How we made the ‘last chance to keep my children’ documentary

An executive producer of the documentary inside a family rehab unit explains why and how they did it

Leanne Smullen, residential manager at Phoenix Futures Specialist Family Service. Photo: BBC/Lambent Productions/Becky Pott

by Emma Wakefield

The most challenging documentaries to make are often those that really need to be made.  Making a series about parents addicted to drugs and alcohol was never going to be easy. But the journey to make ‘Addicted Parents: Last chance to keep my children’ has been a revelation – in all sorts of unexpected ways.

I first visited Phoenix Futures Specialist Family Service several years ago and was determined to tell the story of the families recovering there and the staff enabling that transformation. It is an inspiring place, and we wanted to understand addiction, and empower families to tell us about it in their words and through their own experiences, and shed light on the issue through their stories.

But that was an ambition that demanded a very high level of trust from everyone involved.

We spent several months researching and understanding the process at the family service before beginning to film. Before that we had done some trial filming to examine how the story might be told responsibly, and to enable us to understand the perspectives of all who might take part before we committed to a full series.

Once we had developed this collaborative way of working, we then spent over a year filming in the rehab, developing close relationships with the residents and the staff, and documenting the process with immense care.

This is a therapeutic community; we couldn’t get in the way of that.

Support from The Wellcome Trust helped us to establish an independent ethics board – a team of experts in bio-medical ethics, social work and drugs work, who have advised us on our filming practice as well as commenting on the final films as they have been finalised. Their expertise was invaluable.

And Dr Sally Marlow, Public Engagement Fellow, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience – King’s College London has acted as consultant, advising on how we represent addiction in the films.

We wanted to follow stories from beginning to end, capturing all the challenges and setbacks as well as the triumphs.

We wanted to include a contextual layer of insight from the Phoenix staff, and to include the voices of the children, whose perspective has never been heard in this way.

And we wanted to follow several families as they went through the rehab process, exploring through the programme what has happened to them in the past and understanding how they can stay clean in the future.

But all these families come from different parts of the country. We set out to develop relationships with their relevant local authorities. Where this has worked well, we’ve had highly constructive conversations, and have been able to work in a collaborative way to make sure everyone is comfortable with not only the story being told but also the care for each individual taking part. Sometimes that has taken several meetings and multiple viewings of the films.

It was never going to be a simple decision at the start. But I’ve seen extraordinary commitment from social workers who are supporting families at a time of intense change, and that has been inspiring.

We talked with the residents of the house about why they wanted to take part, and how their stories might not only be told, but received – especially in a world where addicts are condemned. They were determined to tell a different story, to be seen as people, and their views on that judgement, and the need to change the narrative, was a dialogue that continued.

The purpose of the films is to shed light on a hidden world and reveal extraordinary stories and lives within them. This particular hidden world is also one where people are stigmatised, judged and looked down on, so enabling them to tell their stories was fraught with difficulty. But we were determined to make it possible – to work with them every step of the way to document their journeys and give them a voice.

Our view is that if you don’t hear that voice, then the story stays the same; without being given the opportunity to understand, everyone continues to judge and condemn, without knowledge and without insight.

It is a hard story to tell. But it has been a privilege to tell it.

Emma Wakefield is executive producer of ‘Addicted Parents: Last chance to keep my children’ for Lambent Productions.

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2 Responses to How we made the ‘last chance to keep my children’ documentary

  1. londonboy July 19, 2017 at 10:36 am #

    Thank you for making this an extremely respectful and thought-provoking programme.

    I thought the children especially were wonderful – accepting and wise beyond their years, living through experience you’d never want a child to live through. A fierce need to be a better parent seemed to be the key to successful rehab. Who would’ent want these families to succeed in all their painful fragility? This just has to be a better model than paying for children to enter Care via court proceedings and paying foster carers to be good parents for years on end – although I do understand this may be needed as a back-up plan.

  2. Planet Autism July 19, 2017 at 3:04 pm #

    Care proceedings and removal of children should always be a last resort. Parents should be supported to improve where necessary. But this almost highlights the stark lack of balance in how addict parents end up keeping their children whilst other parents have their children taken for the flimsiest and sometimes false, reasons.