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About the Relations Study

Governing parental opioid use: a relational ethnography


Some of the most disadvantaged families in society include children and families affected by drug use. Parents who use drugs are stigmatised and their children frequently end up in the care system. Parents and families do not always receive the right kind of treatment and family support, so these problems can be repeated from one generation to the next. Improving outcomes for families is a key goal for services as well as for government.

While the UK has established ways of working with parents who use drugs and their families, little is known about how different policies and approaches operate in practice (within and across different agencies and regions), and how they impact on parents, children and other family members. There is a need to look at how the whole system works from a family, service provider and policy perspective.

Our study aims to do this by looking closely at relations between parents, families, communities, professionals, services and policymakers, and how the needs of parents who use drugs and their families are understood, and responded to, within and across different contexts. Our study includes sites in both Scotland and England to help us understand similarities and differences in how these complex systems work and their effects on families.


First, we will set up a Learning Alliance that will involve members of the public in all aspects of the study. The Learning Alliance will include parents and other family members, frontline practitioners and managers of services for parents and families, commissioners and policymakers, and academics. The Learning Alliance will help the study team plan the research, comment on emerging findings, enhance the learning from the study, and make suggestions about what can be done, in policy and practice, to respond to the findings. Find out more about the Learning Alliance here.

Second, researchers will spend a lengthy period of time (approx. 12-20 months) with 30 families who have a mother and/or father who uses drugs, 15 in Scotland and 15 in England. The researchers will try to find out what day-to-day life is like for parents and families, including their social networks, sources of support and the nature and extent of their engagement with services. The researchers will track the lives and progress of parents and families over time in order to better understand how systems of care impact on families. To find out more, visit the Ethnography: Families page.

Third, researchers will also spend time with different professionals and services over a 20 month period, talking to staff about their work with parents/families and other services, and observing agency-family relations and interactions, as well as team and inter-agency meetings. Researchers will try to find out how different professionals and services understand and apply policies and practice guidelines in their everyday work with parents and families, and how wider systems of care impact on families and the work that services do. Find out more on the Ethnography: Services page.

Lastly, we will review and examine policies about the treatment and care of parents who use drugs to compare how polices differ within and across agencies and countries (Scotland/England) and what effects the different policies have on how parents who use drugs and their families are managed and treated. Learn more on the Policy Analysis page.


Our study aims to help a range of people and agencies in different ways. For example:

It will benefit parents who use drugs and their families in the future because it will help to show how practices and policies might better meet their needs. It will benefit professionals, services and policymakers by producing new understandings about how existing systems of care may or may not be benefiting the people they seek to help. Findings could also help academics develop new interventions to help parents who use drugs and their families.

Timetable for the study

The study started in January 2020. In May 2020, the study was temporarily paused due to COVID-19 restrictions. It resumed in September 2020. The first Learning Alliance meetings took place in late November and early December 2020. We aim to begin the recruitment of families and services in Spring 2021 and data collection will end in June 2022. The study will be completed by April 2023.