Towards hope

In summary: 
  • Led by academics from UTS, a team of researchers is developing a new model for substance dependent mothers and their children
  • One of the case studies, Kathleen York House, incorporates traditional rehabilitation with parenting support through Tresillian Family Care

A collaborative research program is bringing new hope to substance dependent mothers and their children. Led by UTS academic Professor Alison Lee, the research aims to develop a comprehensive model of care for families at risk.

In a light-filled house in Glebe, three women talk about their lives: their struggles, achievements and children.

The room behind them pops with primary colours – toys, crayons and child-sized furniture – a picture of comfortable domesticity.

But the picture doesn’t tell the full story. Listen, and you’ll hear these women’s reflections encompass drug addiction, childhood abuse, forced separation from their children, as well as their achievements in overcoming these challenges.

They are graduates of the six-month residential drug and alcohol treatment program at Kathleen York House, where their testimonials were filmed for the Partners in Hope DVD.

Produced by UTS researchers in partnership with Kathleen York House, Tresillian Family Care Centres and the Rotary Club of Drummoyne, the DVD is designed to raise the profile of the Partners in Hope research initiative that has grown out of the successful treatment being delivered at Kathleen York House.

The DVD’s July launch attracted representatives from alcohol and drug treatment services, researchers and policymakers, including members of the NSW Department of Health. Following the event, the Hon Penny Sharpe spoke at length about the project in NSW Parliament.

Such support and recognition from a high profile public figure is invaluable to the program, not least because of the stigma surrounding addiction.

“Kathleen York House is for women with an entrenched history of drug and alcohol use who have tried several options and their life has essentially been destroyed,” says Senior Lecturer in Addiction Medicine at the Sydney University Medical School, Dr Carolyn Day.

“These women are a frequently maligned group of people, but their stories are often complex. It seems somewhat unjust and I became very passionate about it for that reason,” says Day, who is also a member of the Partners in Hope research team.

Many substance-dependent women are survivors of intergenerational cycles of family violence, trauma and offending. Many suffer mental health issues, have trouble finding stable jobs due to disrupted schooling, and have limited housing options. Socially isolated, they are often the primary carers of children.

While traditional drug and alcohol programs focus purely on rehabilitation for the individual, the Kathleen York program incorporates parenting support and skills development in collaboration with Australia’s largest child and family health organisation, Tresillian Family Care.

Family therapist and Partners in Hope researcher Dr Lorraine West describes this element of the program as “absolutely magical”.

“Before these mothers had to battle on as best they could. They either had their child removed or they struggled on until some system picked them up and reported them to the Department of Community Services.

“At Kathleen York House, these women can do their own work on their personal trauma and simultaneously work with Tresillian child and family health nurses to improve their parenting in a safe environment.”

Tresillian Chair in Child and Family Health, Professor Cathrine Fowler, says following the expansion of the program to include parenting aspects,

“The staff and board at Kathleen York House recognised something quite unusual was starting to happen with the clients.

“There was an improved retention rate, the mothers were continuing to breastfeed their babies, they were staying in the program longer.”

After 18 months, the board decided research was needed to better understand the success of their program, and Partners in Hope was born.

As Director of the Centre for Research in Learning and Change, and Partners in Hope coordinator, Professor Alison Lee says the Kathleen York initiative was a good fit for her centre’s research focus.

“We’ve been looking at practice innovation in healthcare. We’re really interested in how new services are created and sustained, how professionals who might be nurses or drug and alcohol workers or social workers or psychologists work together in a new way to develop better services.”

Supported by a UTS Partnership Grant, Lee’s research team began examining the drug and alcohol rehabilitation service at Kathleen York House as a stand-alone case study, but has since scoped out a larger program of research.

Scheduled to take place over five years in successive stages, the research will now look beyond mothers trying to overcome substance dependence to include other vulnerable women with children.

Alison Lee, photo by Joanne SaadAlison Lee, photo by Joanne Saad

“The aim is to develop a model of comprehensive care for this population, implementing that model and evaluating it over time,” says Lee. “To design an effective model we need evidence, and that’s what we’re building up.”

To this end, the research team will undertake four more case studies into innovative services for women and their children. These include an outpatients’ program at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital for women on the methadone program who have children in their care, and Jacaranda Cottages, a centre within the prison system allowing imprisoned women to live with their children.

Lee explains the broadened scope: “It’s about working in adversity, trying to develop parenting capabilities in vulnerable women to help them do what they want to do – which is provide a better life for their children.”

The interdisciplinary research team is composed of members from across UTS as well as the University of New South Wales, the University of Sydney and Macquarie University.

This includes Professor in Indigenous Education Juanita Sherwood and Professor of Law and Director of Research at Jumbunna Larissa Behrendt. “They will be working with us to address the really serious lack of services for indigenous families in these areas,” says Lee.

The partnership with Rotary continues to grow, with Lee and Fowler presenting at a large Rotary district conference in late October, and an application for a Rotary Health Research Grant in progress.

Moving beyond addiction, the three women in the lounge room of Kathleen York House are able to celebrate more ordinary achievements: gaining part-time work, earning a driver’s licence, sharing time with their children.

The Partners in Hope initiative aims to secure the funding and support needed to put such hope within reach for all vulnerable mothers.

More information about the Partners in Hope research program can be found at

Image of child supplied by iStock