Consumption of Alcohol by Foster Carers and Children and Young People in Foster Care

This chapter was added to the manual in June 2014.

1. Introduction

Government guidance on the consumption of alcohol by children and young people, based on scientific and medical evidence, makes it clear that the consumption of alcohol by children and young people is unquestionably detrimental to their health and development, both in the short and long term, and that an alcohol-free childhood is the healthiest and best option.

There is also clear evidence that parents and carers can influence young people's alcohol use. Children are less likely to drink, or drink less, when parents and carers have strict rules on young people's drinking, show their disapproval of underage drinking rather than adopt a tolerant attitude, and supervise and manage young people's behaviour.

The health, safety and wellbeing of children and young people are at the heart of policies and practice related to children in care. This includes taking into consideration the effects of alcohol consumption on children who are in foster care, and the important role that carers and social workers have in protecting all aspects of a young person's health.

Children in care are particularly vulnerable to the health risks associated with alcohol consumption. Evidence from studies suggested that the physical and mental health of children in care is often poor in comparison to that of their peers. Evidence also suggests that children in care are four times more likely than their peers to smoke, use alcohol and misuse drugs. In addition children coming into care may have experienced strict discipline, family conflict and a family history of alcoholism which have been associated with an increased risk of higher levels of alcohol consumption by children and young people.

Wiltshire Council's policy is therefore that the consumption of alcohol by children and young people must be actively discouraged, and that foster carers must not buy or give any alcohol products to children or young people in care.

This policy relates to all children and young people in care under 16 years of age, and relates to young people in care aged 16 and 17 years of age except on special occasions. Special occasions means infrequently, within the recommended adult daily health limits and under adult supervision only. In these circumstances foster carers would require delegated authority and this should be discussed with the young person and their social worker/parents.

For children in care addressing drinking issues is the shared responsibility of everyone involved in the child's life, including the child's family, carer and social worker, health and education professionals, and specialist drug and alcohol services. The young person's Health Assessment should address their health needs, including any needs in relation to drinking and alcohol misuse. Services should be identified that will meet the young person's assessed needs.

Carers should work closely with the child's social worker, looked after children's nurse and any specialist services working with the young person to address their drinking issues. Where a foster carer becomes aware that a young person is drinking alcohol the child's social worker should be informed so that support and help can be found.

2. Practice Guidance for Foster Carers in Relation to Alcohol

  • Carers should actively promote, encourage, and emphasise the advantages of, an alcohol free childhood;
  • Carers should not adopt a permissive/tolerant approach to the consumption of alcohol by children and young people placed in their care;
  • Carers should talk openly with young people about alcohol and give guidance, or help young people access information and guidance, about the specific harms linked to drinking at a young age, including how risks change with age and the frequency and quantity of alcohol they consume. Carers should help young people make sensible drinking decisions and understand that delaying drinking alcohol until they are aged 18, or at least until they are 15, will reduce health risks;
  • Carers are responsible for ensuring children and young people are not at risk from any alcohol kept in their home. Alcohol in a foster home should be kept out of children's reach or be locked away. Carers should monitor the alcohol in their home to ensure they are aware if any has been taken by a young person in their care without their permission;
  • Carers' behaviour management strategies should include incentives for young people not to consume alcohol;
  • Carers should prepare young people for an adult environment dominated by alcohol by discussing responsible drinking and the dangers associated with drinking and alcohol misuse, including drink driving;
  • Carers should set boundaries for drinking by discussing responsible drinking and ensuring that young people are aware of the types and strengths of different alcohol and recommended adult daily alcohol limits;
  • Carers have a critical role to play in showing children and young people how to drink responsibly. Children and young people should not witness drunkenness or binge drinking within their foster placement;
  • Carers must ensure that while caring for a foster child their parenting capacity is not impaired by alcohol - alcohol can reduce concentration and impair responses, and may lead to unprofessional conduct. Such conduct would lead to concerns or complaints about a foster carers suitability;
  • Carers should be aware that many children and young people in care have had negative experiences of alcohol, including experiencing trauma, violence and abuse associated with alcohol consumption. Carers therefore need to be sensitive to the young person's perceptions of adult drinking patterns and behaviours;
  • Carers should talk to other parents, when children and young people are visiting or staying with friends, to ensure the rules they have in place regarding alcohol are followed;
  • Carers should monitor young people's access to alcohol for example being aware how much money children have at their disposal and what they are spending it on;
  • Carers should seek advice from the child's social worker/looked after nurse/fostering worker/specialist services if they are aware, or are concerned, that the young person in their care is drinking. Clear strategies for managing the young person's alcohol consumption should be agreed and recorded in the child's Placement Plan/Health Care Plan;
  • Carers can access national and local alcohol and drug awareness services for information and guidance in order to increase their knowledge and understanding of alcohol issues. Specific training is available to foster carers about drug and alcohol related matters. Specialist local drug and alcohol services provide support to parents and carers of young people with alcohol problems;
  • Carers should encourage young people in their care to get involved in sports and hobbies that can provide an alternative to underage drinking. Research has shown that being a member of a youth club, group or team can be protective against frequent and problem alcohol use.

3. Current Legislation in Relation to Young People and Alcohol Consumption

  • It is illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to purchase alcohol in licensed premises (Licensing Act (Young Persons) Act 2000);
  • It is illegal for anyone else to purchase alcohol in licensed premises on behalf of someone under the age of 18 (Licensing Act (Young Persons) Act 2000) unless the young person is aged 16 or 17 and is eating a meal on the premises with an adult present;
  • It is illegal under the age of 14 to be alone in a place licensed purely for the sale of alcohol. It is legal over the age of 14 with the permission of the licensee;
  • 16 and 17 year olds can consume alcohol purchased by an adult (beer, cider and wine) on a licensed premises while eating a meal if an adult is present;
  • It is illegal to give alcohol, unless under medical supervision, to anyone under the age of 5;
  • While it is not illegal for parents to give their children over 5 alcohol in a private place it is a criminal and civil offence to cause a young person to suffer or likely to suffer harm through supplying / consuming alcohol (Children Act 1989);
  • If a young person under 18 year old is found in a public place consuming or intending to consume alcohol the police have the right to confiscate it.

4. Government Guidance

In December 2009 the Department of Health issued guidance written by Sir Liam Donaldson Chief Medical Officer for England /UK's Chief Medical Adviser on the consumption of alcohol by children and young people. The publication of this guidance followed growing public concern regarding the level and pattern of drinking among children and young people in England and its consequences on health, crime, violence and antisocial behaviour.

The Chief Medical Officer's guidance on the consumption of alcohol by children and young people takes the form of five evidence-based statements.

  1. Children and their parents and carers are advised that an alcohol-free childhood is the healthiest and best option. However, if children drink alcohol, it should not be until at least the age of 15 years;
  2. If young people aged 15 to 17 years consume alcohol, it should always be with the guidance of a parent or carer or in a supervised environment;
  3. Parents and young people should be aware that drinking, even at age 15 or older, can be hazardous to health and that not drinking is the healthiest option for young people. If 15 to 17 year olds do consume alcohol, they should do infrequently certainly on no more than one day a week. Young people aged 15 to 17 years should never exceed recommended adult daily limits and, on days when they drink, consumption should usually be below such levels;
  4. The importance of parental influences on children's alcohol use should be communicated to parents, carers and professionals. Parents and carers require advice on how to respond to alcohol use and misuse by children;
  5. Support services must be available for children and young people who have alcohol-related problems and their parents.

5. Evidence re Impact of Alcohol on Children and Young People

  • Alcohol consumption during any stage of childhood can have a detrimental effect on development and alcohol use during teenage years is related to a wide range of health and social problems;
  • Children who start drinking at an early age are more likely to develop alcohol problems in adolescence and adulthood;
  • Beginning to drink before age 14 is associated with significant increased health risks, involvement in violence, suicidal thought and attempts, having more sexual partners, pregnancy, using drugs, employment problems and risky driving behaviour;
  • Heavy drinking in young people (drinking more than one day a week/exceeding recommended daily adult limit) can have adverse effects on liver, bone, growth and endocrine development and can affect brain functions related to motivation, reasoning and interpersonal interactions;
  • Binge drinking and heavy alcohol use in young people is associated with health risk behaviours, including injury, sexual activity, fighting and drug use;
  • Young people who binge drink at an early age are more likely to develop alcohol and drug dependence, be involved in crime, and achieve lower educational attainment as adults.


Department of Health
Guidance on the Consumption of Alcohol by Children and Young People
Sir Liam Donaldson Chief Medical Officer for England
December 2009