Partners in Hope

Image: Partners in Hope

They are often survivors of inter-generational cycles of family violence, trauma and offending. They most likely grew up as wards of the State. And they are frequently the primary carers of children. But the prospect of losing their child means many substance-dependent mothers are afraid to seek help – even though they recognise they have a problem, says Professor Alison Lee of UTS: Centre for Research in Learning and Change.

An estimated 60,000 Australian children have a parent undergoing treatment for drug addiction, and 18 per cent have witnessed their parent overdose or die. While this undoubtedly affects a child's development and puts them at risk of repeating the destructive cycle, evidence shows a child will develop more normally if they remain with their primary caregiver. For a positive outcome for the child, the parent requires significant long-term early support and intervention.

Lee is heading a team of researchers on a seven-year project called Partners in Hope, which aims to change the way government services deal with substance-dependent women who, in many cases, are also dealing with mental illness and domestic violence, as well as having children.

"In our preliminary studies, we found many women with substance-abuse problems have had their children taken from them, but they have been left in the same situation, for example dealing with domestic violence," says Lee, who is completing a pilot study at Kathleen York House in Glebe.

The pilot and an awareness-raising film produced by UTS: Marketing Communications Unit, with funding from the Rotary Club of Drummoyne, demonstrates that with personalised care and support women can rebuild their life – and that of their children.

"These women don't have the ability to marshal the services they need. Mental health teams often struggle to work with the additional substance dependency and parenting issues. And if they seek treatment for substance dependency, these services often don't have the resources or funding to treat the women's mental health problems and address the parenting needs of children."

Lee says the program at Kathleen York House works with mothers to raise their children differently to the way in which they were raised, despite managing and living with adversity.

Case studies in the second stage of the project will illustrate the scope of the problem – statistics are not often collected or available due to a lack of acknowledgment that children are important in the success or failure of treatment. Ultimately, Lee and her team will develop a model of care as an alternative to current models used by government service providers.

Not only will this break children free of the same lifecycle as their mothers, says Lee, it will save the taxpayer money: "These children are particularly vulnerable. [If nothing is done] they are the people who will present into the mental health system, juvenile justice system, and corrections systems down the line."

A full-length documentary to raise awareness is also planned as part of the project. "It will change your life," says Lee of the pilot film. "This is a deeply neglected area of our social responsibility, and it's been invisible to most of us. It is moving to see what happens when these women gain access to services that help them understand their role in their own life and in their children's life, and what a difference that can make in a population that we would simply leave to fall through the cracks."

If you would like more information or would like to support the Partners in Hope project, please email Liz Hardy.