The rehab service that keeps families together

Donatella Olisterno, manager of Harper House
Harper House manager Donatella Olisterno has big ambitions for the service

Harper House is the only drug and alcohol rehabilitation unit in Scotland that supports parents to get clean while still having responsibility for their children.

"This place has saved my life," says Rebecca, whose name has been changed to protect her identity.

The mum-of-two says her life was chaotic before she came to the unit, with no structure or routine.

"It was a horrible lifestyle," she says.

"I didn't want to face reality, that was my coping mechanism, just turn to a bottle of alcohol and try to forget about everything that's happened to me."

Rebecca's youngest son attended the on-site nursery at Harper House - which looks after all ages from newborn to aged five. Her eldest child was looked after by relatives away from the North Ayrshire unit.

After six months of treatment, she has recently moved into her own home with a new outlook on life.

"I am really proud of myself," she says.

"My children have got their mum back - a happy mum, a stable mum, a sober mum.

"People might find it daunting having to do it, but it is worth it. "

Harper House
Harper House is the only service of its kind in Scotland

Based in Saltcoats, the centre takes referrals from across Scotland and supports them to care for children up to the age of 10 while in recovery.

Charity Phoenix Futures was awarded more than £8m in Scottish government grant funding to launch the project and its doors have been open since November 2022.

Donatella Olisterno is the new manager of Harper House and has big ambitions for the service.

"I would like 100 Harper Houses getting opened all around Scotland," she says.

"If we could be at everybody's doorstep that would be amazing.

"If we prove that we are doing a fantastic job for families then that's exactly what can lead to further funding."

The flat for community members
The flat that community members can use before leaving the service

Since opening, 38 families have lived in Harper House with stays of up to six months.

Each person receives support for a year after leaving.

The annual budget is £1.5m but despite the high cost of running a service like this, Donatella says it could save money in the long run.

"If they invest in us they won't need to invest in relocating children, they won't need to invest in parents that go in and out of the alcohol and drug partnerships," she says.

"If families have this opportunity I would argue that a lot of money is saved ultimately."

Using a model called Parenting Under Pressure, mums and dads are supported to get their confidence back and learn new skills.

For some, it is a fresh start.

Donatella says some parents have managed to get their children back from care after they have left the service.

Harper House
Harper House opened in November 2022

Katie (not her real name) volunteers at Harper House twice a week and, as a former resident, now wants to helps others on their journey.

Previously suffering from alcohol-related seizures, she says life before treatment was "very dark" and "hopeless".

"If I continued going on the way I did I was going to die," she says.

"When you’re in addiction you don’t realise just how much it’s impacting the wider family.

"It’s not until now I realise how terrible it must have been for them."

The mum-of-two joined the service after a medical detox and stayed for three months with one of her two children.

Both her children attended the local school.

She says that the structure and routine helped her become a more "present" mum.

"My life isn’t much different outside this rehab to what it was was when I was in because I still did all the mum things," she says.

"Getting up and getting the weans ready for school, breakfast, school run, treatment, weans back in from school, dinner, playtime and bedtime routine.

"If I’d been in another residential and didn’t have that, I really don’t know how it would have panned out getting flung into being a mum again because being a mum is one of the hardest jobs in the world."

Katie is looking forward to the future with her family.

"I think I’m a great mum. I live for my kids", she says.

"I’m very proud of how far I’ve come. I feel free. I’m hoping to work in addiction and help other people get out of addiction and into freedom."

National mission

Drugs and Alcohol policy minister Christina McKelvie said improving residential rehab provision for those with childcare responsibilities was a key part of the government's National Mission.

As well as Harper House, Ms McKelvie said £5.5m had been made available to support the establishment of two national houses run by Aberlour Children’s Charity.

The first mother and child house was opened in Dundee in January 2023.

The second is under development and is scheduled to open in Falkirk in summer 2024.