AIMS: This paper examined whether or not: (a) care-giver 'alcohol abuse' is associated with recurrent child maltreatment; (b) other 'risk factors' affect this relationship; and (c) which of alcohol abuse or other drug abuse plays a stronger role. It also examined (d) how children and families where alcohol-related child abuse was identified were managed by child protection services (CPS) in Victoria, Australia. DESIGN, SETTING AND PARTICIPANTS: Using anonymized data from Victorian CPS, repeat cases were examined involving 29 455 children identified between 2001 and 2005. MEASUREMENTS: Carer alcohol abuse, other drug abuse, mental ill-health, carer experience of abuse as a child, child age and gender, family type, socio-economic variables and level of child protection service intervention as recorded in the CPS electronic database were examined as risk factors for recurrence, using bivariate and multivariate techniques. FINDINGS: Almost one-quarter of children in CPS experienced a recurrent incident of child maltreatment in a 5-year period. Where carer alcohol abuse was identified children were significantly more likely to experience multiple incidents compared with children where this was not identified (P < 0.001), as were children where other family risk factors (including markers of socio-economic disadvantage) were identified. The majority of children whose carers were identified with alcohol abuse experienced either repeat incidents or interventions (84%), although almost three-quarters of these children were managed without resort to the most serious outcome, involving court orders. CONCLUSIONS: Alcohol and drug abuse in carers are important risk-factors for recurrent child maltreatment after accounting for other known risk factors; the increased risk appears to be similar between alcohol and drug abuse.