Keeping Families Together - Inside the Phoenix Family Service

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8 October 2020

Phoenix Futures provides a range of residential rehabilitation across four sites in the UK, but one of these sites is slightly different to the more traditional rehab setting. They are one of the few providers in the country who offer a service where people seeking treatment for their substance use problems can do so whilst remaining together as a family.

We spoke with the National Specialist Family Service’s Head of House, Leanne Smullen-Bethell, to gain her insight on working with families, the benefits of this type of placement and what this means to her on a personal level.

How long have you worked with Phoenix Futures, and what brought you to the National Specialist Family Service?

I have worked here for 11 years. I have a passion for supporting people with addiction problems.  The opportunity to work with mums and dads who are trying to overcome addiction really interested me. The family service is such a unique place that I was drawn to the work it did and wanted to be a part of it.

What does a typical day in the service look like for the families?

The day starts with a feeling check of the parents who are with us. We discuss activities for the day and arrange appointments. There will be a group session of therapy followed by lunch. The children will be cared for by our lovely childcare team whilst the parents take part in the therapy session. Afternoons can vary, sometimes there will be a 1:1 session with a key worker, activities like bowling, swimming, walks to the park or parent and child play sessions. There may also be appointments with midwives, health visitors or social care professionals. Children are settled in the evening time for adults to take part in recreational group sessions and relaxation time before bed.

You mentioned the childcare available in the service, could you tell us a little more about this?

Our Family Service provides comprehensive care focused on assessing child development and well-being, as well as making observations around parenting. The work done by our childcare team is crucial in helping us deliver our programme. Our Nursery is Ofsted registered, and rated Outstanding. We also follow the Early Years Foundation School curriculum. The childcare workers will spend time with the family to help them settle in and engage the parents in the measures and observations of their child’s development and well-being.

For those entering treatment in the coming months, they are likely to be with you over the Christmas and New Year period. What is this time like in the service?

Christmas is a really magical time here at the family service. We have a big Christmas lunch with presents and lots of food and activities. We decorate the house and everyone really gets involved. We really try to create opportunities for families to make memories, for example each year we go to the Christmas pantomime and previous years have seen us hold a Boxing Day buffet for extended family. This year might be different but we are already planning to ensure Christmas is very special for the families with us.

This year, during the pandemic, registered care services have faced many challenges. How have you managed this at the family service?

The Coronavirus pandemic has been a real challenge for the service as a whole as we have had to adapt how we work. As you can imagine it has been a scary time for the team who have worked tirelessly all the way through the pandemic. There has been no working from home for us! We have had to support the families through lockdown and protect each other from the virus. In the early stages of the Coronavirus outbreak, we would gather around the TV at the service and listen to the daily updates and work out how this would affect us and those we were working with. It has really brought the team together in such a challenging time. It has also been encouraging to hear from our service users how they have felt safer whilst being with us than they would have been in the community.

Specialist family provision is limited across the UK, what is it that a family placement can offer?

We give parents a chance to come to our service with their children. This is unusual as we are the only service in the UK that supports dads as well as mums. We really believe in giving all parents an opportunity to be with their children, and for children to be with their parents. There are 2.9 million lone parent families in the UK and 90% of those are children with an absent father. We know that children who grow up without a father are more likely to end up in poverty, drop out of school or become involved with drugs. Our aim at the family service is to support all parents to be in their children’s lives either as the sole primary carer or as part of a family unit.

What are families supported to achieve during their placement?

We help families to stop using drugs or alcohol dependently and become more stable parents. We offer support through the later stages of pregnancy, childbirth and into the early stages of parenting. We work with mums and dads to work through difficult emotions and daily challenges so that they no longer feel the need to use substances to function. Further to this we have range of specialist partners we work with onsite and externally, including social workers and midwives who all contribute to the overall assessment that the family are suitable to stay together without professional intervention.

What does a ‘whole family approach’ mean for those placed with the Phoenix Futures Family Service?

We support the whole family with all of their needs. We work with single mums, single dads and couples, helping them to learn how to live their lives without drugs or alcohol. Whilst helping mums and dads to recover from addiction, we also help them to grow in confidence to look after their children as well as supporting their other needs. These can include budgeting, numeracy, literacy or employment prospects.

What is rewarding about the work you do?

When we see people come to the service completely broken in most cases, desperate for help, we offer them a safe place to work on their recovery with their children. Without the work that we do most of those kids would end up in the care system. We give hope to families where they may have had none…and the programme works.

Is there anything anyone has said to you during or after their treatment that stuck with you throughout the years?

I think the thing that sticks with me about people trying to get better from addiction is that ‘only you alone can do it, but you cannot do it alone’. This is absolutely the crux of what we do. We are here for mums and dads who want to recover from drug and alcohol dependency, so they are not alone.

If there is one thing about the family service people should know, what is it?

The service has a really high success rate. 85% of families successfully recover and leave the service with their children which is a wonderful thing, particularly considering the national average success rate for residential treatment is 57%. When these families are given a chance, the programme works and we get to part of an incredible journey where mums, dads and their children get to stay together.

What would you like to change?

Access to a specialist residential service such as the one I manage in Sheffield is really hard. Not because we can’t or won’t accept more families but because accessing the opportunities for parents with addiction problems can be more challenging. We work with mums and dads to stop using drugs or alcohol whilst they can still be with their children as a family unit. A big fear for families is that if they ask for help they are at risk of their children being taken into care. If more local authorities invested in supporting mums and dads to improve their lives earlier, that may prevent parent and child separation further down the line through the courts. It’s sad that adult and children’s services do not work more closely together with families as a whole. It’s the norm that there is often a conflicting view of what is needed for the family and whose responsibility it is to pay for such treatment. If there was a more joined-up attitude there may be more opportunities for families to access a service like ours and receive the help they need.

Do you have anything to say to anyone considering a similar career?

If helping people is your passion, then go for it. A career in addiction services can be the most rewarding job of all. Knowing that you can help someone who is broken to rebuild their lives is just amazing. You get to meet lots of really interesting people and have the privilege of hearing their stories and being a part of their recovery journey. What can be better than that?

Phoenix Futures is a registered charity in England and Wales (No 284880) and in Scotland (No SCO39008); Company Limited by Guarantee Number 1626869; Registered Provider of Social Housing with Homes England (H3795).