Barely a week passes without stories of “teen drinking binges” and young children “hooked” on drugs appearing in the newspapers. Ministers have launched a series of initiatives to tackle the problems. Most recently home secretary Jacqui Smith gave police more powers to crackdown on underage drinking. This followed a report which found that about 333,000 13-year-olds had drunk alcohol.
Young people’s behaviour has always alarmed the older generation. Parents and governments alike struggle to retain control, but few thoughts are given to the underlying reasons for that behaviour. Certainly, little is written about the acute shortage of help for those with alcohol and drug problems.
One project has gone further than most to address this shortage. The Companions residential rehabilitation home works with young people with emotional and behavioural difficulties, specialising in alcohol and drug-related problems.
As a registered school, Ofsted has labelled almost every part of its service “outstanding”, most crucially in “helping the children achieve well and enjoy what they do”.
Based in a small Staffordshire village, Companions is miles away from the stereotypical tabloid image of bottle-strewn inner-city streets. Its current director, Janette Dunn, was prompted to set Companions up in October 2004 as a result of her experience as a nurse working with young adults hospitalised by drug and alcohol misuse.
“On talking to these patients it became apparent their habit started from a very early age and many had involvement with social services,” Dunn says. “It also became clear the primary reason why a person misuses drugs and alcohol was often overlooked. Instead the main cause for concern was what they did to supply their addiction such as getting involved in prostitution or offending behaviour.”
Companions was created to plug a gap after Dunn discovered there were no local specialised homes for young people who misuse drugs or alcohol, and no way to tackle the often traumatic reasons for this misuse. It hasn’t been an easy journey, and Dunn says that it is still difficult to translate the success it has with residents into sufficient referrals and funding from councils.
“The main obstacle is trying to change local authorities’ attitudes and a culture which believes a young person’s misuse is not a need for specialised provision,” she explains.
“Another obstacle we often encounter is that many young people who have serious drug problems are placed on prescriptions. For many this is a short-term solution.”
The home has found itself at the forefront of youth services and provides a warm, safe and stable environment, something the residents have lacked in their lives.
Registered care manager Helen Malanaphy has been involved from the start. “I think we’re unique in what we do,” she says. “We manage 11 staff, but including casual staff to provide consistency it could go up to 22. The children always see the same faces – with agencies, you could get anybody.”
This commitment to building trust is key, explains Helen. “It’s a very homely environment. The client group have often experienced a lot of bad practice within the care system, or lived in places with other young people that made their experience of care very difficult and, as a consequence, their behaviour has become copycat.”
The young people enjoy a one-to-one staff ratio and, along with their daytime education, have access to counselling, pet therapy, music therapy and aromatherapy.
This holistic approach is essential, according to residential worker Marie O’Neill. “It’s about changing the young people, getting them to face the issues they came in with, rather than just giving them a bed to sleep in,” she explains. “The biggest challenge is breaking down the barriers because they come in very angry and lacking trust. It’s just softly-softly, really, taking it slowly and making them feel they have a voice.”
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This article appears in the 13 March issue under the headline “Companionship, trust and security”