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Keywords:

  • complex families;
  • drug abuse;
  • parental mental illness

Accessible summary

  • While there is emerging evidence for family sensitive practice, few practitioners employ this approach.
  • Over 2 years, practitioners were invited to identify the problems and the successful strategies experienced when working with families where a parent, with dependent children, has a substance and/or mental illness disorder.
  • Problems were found related to working with multiple agencies, multiple family problems and high staff turnover.
  • Practitioners found several strategies to be effective; working in a strength-based manner, establishing clearly defined and negotiated goals, and balancing the sometimes competing needs of children and parents.

Abstract

Even though employing a family-sensitive approach has been shown to be beneficial for parents and children, there is sporadic uptake of this approach. This paper focuses on practitioners' perspectives when working with families where a parent, with dependent children, has a mental illness and/or substance abuse disorder. The aim of this research is twofold: (1) identify the issues practitioners face when working with families with complex needs; and (2) present the strategies they find to be effective in addressing family needs. Within the context of an organization that supported a family-sensitive approach, this study reports on 21 semi-structured interviews conducted over 15 months with 10 practitioners, as well as three focus group interviews with the same staff. Employing a qualitative framework, data highlighted the multifaceted nature of family problems, issues working with multiple agencies and problems associated with staff turnover. Successful strategies included working with the family on clearly defined and negotiated goals, focusing on family strengths and employing specific skills such as managing the sometimes competing needs of children and parents.