for enhancing intervention outcomes, refer to the practice paper Parental substance misuse and child protection: intervention strategies (PDF, 239 KB).

1.2 Consider the testing schedule

When considering the substance testing schedule (how frequently substance testing should occur), take into consideration the substance misuse or abuse history of the parent, any current treatment plan and the protection and care needs of the child.

In particular, consider the following when determining the substance testing schedule:

  • the purpose of substance testing the parent and how continued misuse or abuse impacts on their ability to parent the child
  • any current engagement with ATODS or other related service, to assist with reduced or controlled use or abstinence
  • previous treatment or intervention provided to the parent, including intervention outcomes
  • where a parent has not engaged with a treatment program, whether there would be any benefit requesting ongoing substance testing when results will likely be positive
  • how test results will be used to inform assessment, intervention or case planning with the family and whether significant decisions about a child would be altered if a positive test result was received
  • whether further information gathering and observation is sufficient to negate the need for substance testing. 

Additional information to be considered when determining the testing schedule includes:

  • the detection period for most substances is two to three days - most illicit substances have a ‘half life’ (the time taken for 50% of the substance to leave the body) 
  • the duration of substance testing is dependent on the history of the substance misuse or abuse - for a less dependent parent, short-term testing of approximately two to six months may be adequate
  • long-term substance testing is appropriate for a parent who is engaging in chronic substance use or a parent with dependency where there is a likelihood of relapse.  

Where substance testing will occur, or is occurring at the request of the department, document the testing schedule in a case note in the investigation and assessment or ongoing intervention event in ICMS. If the parent is already participating in substance testing as part of a treatment plan with ATODS or other related service, and the testing schedule is documented within that treatment plan, attach the treatment plan to the relevant event in ICMS.