SUNDERLAND schoolchildren as young as 12 in Sunderland are being flagged up as at risk of becoming drug and alcohol addicts.
Secondary school pupils in the city are being referred to specialist drug and alcohol treatment services in a bid to address their problems.
Figures obtained by the Echo also show 16-year-old girls are getting arrested for being drunk and disorderly, due to the amount of alcohol they are consuming.
Treatment experts said the most common reason for children to come into contact with drugs and alcohol is through their parents.
While a psychiatrist who has worked with young people in Wearside told the Echo that when a child as young as 12 has an addiction, protection issues surrounding that young person must immediately come into play.
A referral can mean the child is vulnerable to drug and alcohol misuse through exposure from a parent or other relation.
Some 366 children aged 12 or under were referred for treatment in 2012/13 in England, according to the most recent figures from Public Health England, compared with 433 in 2011/12.
More than half of under-13s – 59 per cent – received treatment for cannabis misuse, while a third were treated for alcohol misuse. A small number abused solvents.
Dr Stephen Westgarth, a child and adolescent psychiatrist who runs Child Psychiatry UK, and has worked with young people in Sunderland, said: “If you see a 15-year-old with a substance or alcohol misuse problem, then I would be interested in getting an insight into that person’s education, psychology etc.
“But when you have pre-teens, I would be thinking much more about how this was an issue of child protection.
“The younger the child, the more you are concerned about parenting and how well they are being looked after.”
Leader of Sunderland City Council, Coun Paul Watson, said: “Substance misuse among young people is a national issue which we work hard with health partners in Sunderland to address.
“The Youth Drug and Alcohol Project (YDAP) provides one-to-one attention and intervention for young people and their families/carers.
“Working together, we can identify why misuse might have become an issue and decide what support can be put in place to help prevent if from becoming a long-term problem.
“We also recognise the importance of a preventative approach, with training in schools for staff to be able to identify pupils with substance misuse issues and refer them for specialist help if necessary.
“YDAP also work in partnership with the SAFC Foundation of Light with an awareness and activity project within secondary schools, which focuses risk-taking behaviour with a particular emphasis on substance misuse.
“This is in addition to the Tackle It! programme to children in Year 6, which also addresses the risks of substance misuse.”
Andrew Brown, director of programmes at charity Mentor UK, which works to protect children from drug and alcohol misuse, said he was shocked at the findings.
Mr Brown added: “We think it is vital that alcohol and drug education improve. Our own survey of teachers suggests that at the moment delivery is inconsistent, and that the norm is to timetable only one or two sessions a year.”
Elsewhere in the country, children as young as four have been referred for addiction problems.
Steve McCabe, shadow minister for children and families, said he was “shocked” by the findings.
Mr McCabe was a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee when it called for a royal commission to examine UK drug policy.
“This would certainly tend to suggest that the Government’s current strategy towards drugs isn’t working.”
A Government spokeswoman said: “Both the old and the new curriculum are clear that all pupils should be taught about how drugs and other substances can be harmful to the human body.
“The science curriculum also covers how drugs can affect people’s health and lifestyle.”