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Babies, booze and breakdowns

Posted: 11/06/2021

Avid Archers fan Kerry Fretwell discusses the long running BBC Radio 4 programme’s current alcoholism storyline through a family law lens.

Anyone who is an Archers fan has been affected by the developing storyline of Alice and her struggles with alcohol. Alice, who married Chris Carter, a farrier, during a holiday to Las Vegas in 2010, looked at one point as if she had everything going for her. Intelligent and educated, she had a good job as an aeronautical engineer but was dismissed because of her drinking. Whilst under the influence of drink, Alice has over the years behaved inappropriately with other people’s husbands and also behaved badly at weddings and funerals.

But what has made this storyline more troubling recently has been Alice’s struggles with alcohol while pregnant and since the premature birth of her baby, Martha, in March 2021. It was not at all clear whether or not Alice wanted to be pregnant, or was scared about the fact that she had been drinking before discovering that she was pregnant. For many mothers who are not aware that they are pregnant this can be a common concern. But knowing that she was pregnant, Alice continued to drink and there is a now a worry that Martha may have been born with foetal alcohol syndrome - a concern that Chris has articulated and which may not become clear for some years.

Unfortunately matters deteriorated even further when Chris discovered that Alice had been drinking before Martha’s christening and nearly dropped her baby. The christening was cancelled, Chris took Martha to his mother’s and Martha has been with Chris ever since. Alice has oscillated between wanting to see Martha or be no part of her life because she feels that Martha will be better off without her. Alice tried to stop drinking for a few days but has now gone back to the bottle and is living with her parents, Jennifer and Brian, who are keeping a wary eye on her. Not surprisingly, Chris no longer trusts Alice and does not wish to leave Martha alone with her. This is perfectly understandable from his viewpoint. Alcoholics can be deceitful and in denial about their substance abuse. They can conceal their addiction by hiding bottles and lying about whether they have drunk or not, and Alice has been lying to Chris about this for some time.

It is not clear yet whether the marriage between Chris and Alice is definitely over. At the moment it seems to be, as Chris has said he hates Alice but he also still loves her. The priority now is caring for Martha. The courts will not get involved unless either Chris or Alice make an application to the court for a child arrangements order. Up until 2014, it was a requirement that on divorce a form had to be completed which advised the court of the children in the marriage, where they lived, whether the child arrangements were agreed, whether there were any safeguarding issues in respect to those children, or if they were known to the local authority. From 2014, those forms were no longer required and it is now expected that parents will sort out their own child arrangements and will not have any involvement with the court unless an application under the Children Act is made. If an application to the court is made by Alice then the court will prioritise Martha’s welfare. The judge will listen to what Chris has to say and is unlikely to encourage unsupervised contact between Martha and Alice if Alice cannot prove that she is no longer drinking.

Alice has a mentor who helps her and is available on the phone if there are alcohol triggers but this has not yet proved enough for Alice to stay sober. It is a sad fact that between 40% and 60% per cent of alcoholics do relapse but Alice is lucky in many ways. She has a supportive mother and family and a supportive mentor. She can attend AA or the equivalent of a 12 steps group or she could enter into a rehabilitative programme. She can engage in therapy and it would probably be helpful for Chris and Alice to sign up to family counselling. At times Alice knows she wants to be a proper mother to Martha but she is not yet motivated to give up her drinking. If she did give up drinking, to satisfy Chris that she will suffer no further relapses, she could agree to hair/blood/urine tests or could agree to wear a scram ankle bracelet which monitors alcohol levels in sweat. There are also devices which monitor alcohol levels in the breath and download readings to a phone app. Cars can be fitted with alcohol immobilisers. Since Alice threw a bottle through a shop window when Jim refused to sell her vodka, the police are now involved and it would now appear a social worker has been appointed.

In my experience with these kind of cases, it is possible to come back from what appears to be a situation where the care of the child/children is lost to a mother because of alcohol. But the good news is that in last night’s episode, Alice seems finally to recognise that she does need help and has agreed to enter into a rehabilitative programme to be funded by Brian and Jenny so there would at last seem to be some hope on the horizon. For the time being, we shall have to wait to find out from the script writers what will happen between Chris, Alice and Martha, but not since the awful unfolding of the coercive control storyline of Rob and Helen in 2014/2015 has a storyline gripped the Archers fan base so keenly.

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