Wendy Wallace visits a centre in Wandsworth that aims to rehabilitate alcohol abusers - and their children
Behind the barred windows and doors of an ordinary-looking house in south London, Karen James (not her real name) is attempting a rebirth. A drinker since childhood, she has been an alcoholic for most of her adult life but is now in her fourth month of sobriety.
Karen's drinking has severely damaged her health. At 33, she has a stomach ulcer, liver problems and pancreatitis. At her last detoxification, she was given three months to live, although she looks healthy enough now with clear skin and eyes.
The damage caused by her drinking is not limited to Karen. Her two sons, aged 10 and eight, have been affected in every way by their mother's addiction. They have been malnourished after years of living on crisps and biscuits because the little money in the household was spent on lager and vodka. They have been beaten up by their mother, and witnessed scenes of degradation and violence between her and her various partners.
The older child has a premature sense of responsibility and watchfulness, as the most reliable member of the family. The younger has missed so much school and parenting in his short life that he doesn't yet know his alphabet. Both children are mentally scarred.
At the newly opened Marie Soper Centre in Wandsworth, the effects of parental alcoholism on children are recognised and addressed. The centre, which is residential, takes in women with their offspring full-time to try to help the mothers get over their alcohol addiction, and to give the children a chance to recover from emotional trauma.
"How can you do this work if you have no programme for the children?" asks Shelagh Woolmer, the manager of the project. "They never know when they go out to school what they're going to come back to. The stress for the child is horrendous. And very often children have had to act as parents to the parent. Without exception, they are very protective of their parents."
Karen's children have been taken away from her twice by social services, the second time for a year. It was the threat of their permanent removal that motivated her to try to get better.
"This place has helped me to get to know the children," she says. "We never played, we never sat and talked, we never did homework or went swimming or shopping. Now we do all those things. They've been to school every day since we've been here."
An accommodating local school has taken the boys temporarily on to its roll, and made special efforts to deal constructively with their behavioural problems.
The older child has feigned illness on numerous occasions, and often succeeded in getting himself sent home at lunchtime. In discussions between the school and the centre, it emerged that this was an expression of his compulsive worry about his mother, whom he wanted to go back and check on to make sure she was still there and still sober. Now the school allows him to ring "home" in the middle of the day if he wants to.
Woolmer prefers the term "problem drinker" or "over-drinker" to the word alcoholic. A former under-fives adviser in Essex and trained counsellor and social worker, she says there were few models for this kind of project when she was asked by the West London Mission to look at a way to keep recovering alcoholics with their children - and actively helping both parties.
Such projects do not exist outside the United States and Scandinavia, she says. "The model is that you put the mother in detoxification and the children in foster care, then throw them back together again."
She toured alcohol projects up and down the country looking for good practice and ideas, and the physical design and personal programmes in evidence at the centre are mainly her ideas.
While the women get help from addiction recovery counsellors, children take part in family therapy and get outings, routine and the chance to talk.
She says: "Children need their voice to be heard, and space in a supportive and protective environment to talk about their fears and their past traumas. " One of the express purposes of work with children at the centre is to teach them who to approach for help if there is a relapse in the future.
"We work with children to show them that it is not their fault, that they have choices in the way they respond to life and to teach them how to seek help appropriately from 'safe' people," says Woolmer.
Although small enough to feel quite homely, the centre can house six families, and has common rooms, kitchens and offices. Families are expected to stay for at least six months if possible, and each adult and child has their own worker allotted to them.
The staff have experience of child development, as well as protection. On the day The TES visited, nursery nurse Linda Easton was running a parenting forum for the women on healthy diets.
"I'd go for days without eating when I was drinking, then have a big plate of chips," says one mother. "And the kids were getting the same."
They discuss the use of sweets as substitutes for love or attention, or bribes. Karen wonders out loud if her sons' ready bruising is connected to the fact that they never ate any vegetables.
Other children here have lived for weeks at a time on breakfast cereals, or chips. Easton is realistic in her limited recommendations, and succeeds in getting the women to think about varied diets. While at the centre, they take part in menu planning and communal cooking.
Jenny Stay, a former lecturer of adults with learning difficulties, has worked at the centre since it opened its doors last October.
"What's struck me more than anything is that all the women who've been referred have had a poor educational background themselves," she says. "That's the one thing they've got in common."
Stay now runs a well-attended weekly literacy group. Most of the women spent their school years truanting, and in one case hanging out with park drinkers. But they are unanimous in their desire for their children to have better school experiences than they did, she says.
"None wants her children to end up like them. Some say they want to improve their literacy to help the children at school. A couple of them read to them when they take them up to bed. There's a definite feeling that 'I want him or her to have a better education than I did'."
How aware are schools likely to be of the children of over-drinkers?
Sometimes not at all, says Woolmer. "Schools don't always know, although school is the most likely place for it to come to light. But with alcohol, because it's legal, if a child is tired, looks dirty or pale or distressed, or doesn't concentrate, it can go on for a while before coming to a case conference. And even then the symptoms may be addressed more than the alcoholism."
Fear of separation from their children has often stopped women from seeking treatment. And paying for families to spend time at the centre requires a leap of imagination for local authorities, who lack experience of this kind of initiative.
The centre is jointly run and funded by NCH Action for Children and the West London Mission. Places for a family unit cost about Pounds 1,000 per week. Some families would benefit from a year's stay, says Woolmer, but few are likely to get it.
"It's finance-led," she says. "They're likely only to get about three months, and then we follow them back into the community."
Seventeen families are waiting to come to the centre, subject to funding approval from local authorities. Three months, however, is not long enough to turn around the habits of a lifetime. Karen is due to leave the centre soon and return home with her children.
The boys, at their own insistence, will go back to their old school. Nobody underestimates the size of the task facing all three of them.
"Drink is my friend," says Karen sadly. "I keep saying I can't wait to get out of this bloody place, but now it's getting closer I'm frightened."