Info & Advice

What should I do if my spouse has a substance abuse problem?

Encourage them to seek help from one of the many substance abuse services available. These range from those based around weekly meetings to full-time residential care for those with the most serious addictions (often referred to as ‘detox’). A good place to begin this difficult but ultimately rewarding journey would be an appointment with your partner’s GP.

Request a Free Consultation with a Solicitor

The way you approach your partner about their alcohol and/ or drug problems will make a difference to their chances of recovery. Admitting you’ve lost control of something in your life can be very difficult, but it is essential to reach this stage before you can begin down the road to recovery. It’s important that an addict fully understands how their problem is affecting the family, but as their spouse try and resist the anger you may feel and the accusations you may want to make: these are more likely to lead to denial and defensiveness than recovery. Listen to your spouse and help them begin to turn their life around.

Sit with your partner and help them locate local services for people with drug and alcohol problems: the Turning Point website is a good first stop, with its comprehensive national directory. Once they begin attending appointments (if they do!), go with them if you can to offer your moral support and boost their resolve.

Naturally, the whole situation will be much more urgent if you have children, especially younger ones who deserve and need competent care, not an impaired parent struggling through each day.


Western countries have a complex relationship with drugs. Most are strictly prohibited, some are tolerated but frowned upon, and some…are sold freely. Yes, you heard that right: walk into almost any supermarket and grocery store and you will find racks and racks of alcohol. It’s an uncomfortable thought, but alcohol meets the definition of a narcotic just as well, for example, as anything street corner and class A. Narcotics are defined as:

“…a drug or other substance that affects mood or behaviour and is consumed for non-medical purposes.”

Any substance that alters mood affects our brain chemistry and brings with it the risk of addiction.

Because it can be freely and openly purchased by anyone over the age of 18, alcohol lacks the stigma of most other narcotics. Consumption is openly encouraged at social gatherings of all kinds, from birthday parties to formal work events – so much so that not drinking is now the standout choice.

It comes as no surprise to discover just how widespread problems with alcohol have become. In the UK, authorities estimate the number of problem drinkers – people for who drinking has tangibly negative consequences – as over 600,000, with less than 20 per cent receiving any kind of treatment. Meanwhile, the number of people with an identified dependency on alcohol is much higher: more than seven and a half million. Such individuals are sometimes referred to as ‘functioning alcoholics’. They manage their intake and get through their days, but sobriety is a struggle.

Legal problems

Family law must tread a fine line when dealing with parents who struggle with addiction. The priority and safety of children must come first but addicted parents may genuinely want to get better and do right by their families. Is it always fair to punish them by taking away their children? Is it fair to punish the kids, who most likely love the addicted parent in spite of their problems?

Family Drug and Alcohol Courts – or FDACs – were established to try and address this tension and keep families together whenever possible. They function as an alternative to regular family courts when parents with substance abuse issues face the prospect of losing their children to the care system.

FDACs differ from other courts in being more focused on solutions than penalties. They are structured to encourage participation by the family, which can speak directly to the specially trained judge during the proceedings. The same, specially trained judge remains with the case as it moves forward, regularly reviewing progress without the intervention of lawyers, and working to maintain as positive a relationship as possible between the family and caseworkers.

Therapists and specialists in such issues as mental health, domestic violence, and substance abuse work with the family and the judge to create a personalised plan designed to help the parents address their problems, improve their parenting skills and avoid losing care of their kids.

A positive track record

The FDAC model has an impressive success rate, according to research published in August 2023. On behalf of think tank Foundations, the National Centre for Social Research compared proceedings involving families with alcohol and drug problems in regular courts with their counterparts in FDACs, across nine different local authorities.

The findings reveal that children in care proceedings allocated to an FDAC have a 52 per cent chance of being reunited with a substance-misusing parent or carer, compared to only 18 per cent of those in regular family courts: quite a difference.

In such cases, the judges will have been satisfied that the parent or carer has taken positive steps to meaningfully reduce or manage their addictions, to the extent that the children’s welfare is no longer at risk and a reunion with their families then becomes the best choice for them. Meanwhile, more than a third of parents who go through an FDAC give up drugs and/ or alcohol together: more than three times as many as those in regular court proceedings.

Saving money

FDACs cost more in the short term but ultimately save money by reducing the need for future interventions by social workers, the Police and the family courts in the lives of problem families.

John Pearce is President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS). He called on the government to recognise the success of FDACs and make funding more widespread:

“The piecemeal nature of new funding has meant the benefits have been limited to a small number of local authorities. ADCS would welcome a shift in approach so that all local authorities were resourced to explore new ways of working.”

Related Articles

Load More

Podcast: Listen Now