Parenting, substance use and the child welfare system: Sharing lived experiences and providing support


Cassandra Smith is Black CAP’s harm reduction specialist. CATIE recently spoke with Cassandra about how her lived experiences as a community member and parent have informed her harm reduction work, and how harm reduction programs and services can meet the needs of racialized parents who use substances.

What has motivated you to work in harm reduction?

I’ve been working in harm reduction on and off since I was 17. There is something about the work that resonates with me. I feel like I have a place in harm reduction and can connect with community in a unique way. I bring my lived experience into my work by thinking about what I needed and what I didn’t have. When my life started to change and I was experiencing challenges, I didn’t have a space where I could get support to navigate these challenges or get help navigating the child welfare system. Racialized communities are under so much surveillance and over-policing, and people have concerns about disclosing their substance use and feeling safe accessing certain services. So, when I look at what I experienced with my substance use, there are services I could have used, like access to housing and other social supports. Now I try to look at what I didn’t have and try to provide that for folks. I also share my own experiences with service users so they know that I’m not just expecting them to pour themselves out to me, but that I can relate to them. I think it’s a great way to connect the work I do with the life I’ve lived, and it helps build my connection with community.

What kinds of challenges are faced specifically by parents who use substances?

Based on my own experiences and what the community shares with me, parents who use substances face a lot of challenges with the child welfare system. First of all, we’ve found that people submit reports to child services more frequently for Black and Indigenous families, largely as a result of over-surveillance within these communities. Perhaps a school or daycare notices a sign of concern – say they smell cannabis on a child’s jacket. We’ve seen cases where that smell alone leads to children with dreads being removed from daycare. Once there’s the suspicion of substance use, child services may get involved. They might investigate the home and then anything can happen – the children could be separated from their parents.

The way child services approach substance use can be inconsistent. Some parents, often those who are not racialized, are able to make safer use plans with child services. These plans outline who will be taking care of their child or how their child will be cared for when they’re using. But for Black and Indigenous parents, substance use always seems to be looked at like it’s problematic or an “addiction”, like it’s something we can’t manage. So, for example, a White mom can disclose that they use alcohol at dinner, but a Black mom can’t disclose that they use cannabis after the kids are in bed without it being held against them. They look at certain kinds of drug use as an indication of neglect or failure, and assume that the parent doesn’t have the capability of parenting because of that. There’s a lack of understanding that people can parent and use substances safely.

What can frontline service providers do to support parents who use substances?

It’s so hard for parents who use substances to parent alone because they are under surveillance. They are judged and looked at like they’re less of a parent. Based on my own experiences, I think the biggest priority is support. Support can be from neighbours, friends, family, community members or workers from the community like me, but parents need a support system. It can include a lot of things: connecting them with community programs, providing transportation to get food and groceries, accompaniment to appointments, and helping with representation in family court. Offering support and providing parents with a range of choices and ways they can access services is really important.

Another priority is offering support and advocacy during meetings with child services, and help for parents navigating the system. This can include helping prepare for meetings and being there during meetings as a buffer between child services and families. For example, I always try to hold the workers accountable for their language in meetings. If they start to refer to substance use as “addiction” or the parent as an “addict” I ask them to correct that because those generalizations will be an issue in the court process.

How can organizations improve their policies and programs to support parents who use substances?

I think it starts internally in terms of looking at the policies that organizations have that might be detrimental towards workers with lived or living experience. Organizations need to ensure that the workplace is flexible and that there is support available for everyone. Making sure workers with lived and living experience are comfortable and feel supported can make the workplace safer for parents, and it can also improve relationships with service users.

In terms of what programs can be offered, I think we need to have more parent support groups. Some people who come into harm reduction sites may not have access to their children, but they’re still parents, no matter what. I think a lot of people feel isolated and they think “this has only happened to me.” Group sessions could help people feel supported and less alone with their experiences. Providing access to individual supports, like therapy or grief and loss counselling, would also be helpful. Organizations can also look at what they already offer and find ways to enhance their services and work with community partners in ways that are geared towards the particular needs of parents.

To hear more from Cassandra, watch her video with the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition:


Cassandra Smith is a mother, a harm reduction specialist and a public speaker from Toronto. She conducts workshops, trainings and presentations to provide expertise around stigma, child welfare surveillance, systemic racism, barriers to accessing services and the experiences of African, Caribbean and Black people who use drugs.




1 Response

  1. A population-based approach to child welfare brings together stakeholders committed to a shared vision of promoting child and family well-being and ensuring that all families can access the supports they need to reach their potential. When an entire community shares the goal of family well-being, community members can work proactively to implement strategies that benefit everyone, rather than waiting and responding to individual needs. Such an approach prioritizes prevention before harm occurs and keeping families safely together. It leverages what we know about child development, brain science, interventions that demonstrate improved outcomes, and lessons learned from children and families with lived experience in the child welfare system .

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