We believe most people who abuse alcohol or drugs are simply trying their best to cope with unresolved trauma. Solution focused therapists tell us that often what looks like a big problem might well be that person’s best current attempt to resolve their difficulty. For some parents who are struggling with alcohol or drugs, taking their children away can be a wake up call. For others it’s yet another crushing blow. The sort of blow some parents never overcome. A blow that other parents do eventually overcome, but only after they’ve lost their children for good, and after our system has used up a lot of valuable time and resources. Many replace the children we took and we all start over. Most of us hope things will go better this time.
When we’re involved in safety planning, we’re almost always told that the clearest sign that a parent has fallen back into alcohol or drug abuse is when they start pulling away from relatives and healthy friends. But when child protection gets called in, it’s the lack of sane and sober people around the children that often contributes most to the decision to remove them. The symptom becomes the problem. Yet, even as this goes on, most of the parents still have sane and sober relatives and friends somewhere who are also terribly worried for them and their children. Often they are also extremely angry about what the parents have been doing. Addicts and alcoholics are hard to love. It’s no surprise then that it’s what they need the most.
In Johann Hari’s 15 minute TED talk, “Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong,” he says the opposite of addiction is connection. We’ve found that his story can be calming and helpful to parents caught up with drugs or alcohol and to those who care about such parents and their children.
Often when parents are asked if they have relatives or friends who’ve never seen them use or even seen them under the influence of alcohol or drugs, they can name several people. They pulled away from these people after all, so they wouldn’t see them using. They’re often quite scared at first, even at the idea of reconnecting with these people, making amends, and asking for their help. When we patiently help them think through whether their children will do better in foster care or staying with them with the help of their sane and sober relatives and friends, many will hesitantly choose a safety network and safety plan. When we make this our first priority, we learn we can safely keep most children with their own parents, while also bringing people around who can help the parents navigate the complexities of recovery, so all those tasks aren’t left to the social worker.