Western Mail Profiles: Dr Sally Holland, Cardiff University

‘Research has shown that a small number of families in Wales face long-term problems’

Dr Sally Holland is Reader in social work at Cardiff University’s School of Social Sciences.

Before becoming an academic, I worked as a social worker in South Wales, and many of my research interests are driven by these experiences.  I know first-hand how difficult it can be to work out exactly what is going on in a family situation behind closed doors and what is the best way forward for a child at risk.  My current research focuses on substance misuse and its effect on parenting.

Use of drugs and alcohol is widespread in Wales.  The majority of parents will drink alcohol to relax or socialise on a regular basis; a smaller proportion will use illicit drugs, notably cannabis.  The vast majority manage to do this and maintain good enough care for their children.   It can become problematic when parents start to neglect children’s basic needs because they are under the influence or trying to get hold of drugs or alcohol.  They might not have enough money for food or to pay bills; they may be unresponsive to a baby’s crying or even become involved in crime or prostitution to raise funds.  Social workers and health workers need to assess the risk for children living in the household and decide whether the parents can be helped to provide adequate care for their children or if it is necessary to provide alternative care.

A particular problem faced by health and social care professionals is the understandable reticence of parents to be frank and honest about the extent of their problems, because of the fear of losing their children.   I have worked with colleagues in Birmingham and Bedfordshire on a follow-up study of families with a substance misuse problem.  This research, funded by the Alcohol Education Research Council, looked at the impact of a specialist intensive intervention service provided by Cardiff council for families in these difficult circumstances, comparing them with families who did not receive this type of help.  The impact of intensive help was evident – although both groups of families had mixed outcomes, the passage of time meant that in 27 cases the families were willing to talk more honestly about their difficulties.

It has become clear that, for most, their problems had a long history.  Most had difficult childhoods; many had parents themselves who were heavy drinkers, violent or neglectful.  Most had their first child very young and the vast majority of women had been living in severely violent relationships when their problems began or became worse.  Sadly, many of their children have gone on to develop problems of their own.  Problems were compounded by poor housing and pressure from friends, relatives and partners to continue taking drugs.

This research has shown that a small number of families in Wales face long-term problems.  It was heartening to meet families who had managed to achieve good outcomes for their children.  This was either because parents managed to change their lives around through intensive help or because a difficult decision had been made to take children into care and they had done well. The next research challenge is to work out how to help social workers decide when they can safely leave children at home and help parents improve family life and when that will be too risky for children’s safety.My work is conducted in consultation with practitioners, policy-makers and service-users and these close relationships ensure the learning that comes from my academic work is translated into information and opinion, which can hopefully develop new evidence-based policies and practices for children in Wales and beyond.

To contact Sally please email Hollands1@cf.ac.uk.

This article first  appeared in the Western Mail‘s Health Wales supplement on the 15th August 2011, as part of the Welsh Crucible series of research profiles.