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Veronica Meredith and Rhys Price-Robertson

It has been estimated that roughly 13% of Australian children live in a home with at least one adult who misuses alcohol (Dawe et al., 2007). This Resource Sheet discusses the guidelines on alcohol consumption, the effects of alcohol on parenting behaviour, and the relationship between alcohol abuse and child maltreatment.1
For many, alcohol consumption is seen as part of the fabric of Australias unique social culture, whether it is a beer at the local pub, a drink after work, a few glasses at the humble family barbeque, a bottle of red wine over dinner, or a few beers at a football gameall enjoyable and often harmless activities. The line, however, between enjoyment and problematic drinking behaviours, and how this may impact on an adults ability to effectively parent his or her children, can be unclear. Strong links between parental alcohol abuse and child maltreatment have been found across Australia, with child protection agencies reporting alcohol abuse as one of the top contributors in child protection cases (Leek, Seneque, & Ward, 2009; NSW Department of Community Services [NSW DOCS], 2007; Victorian Department of Human Services [VDHS], 2002). Although Australian child protection services do not regularly provide data on parental characteristics, available information shows excessive alcohol
1 In this paper, the terms child maltreatment and child abuse and neglect are used synonymously.



resource sheet

Alcohol misuse and child maltreatment

consumption is involved in child maltreatment in up to as many as 77% of cases (Dawe et al., 2007; Jeffreys, Hirte, Rogers, & Wilson, 2009; NSW DOCS, 2008; VDSH, 2002). While the multiple issues confronting parents of children in the child protection system confound these gures, experts agree that parental alcohol abuse represents a growing concern for many more Australian children than those currently identied through child protection agencies (Dawe et. al., 2007; Scott, 2009). Child maltreatment associated with alcohol misuse is not conned to specic socio-economic or cultural groups. Research has shown that harmful drinking affects people at all levels of society and regardless of education, religion, gender or age (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare [AIHW], 2008). As Scott (2009) recently noted: Children in the child protection system are the tip of the iceberg of a much larger number of at risk children in the wider community (p. 40). Much of the recent research investigates alcohol misuse and its inuence on parenting within the context of multiple and complex problems, including the misuse of other substances. While valuable, this research may fail to identify the unique impact that alcohol can have on parenting capacity, and may not capture all of the children at risk. This Resource Sheet attempts to illuminate the unique ways in which alcohol can affect parenting behaviours, and in some cases lead to child maltreatment.

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What is an unsafe level of alcohol consumption for parents?
The National Health and Medical Research Council (NH&MRC, 2009) provided a set of guidelines for adults in relation to alcohol use and health risks (see Table 1). These guidelines consider both the risk of alcohol-related injury from binge drinking on a single occasion and the cumulative risk of harm from disease or injury over a lifetime. The guidelines may be helpful in considering a safe level of drinking for parents in relation to their own health and the possible effects on children. For example, if a parent is unable to protect or care for him or herself either during binge drinking sessions or as a result of cumulative harmful drinking behaviour, then their ability to protect, care or provide for children may also be diminished. More specic guidelines for what constitutes risky drinking patterns in relation to actively parenting children, however, are not currently available (Bromeld, Lamont, Parker, & Horsfall, 2010). It is important to remember that many parents drink alcohol, and this does not always lead to poor parenting behaviour. The extent to which alcohol use is problematic for parents is best thought of as a level of use that will impair a parents judgment and/or alter mood that places a child at risk of harm by abuse or neglect (Dawe, 2008). The quantity of alcohol consumed is not by itself an indicator of the risk of child maltreatment, however, and any assessment for risks to children need to be considered alongside other risk factors, and within the context of individual circumstances (Dawe, 2008; Harbin & Murphy, 2006). The absence of clear and practical guidelines for safe consumption of alcohol when parenting is signicant when considered in the context of links between excessive alcohol use and parenting behaviour. Research ndings that illustrate these links are explored in the following section.

What effect can excessive alcohol consumption have on parenting behaviour?

Research indicates that binge drinking and/or longterm alcohol abuse or dependence can produce psychological and behavioural changes, and as such, excessive alcohol use has the potential to affect the quality of parenting a child receives (AIHW, 2008; Dawe, 2008). Intoxication from alcohol and the consequences of this can make it problematic for parents to manage the daily living skills required for parenting. Routine tasks such as cleaning, preparing meals, supervising children and ensuring a reasonable standard of hygiene is maintained, can become difcult when a parent is either intoxicated, experiencing a hangover or suffering the symptoms of withdrawal from alcohol use. Additionally, the ability of parents to help children maintain regular school attendance, provide assistance with homework, communicate with teachers and ensure appropriate bed times can also be impaired. Finally, parents ability to meet their childrens emotional needs by providing appropriately caring responses and engaging in play and other activities can be affected (Dawe, 2008; Dawe, Harnett, & Frye, 2008; Odyssey Institute of Studies, 2004). Parental alcohol misuse has also been shown to negatively impact on parenting styles, with mood swings resulting in inconsistencies in parenting practices (Bromeld et al., 2010). Parents may become controlling, punitive and authoritarian on some occasions, and overly permissive and neglectful on others. They may yell more often, become irritable and inattentive, and engage children in inappropriate levels of responsibility such as allowing children to take on a parenting type role while the parent is intoxicated (Dawe et al., 2007; Odyssey Institute of Studies, 2004).

Table 1: Recommended guidelines for alcohol consumption to avoid harm for health men and women
To reduce the risk of alcohol related injury from a single occasion Males and Females
Source: NH&MRC, 2009 2 | Australian Institute of Family Studies

To reduce the risk of harm from alcohol related disease or injury over a lifetime No more than two standard drinks per day

No more than four standard drinks in one session, no more than once per month

Alcohol also acts as a depressant on the central nervous system, which increases the risk of mental illness. Women are at considerably more risk than men for developing mental illness as a result of alcohol abuse, particularly depression, which is linked to problematic parenting through reduced responsiveness to childrens needs (Dawe et al., 2008). Long-term cognitive impairment can occur as a result of alcohol dependence, a condition that is known to contribute to acts of self-harm, and in extreme cases death (AIHW, 2008). Children of parents who self-harm can be left fearful and anxious about the possibility of losing a parent and the potential impact this will have on their own lives, and when the death of a parent does occur, children may be left traumatised and displaced (Harbin & Murphy, 2006; Kroll, 2004; Odyssey Institute of Studies, 2004). While the above parenting behaviours are not necessarily examples of child maltreatment, the immediate effects of intoxication can result in children being placed in harmful or dangerous situations (Dawe et al., 2008). In this next section we consider the research evidence for the relationship between parental alcohol abuse and the ve major forms of child maltreatment.

Physical abuse refers to the non-accidental use of physical force against a child resulting in harm to the child. Physically abusive behaviours include shoving, hitting, slapping, shaking, throwing, punching, kicking, biting, burning, strangling and poisoning (Price-Robertson & Bromeld, 2009). Alcohol misuse is commonly linked with aggressive behaviour, a factor that features prominently in the physical abuse of children (Scott, 2009; Valleman & Templeton 2007). Children of drug and alcoholabusing parents are twice as likely to be at risk of physical abuse as children whose parents are not misusing substances (Freisthler, Merritt, & LaScala, 2006). Parental alcohol misuse has also been found to be strongly associated with traumatic brain injuries in young children (Winqvist, Jokelainen, Luukinen, & Hillbom, 2008). Emotional maltreatment (also sometimes called emotional abuse or psychological abuse) refers to a parent or caregivers inappropriate verbal or symbolic acts toward a child and/or a pattern of failure over time to provide a child with adequate non-physical nurture and emotional support. Emotional maltreatment can take ve main behavioural forms: rejecting; isolating; terrorising; ignoring and corrupting (Price-Robertson & Bromeld, 2009). Parents who misuse alcohol may fail to provide the emotional support a child needs to feel safe and valued (Bromeld et al., 2010). Evidence also indicates that emotional abuse of children often co-occurs with incidents of reported domestic violence, which is also linked to excessive alcohol consumption and child physical abuse (Gibbs et al., 2008). In addition, children can be exposed to emotional maltreatment when parents force children to take on responsibility that is beyond the childs level of maturity. For example, a child may be required to look after the needs of siblings by providing care such as bathing, dressing or feeding. Children might also be used as a sounding board for parents who are, for example, in distress as a result of domestic violence or substance abuse (Dawe et al., 2007; Odyssey House, 2004). Neglect refers to the failure by a parent or caregiver to provide a child with the conditions that are culturally accepted as being essential for their physical and emotional development and wellbeing. Neglectful behaviours include failure to provide basic physical needs such as safe, clean and adequate housing, food and health care, warmth, nurturance and
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Associations between alcohol abuse and child maltreatment

Child maltreatment refers to behaviour by parents, caregivers or others that is outside the norms of conduct and involves a substantial risk of causing physical or emotional harm to a child or young person, including the neglect of young persons basic needs (Price-Robertson & Bromeld, 2009). Strong associations have been found between the availability of alcohol and child abuse and neglect, suggesting that, alongside illicit drugs, alcohol plays a signicant role in increasing risks of child maltreatment (Freisthler, Needell, & Gruenewald, 2005). Indeed, research has demonstrated that excessive alcohol consumption often plays a part in all of the major forms of child abuse and neglect (Laslett et al., 2010). What follows are brief denitions of the ve commonly identied forms of child maltreatment accompanied by recent evidence of the relationship between these forms of child maltreatment and the misuse of alcohol.

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support, or failure to provide appropriate educational opportunities (Price-Robertson & Bromeld, 2009). Neglect is often the basis of repeated reports to child protection authorities, with alcohol as a contributing factor for chronic maltreatment of children who lack cognitive stimulation and emotional nurturing (Dawe, 2008; Fluke, Shustermen, Hollinshead, & Yuan, 2008; Scott, 2009; Yampolskaya & Banks, 2006). The chaotic lifestyles of many alcohol abusers can increase the risk of a child being neglected either physically or emotionally. Women whose partners abuse alcohol to the point of initiating high levels of family conict may react to this extreme form of traumatic stress by neglecting their childrens needs (Gibbs et. al., 2008; Valleman & Templeton, 2007). Parents in treatment who abuse alcohol admit to often leaving children unsupervised during bath and meal times, elevating the risk of injury or harm (Odyssey House, 2004). Other situations where children can be at risk of harm include: being placed in a motor vehicle operated by an intoxicated person (Laslett et al., 2010; NH&MRC, 2009); being left to fend for themselves if a parent loses consciousness; and being placed in positions where they are vulnerable of being abused by others (Dawe et al., 2008). Sexual abuse can be broadly dened as the use of a child for sexual gratication by an adult or signicantly older child/adolescent (Tomison, 1995). Sexually abusive behaviours can include the fondling of genitals, masturbation, oral sex, vaginal or anal penetration by a penis, nger or any other object, fondling of breasts, voyeurism, and exhibitionism and exposing the child to or involving the child in pornography, and can vary dependent on the relationship between victim and perpetrator (PriceRobertson & Bromeld, 2009). Although a limited amount of recent research has looked directly at the relationship between alcohol misuse and child sexual abuse, evidence does suggest that parents who drink alcohol excessively may fail to be aware of the predatory behaviour of others towards their children (Lown, Nayak, Korcha, & Greeneld, 2011; Walsh, MacMillian, & Jamieson, 2003). Witnessing of family violence involves a child being present and able to hear or see a family member being subjected to abuse (physical, sexual or emotional) or witnessing damage that has been inicted to a person or property by a family members violent behaviour (Price-Robertson & Bromeld, 2009). A strong association has been found between
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alcohol misuse and domestic violence, most often perpetrated against women by men and occurring more often between couples with children (Scott, 2009). Additionally, experiences of domestic violence may result in women abusing alcohol in order to cope with violence, and where two adults are intoxicated the risk of conict is increased. This in turn greatly increases the likelihood of children being traumatised by witnessing these disturbing events (Scott, 2009). In situations where domestic violence occurs, parents often report an inability to protect children from witnessing violence and experiencing verbal abuse (Bromeld et al., 2010; Harbin & Murphy, 2006; Odyssey Institute of Studies, 2004) Additional forms of child maltreatment include fetal alcohol abuse and behaviours by pregnant and breastfeeding women that can endanger a fetus or the developing child (Price-Robertson & Bromeld, 2009). The use of alcohol during pregnancy increases the risk of harm to a fetus with a range of disorders possibly occurring including: facial anomalies, congenital abnormalities, and neurological developmental and social-emotional problems. Binge drinking, even in the early stages of pregnancy, has been found to have small effects on arithmetic abilities and moderate drinking can affect a childs behaviour and ability to learn (Leonard & Eidon, 2007). Babies born to women with alcohol misuse problems are found to be underweight, have lower AGPAR2 scores and are more likely to require neonatal intensive care (Burns, Mattick, & Cooke, 2006). Hence, the NMHRC recommendations advocate abstinence when planning for pregnancy and during pregnancy as the safest option for mothers. Abstinence is also recommended as the safest option while mothers are breastfeeding. However, if breastfeeding mothers do consume alcohol the guidelines recommend: abstaining in the rst month of a babys life; consuming no more than two standard drinks in a day; not consuming alcohol directly prior to breastfeeding; and planning ahead by expressing breast milk prior to drinking. 3
2 The AGPAR score is a quick form of assessment on a babys health status following birth (, 2010). 3 It is important to note that the alcohol consumption guidelines discussed here relate only to adults over 18 years of age. For parents and breastfeeding mums under the age of 18 different guidelines apply, with the NH&MRC (2009) strongly recommending abstinence as the safest option.

How many children in Australia are at risk?

Estimating the number of children who are at risk of or have experienced alcohol related child maltreatment in Australias population is not an easy task and is complicated by varying denitions of what constitutes child maltreatment as well as other methodological concerns (Lamont, 2011; Price-Robertson, Bromeld, & Vassallo, 2010). For example, respondents to drug and alcohol surveys are known to under-report usage patterns, and the use of the term standard drink rather than actual drink sizes and types can skew results. Additionally, not all cases of child maltreatment come to the attention of child protection agencies, and data drawn from national surveys do not currently provide reliable information from which estimates of at-risk children can be made with certainty (Dawe et al., 2007). However, within these limitations, recent data offers a broad picture of the prevalence of this problem in Australia. In a national survey looking at the range and magnitude of alcohols harm to others, 17% of parent responders reported their children had been affected in someway by the drinking behaviour of another person (e.g., being criticised, witnessing domestic violence, or left in unsafe situations). A very small number of responders reported physical harm to children or calls being made to family services (Laslett et al., 2010). Other research conducted by The Odyssey Institute of Studies (2004), estimated that around 1.5% of Australian children (60,000) have parents seeking treatment for drug and/or alcohol abuse through treatment programs; a gure that they acknowledge fails to account for groups who seek treatment through primary health providers or for people who drink alcohol problematically and have not sought treatment. The largest Australian study on parental alcohol abuse suggests that 13.2% (451,621) of Australian children live in a household with at least one adult who binge drinks or drinks in a pattern consistent with chronic long-term use (Dawe et al., 2007). Finally, a recent analysis of the 2007 National Drug Strategy Household Survey suggested that this gure is between 1734% (Maloney, Hutchinson, Burns, & Mattick, 2010). Dawe et al. (2007) also found that high rates of binge drinking exist in the Australian community,

with women in single parent households reporting higher levels when compared to women in couple households with children, a nding supported by Maloney et al. (2010). Additionaly, Dawe and colleagues found that in contrast to women, men are more likely to binge drink when they live in households with dependent children than in households where no dependent children are living, while Maloney and colleagues found that being male was a consistent predictor of risky drinking among parents. Although the rates for long-term chronic alcohol consumption are not found to be as high as those for binge drinking, there are still concerning levels for women in both single parent and couple parent households and a higher rate for men in coupled households with dependent children. Overall estimations show that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are less likely to consume alcohol than the wider population (49% compared to 84%) (Dawe et al., 2007; Northern Territory Government, 2007). However, minority Indigenous populations are found to have the highest level of very risky alcohol consumption when compared to the general population (Dawe et al., 2007). Despite evidence that child protection applications in which alcohol is listed as a major concern show no difference between Indigenous and nonIndigenous populations, it has been estimated that up to 15% of Indigenous children in some states live in households where parents abuse alcohol (Dawe et al., 2007).

Complex factors associated with alcohol misuse

When parental alcohol misuse is combined with other risk factors, the negative effects can be cumulative and the potential for adverse outcomes for children is greatly increased (Bromeld et al., 2010). These risk factors include: relationship stress or breakdown; domestic violence; parental misuse of other substances such as illicit drugs; parental mental health problems (e.g., pre- and/ or post-natal depression, bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia); parental previous experiences of trauma and victimisation;
Alcohol misuse and child maltreatment | 5

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poverty/unemployment; housing instability; low education; social isolation; and unavailability of familial and community support

(Bromeld et al., 2010). Much of the research into this issue investigates alcohol misuse within the context of these other risk factors and involves families from low socioeconomic areas or those who have been in contact with child protection populations (Dawe, 2008). While such research is undoubtedly important, it seems clear that child maltreatment associated with alcohol misuse is a signicant and under reported problem in Australia, and one that is not conned to specic sections of society. More research is needed to examine the unique impact that alcohol misuse has on the parenting capacity of people from all walks of life, and how best service providers and policy makers can respond to this problem.

Further readingNCPC Resource Sheets

Child Abuse and Neglect Statistics <> What is Child Abuse and Neglect? <> The Prevalence of Child Abuse and Neglect <>

The authors would like to acknowledge the valuable feedback and input of Professor Sharon Dawe, Dr Daryl Higgins, Elly Robinson, Pauline Kenny and Cathryn Hunter.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2008). 2007 National Drugs Strategy Household Survey: detailed ndings. Drug statistics series no. 22. Canberra: AIHW. Retrieved from <www.> Bromeld, L. M., Lamont, A., Parker, R., & Horsfall, B. (2010). Issues for the safety and wellbeing of children in families with multiple and complex problems: the co-occurrence of domestic violence, parental substance misuse, and mental health problems (NCPC Issues No. 33). Retrieved from <www.aifs.>. Burns, L., Mattick, R. P., & Cooke, M. (2006). Use of record linkage to examine alcohol usage in pregnancy. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 30, 642648. 6 | Australian Institute of Family Studies

Dawe, S. (2008). Identifying parental substance use and misuse in clinical practice. Family Relationships Quarterly, 7, 35. Dawe, S., Frye, S., Best, D., Moss, D., Atkinson, J., Evans, C., Lynch, M., & Harnett, P. (2007). Drug use in the family: Impacts and implications for children. Canberra, ACT: Australian National Council on Drugs. Dawe, S., Harnett, P., & Frye, S. (2008). Improving outcomes for children living in families with parental substance misuse: What do we know and what should we do (NCPC Issues No. 29). Retrieved from < issues29/issues29.html>. Fluke, J. D., Shusterman, G. R., Hollinshead, D. M., & Yuan, Y. T. (2008). Longitudinal analysis of repeated child abuse reporting and victimization: Multistate analysis of associated factors. Child Maltreatment, 13, 7688. Freisthler, B., Merritt, D. H., & LaScala, E. A. (2006). Understanding the ecology of child maltreatment: A review of the literature an directions for future research. Child Maltreatment, 11, 263280. Freisthler, B., Needell, D., & Gruenewald, P. J. (2005). Is the physical availability of alcohol and drugs related to neighborhood rates of child maltreatment? Child Abuse and Neglect, 29, 10491060. Gibbs, D. A., Martin, S. L., Johnson, R. E., Rentz, E. D., ClintonSherrod, M., & Hardison, J. (2008). Child maltreatment and substance abuse amongst U.S. Army soldiers. Child Maltreatment, 13, 259268. Harbin, F., & Murphy, M. (Eds) (2006). Secret lives: Growing with substance. Working with children and young people affected by familial substance misuse. Lyme Regis, Dorset: Russell House Publishing Ltd. Jeffries, H., Hirte, C., Rogers, N., & Wilson, R. (2009). Parental substance misuse and childrens entry into alternative care in South Australia. Adelaide: Government of South Australia, Department for Families and Communities. Retrieved from < aspx?leticket=MKdXFK2RuXM% 3D&tabid=811>. Kroll, B. (2004). Living with an elephant: Growing up with parental substance misuse. Child & Family Social Work, 9, 129140. Lamont, A. (2011). Child abuse statistics (NCPC Resource Sheet). Melbourne, Australian Institute of Family Studies. Laslett, A-M., Catalano, P., Chikritzhs, Y., Dale, C., Doran, C., Ferris, J. et al. (2010). The range and magnitude of alcohols harm to others. Fitzroy, Victoria: AER Centre for Alcohol Policy Research, Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre, Eastern Health. Leek, L., Seneque, D., & Ward, K. (2009). Parental drug and alcohol use as a contributing factor in applications to the Childrens Court for protection orders. Children Australia, 34, 1116. Leonard, K. E., & Eidon, R. D. (2007). Marital and family processes in the context of alcohol use and alcohol disorders. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 3, 285310. Lown, E. A., Nayak, M. B., Korcha, R. A., & Greeneld, T. K. (2011). Child physical and sexual abuse: A comprehensive look at alcohol consumption patterns, consequences, and dependence from the National Alcohol Survey. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 35, 317325. Maloney, E., Hutchinson, D., Burns, L., & Mttick, R. (2010). Prevalence and patterns of problemtic alcohol use among Australian parents. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 34, 495500. National Health and Medical Research Council. (2009). Australian guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol. Canberra: NH&MRC. Retrieved from < guidelines/publications/ds10>. NSW Department of Community Services. (2007). Annual statistical report 200506. Sydney: New South Wales Government. Retrieved from < assets/main/documents/docs_data/ANNUAL_STATISTICS_ REPORT0506.PDF

Northern Territory Government. (2007). Ampe Akelyememane Meke Mekane Little Children are Sacred. Report of the Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the protection of Aboriginal children from sexual abuse 2007. Darwin, Northern Territory Government. Odyssey Institute of Studies. (2004). Nobodys Child Project: Identifying and addressing the needs of children with substance dependent parents. Melbourne: Odyssey House Price-Robertson, R., & Bromeld, L. (2009). What is child abuse and neglect? (NCPC Resource Sheet). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies. Price-Robertson, R., Bromeld, L., & Vassallo, S. (2010). The prevalence of child abuse and neglect (NCPC Resource Sheet). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies. Raising Children Network. (2010). Newborn screening tests. Retrieved from < screening_tests.html#apgar> Scott, D. (2009). Think child, think family. Family Matters 81, 3742.

Tomison, A. M. (1995). Update on child sexual abuse (NCPC Issues Paper No. 5). Melbourne: National Child Protection Clearinghouse. Valleman, R., & Templeton, L. (2007). Understanding and modifying the impact of parents substance abuse on children. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 13, 7989. Victorian Department of Human Services. (2002). An integrated strategy for child protection and placement services. Melbourne: Community Care Division, Department of Human Services. Walsh, C., MacMillian, H. L. & Jamieson, E. (2003). The relationship between parental substance abuse and child maltreatment: Findings from the Ontario Health Supplement. Child Abuse & Neglect, 27, 14091425. Winqvist, S., Jokelainen, J., Luukinen, H., & Hillbom, M. (2007). Parental alcohol misuse is a powerful predictor for the risk of traumatic brain injury in childhood. Brain Injury, 21, 1079 1085. Yampolskaya, S., & Banks, S. M. (2006). An Assessment of the extent of child maltreatment using administrative databases. Assessment, 13, 342355.

Commonwealth of Australia 2011 This work is copyright. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, no part may be reproduced by any process without prior written permission from the Australian Institute of Family Studies, Level 20, 485 La Trobe Street, Melbourne VIC 3000. The Australian Institute of Family Studies is committed to the creation and dissemination of research-based information on family functioning and wellbeing. Views expressed in its publications are those of individual authors and may not reect those of the Australian Institute of Family Studies or the Australian Government First edition, Alcohol misuse and child maltreatment, by Veronica Meredith and Rhys Price-Robertson, published December 2011. ISSN 1448-9112 (Online) Australian Institute of Family Studies Level 20, 485 La Trobe Street, Melbourne VIC 3000 Australia Phone: (03) 9214 7888 Fax: (03) 9214 7839 Internet: <>

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