£2.2m for new study on the care of parents who use drugs

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An innovative £2.2 million study will investigate the provision of treatment for parents who use drugs in the UK – in a bid to understand how they interact with health and social care services.

The three-year project – led by the University of Stirling and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council – involves a team of social scientists and clinical academics from across the world. They will investigate the everyday lives of parents who use drugs and the support they receive from health and social care services.

Led by Professor Anne Whittaker, of the Nursing, Midwifery and Allied Health Professionals Research Unit (NMAHP-RU), the project, The Relations Study, will engage with families at two sites. The Stirling team will lead the Scottish site, in the Lothian area, while Dr Polly Radcliffe from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London, will manage the second site, in London.

Experts believe the new project will help to improve the lives of parents who use drugs and their children. Professor Whittaker said: “Children and families affected by parental drug use include some of the most stigmatised and disadvantaged families in society.

“Improving their social circumstances and their health and wellbeing is a priority for governments. However, parents do not always receive the right kind of treatment and support – and there is considerable variation in the way policies for helping families are implemented in practice.

“As a consequence, little is known about what happens to families over time when they engage with a range of social, legal, health and welfare services, and whether our current system of treatment and care is working from the perspective of families and services.

“Our study aims to answer some of these key questions.”

Anne Whittaker

Professor Anne Whittaker, of the University of Stirling, is leading The Relations Study.

The team will conduct interviews with families and observe the nature and extent of their involvement with services over a one to two-year period. They will also observe practice in a range of health and social care services to better understand the kind of challenges professionals face when working with families affected by parental drug use.

The study will also involve a review of both local and national policies to enable a comparison of approaches between different professionals and agencies, and between Scotland and England.

The project will be supported by the creation of two learning alliances – one in Scotland, and one in England – that will bring together key stakeholders and experts in the field of policy and practice. The alliance will include families who will help the team to focus on key issues affecting them.

Professor Whittaker, who is on secondment at Stirling from NHS Lothian, continued: “We know that parents who use drugs often live in poverty, have multiple and complex health needs, and their children frequently end up in the care system. Parents often report an upbringing themselves characterised by social disadvantage, domestic violence and child maltreatment, poor education, and early exposure to the criminal justice system.

“Many families feel they have been failed by the care system and report discriminatory treatment from health services, housing and welfare agencies. Unsurprisingly, many are fearful and distrustful of services.

“At the same time, professionals and services are constrained by limited resources, increasing demands and expectations, a constant raft of new policy imperatives and practice guidance, a risk averse management system and a culture of blame when things go wrong. These hinder their ability to respond to the complex needs of families, and engage constructively with them.

“This project aims to explore these complexities in order to find alternative and more effective ways of helping families.”  

International learning

Researchers from the United States, Canada and Australia are also designing their own projects – with the aim of paving the way for an international comparison of policy and practice.

Professor Whittaker added: “Improving the treatment and care of parents who use drugs, and improving outcomes for the whole family, is a shared goal across the globe and we can all learn from each other.

“Our project includes four very experienced researchers and a UK and international team of social scientists and clinical academics who will bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the project.”

Professor Whittaker and Dr Radcliffe are supported by Stirling colleagues: Dr Emma Coles and Dr Rosaleen O’Brien, Research Fellows at NMAHP; Professor Jane Callaghan, Director of the Centre for Child Wellbeing and Protection; and Joe Schofield, Coordinator of the Drugs Research Network for Scotland (DRNS) in the Faculty of Social Sciences..

They are working alongside Dr Jan Flaherty and Dr Landon Kuester (King’s College London); Dr Emily Finch (South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust); independent researcher Dr Emma Wincup; Dr Alison Munro (University of Dundee); independent researcher Professor Avril Taylor; and Dr Amy Chandler (University of Edinburgh).

International researchers on the project include: Dr Miriam Boeri (Bentley University, USA); Professor Thomas McMahon (Yale University, USA); Dr Amy Salmon (University of British Columbia, Canada); Dr Fiona Martin (Dalhousie University, Canada); and Dr Anna Olsen (Australian National University).

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