An upcoming documentary on BBC 2 offers an inside look at the only family rehabilitation centre in the UK where children can stay with both their parents as they try to get clean. To most of us, the idea of young children living at close quarters with addiction sounds reckless, but the centre currently offers the only programme in the UK that actually works.
And the stakes are high. Trip up just once, and as a parent you could lose your children forever.
The documentary, Addicted Parents: Last Chance To Keep My Children, is an inside look at Phoenix Futures Specialist Family Service, the rehab service where parents go with their children to recover. Families are admitted to the house only if their application is accepted, and then have six months to get clean, or risk their children being taken into care.
A candid look at life inside the house makes for surprising viewing. For once, we have the privilege of seeing social work at its best. Child protection practice, as best practice. The key workers inside the house give us an overview of the process, an introduction to the families they help and most importantly, the often nuanced and deeply moving reasons parents find themselves addicted to substances. It's worth watching for this part of the programme alone.
The parents too are insightful about their own problems, and you can feel the pain and the still raw emotion they have to wrestle with, as they try to come to terms with their own sexual abuse and neglect as children, before being able to address their addiction on a meaningful level. That work, along with a withdrawal process which can be painful, are the two most difficult aspects of recovery at the centre, and where parents are most likely to stumble. Mistakes are allowed, but if they jeopardise the group or happen more than once, families can be asked to leave the house, and their children could be removed from their care. There are occasions throughout the programme when parents slip up. Some bounce back. Others don't. And yet, you can't help but root for them all.
Still, it is the children of the parents at the centre who are the stars of this show. Listening to their thoughts about their parents' addictions, and how these substances have been responsible for the deeper imperfections in their childhoods makes for some of the most moving television you'll see this year. From the teenage boy who tells his mother not to be so hard on herself for relapsing - he tells her it's perfectly normal and that she should keep going - to the daughter who says to her mother she could do this, and get clean and that she wasn't alone, the wisdom, kindness and compassion the documentary allows us to witness, is a window into some of the greatest moments the human condition has to offer.
As a child rights campaigner passionate about the importance of balancing the voice of the child with their right to privacy, I felt the documentary did that balance justice. I spoke recently with Emma Wakefield, Managing Director of the award winning production company Lambent, who produced the documentary. She told me that she spoke to the children after the film had been made and asked them if they were comfortable with the end result. They were all very happy with the film, and pleased to be able to share their stories. Emma also spoke about the importance of shining a light on experiences which often take place behind closed doors, but hold the key to our ability to understand each other so much better. Of the rehab centre, she says:
"This particular hidden world is also one where people are stigmatised, judged and looked down on...so enabling them to tell their stories was fraught with difficulty. But we were determined to make it possible.... without being given the opportunity to understand, everyone continues to judge and condemn, without knowledge and without insight. It has to be possible for the most vulnerable to have a voice - because they need to be heard."
That there is still only one centre of its kind in the UK is astounding. Connected to the Family Drug And Alcohol Court (FDAC), this model has consistently delivered results. Lasting results, which cost the tax payer less, and keep families together. It does this by referring families to Phoenix Future to get help, and requires them to come back periodically to assess their progress.
It works so well, it is outdoing current care proceedings models, which do little to address addiction and cost the taxpayer a great deal more. For instance, 58% of mothers who take part in this kind of treatment are reunited with their children, as opposed to only 24% going through conventional courts, with 51% of mothers experiencing ongoing stability after 3 years, as against 22% of mothers who were less fortunate and had to make their way out of addiction on their own.
"Addicted Parents: Last Chance To Keep My Children" will be released in two parts on 18th and 25th July. It is a celebration of the best social work has to offer, a comforting reminder that the truth really does set us free, and that every voice has a right to be heard.