Recently launched project provides children with a route to recovery

24th July 2009 at 01:00
Next Wednesday, youngsters affected by substance misuse at home will get the chance to meet others in similar circumstances

It was a memorable holiday - for all the wrong reasons. Mum was drunk again and not fit to look after the children.

In some families you might joke about having one too many, but when Mum's regularly too drunk to cook, it's not much fun for children who have to fend for themselves.

Alayne Jones and her colleagues have no shortage of sad stories about occasions ruined by parents' drink or drug habits. But it's everyday ordinariness these children long for, which is perhaps most poignant: girls who want to be like their friends and spend a Saturday shopping with their mum; boys who want to hear someone say: "Be back for tea at half past five."

Alayne is services manager with Alcohol Support Ltd, a voluntary organisation offering a range of services, including support for children affected by parental substance misuse. This morning, she's meeting child and family case workers to update the toolkit they use to work with pupils at north-east primary and secondary schools.

The Alcohol and Drugs Action Team in Aberdeenshire recently launched Routes to Recovery, a three-year strategy for tackling misuse. It is estimated that more than 50,000 adults in Aberdeenshire are drinking more than the recommended levels, and that 1,200 people have a drug problem.

Child and family case workers Kerry Mullen and Ann Brodie spend most of their time working one-to-one in schools with children affected by parental substance misuse. They work alongside guidance staff, school nurses and community education workers. "The referrals we get come from a guidance teacher, a school nurse or from social work, even self-referrals - and parents sometimes refer their children," explains Ann.

"A lot of the children have anger management and self-esteem problems, not getting on with friends - there are all these issues for a child not coping with what is happening at home."

"The youngest I have seen was about eight, and that would be because the mum and dad have alcohol issues at home," says Kerry, a young mum who worked in children's homes earlier in her career. "We see them in school once a week or once a fortnight, sometimes once a month - it depends on what the issues are at home. If they are looking to be placed in foster placement, we would help with the moving."

After an assessment, an action plan is developed for each child, and Ann and Kerry help children find ways of coping with problems at home and keeping safe - some youngsters in distressing family circumstances may resort to self-harm.

The toolkit of workbook materials is constantly evolving for those one-to- one sessions, which help children of all ages open up about their concerns. In one section, youngsters create their own family story using photographs or drawings; other sections have drug and alcohol education appropriate for their age.

"It's getting them to open up about feelings, because the work we are doing is preventative. It's to stop these children developing anxiety, which can lead to their own substance misuse problems when they are older," explains Ann.

Children may be taking on caring responsibilities in the family, which may mean homework suffers. "A lot of the time, if they are thinking about what's going on at home, obviously they are not going to be concentrating on their work in school either," says Kerry.

"I've had children who back away from a group of friends because they don't want anyone to ask `where does your mum work?' or `why can't we come round to your house for tea?' or `why can we never sleep over at your house?' So they would rather be on their own."

Alayne says some children may be very quiet at school: "They are the ones who concern me the most, the ones living with this awful scenario and then are very quiet and subdued in school. They're the ones who tend to get missed a wee bit, aren't they?'

Some families will be adept at covering up, particularly in better-off homes. "People hide it well, and it's across all sectors of society," Alayne says. "You have middle-class parents who have got all the speak, with the Pounds 350,000 to Pounds 400,000 house, two cars in the drive and foreign holidays, so they manage to circumvent social work because they know the language. It is more hidden and it makes it more difficult to get hold of those youngsters who are affected.

"What we are trying to do here is encourage the kids to see that there is another kind of life other than drugs and alcohol, and that they can live their own lives in a meaningful way without necessarily being the same as their parents - because kids will attribute that to themselves and say: `Well my mum's a drinker, my grandmother was a drinker, therefore what choice do I have?'"

Fortunately, there will be happy endings for some children - a parent will go through rehabilitation successfully and youngsters will come through their experiences, occasionally coming back to show their former case workers how well they are doing.

At an annual summer fun day - the next one is on July 29 - the children get together and make supportive friendships. Some stay in touch through social networking sites like Bebo. Ann says: "We tell the children that everybody here has a parent at home or someone they know who has a substance-misuse problem. So they know it straight off and they gel and speak about it. It's absolutely amazing and such a satisfying thing."

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