Parental drug and alcohol misuse is sadly a common factor in child care cases, in which social services have concerns over the welfare of children. It is a factor in up to two-thirds of care applications, and parents with substance misuse problems are often involved in repeat care proceedings in relation to subsequent children.
In 2008 a new type of specialist family court was piloted at the Inner London Family Proceedings Court aimed at addressing this problem: the Family Drug and Alcohol Court, or ‘FDAC’ for short. The pilot was deemed a success, and since then FDACs have opened around the country.
More have opened this year, with the result that there are now 14 specialist FDAC teams, working in 21 courts and serving families in 34 local authorities.
The teams are located at Birmingham and Solihull, the Black Country (Walsall, Sandwell, and Dudley), Coventry, East Sussex, Gloucestershire, Kent, Leeds, London, Milton Keynes & Buckinghamshire, the North East (Gateshead, Newcastle and North Tyneside), Bedfordshire, Somerset, Southampton and Stockport.
What is a FDAC?
The FDAC is an alternative family court for care proceedings. If a local authority is concerned about a child whose parents have drug and/or alcohol problems then, if a FDAC is available in that area, the local authority may, if it considers the case to be suitable, refer it to the FDAC, rather than the ‘ordinary’ family court.
FDAC is a specialist court operating within the framework of care proceedings. It is distinctive because it is a court-based family intervention that aims to improve children’s outcomes, by addressing the entrenched difficulties of their parents.
There are three distinctive features of a FDAC.
- Firstly, FDACs adopt a problem-solving, therapeutic approach, provided via fortnightly court reviews. The reviews provide opportunities for regular monitoring of parents’ progress, and for judges to engage and motivate parents, speak directly to parents and social workers, and find ways of resolving problems.
- Secondly, each FDAC has a specialist, multi-disciplinary team who work with the court. Amongst other things, the team carry out assessments and direct work with parents, enable and assist parents to engage and stay engaged with substance misuse, parenting and other services to address needs identified, and provide regular reports on parental progress to the court.
- Thirdly, the same judge will deal with the case throughout. FDAC judges must be committed to the problem solving court approach, and prepared to receive training in this way of working.
Do FDACs work?
The evidence suggests that they do.
In 2014 an independent evaluation of the pilot FDAC led by Professor Judith Harwin at Brunel University, London, found that parents who had been through the FDAC process as opposed to ordinary care proceedings were more likely to stop misusing substances and, if they did so, more likely to be reunited with their children.
Further to this, families who were reunited at the end of proceedings had lower rates of neglect or abuse in the first year following reunification than reunited families who had been through ordinary care proceedings.
Looking at the evaluation in more detail, the researchers found that 40% of mothers who went through the FDAC process were no longer misusing substances, compared to 25% of ‘comparison’ mothers.
And 25% of FDAC fathers were no longer misusing substances, compared to 5% of the comparison fathers.
As to family reunification, 35% of FDAC mothers stopped misusing and were reunited with their children, compared to 19% of mothers who had been through ordinary care proceedings.
And the benefits of FDAC can be long-lasting. The evaluation found that the rate of neglect or abuse one year after children returned home was lower for FDAC parents than parents who had been through ordinary care proceedings: 25% compared to 56%.
Professor Harwin commented: “Our findings show FDAC is effective in helping to break the cycle of harm caused by parental substance misuse. One of the main strengths of FDAC is its unique combination of a specialist team attached to the court and judges who stick with a case throughout, motivating parents and providing tight oversight. One father spoke for many parents interviewed when he told us: ‘FDAC has been of enormous benefit to us. I have been freed from addiction, and my child has gained a father.’”
Let us hope that one day soon the whole country will be served by FDACs.