The Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC) was set up in 2008 as a programme for parents with drug and alcohol problems. The aim of the FDAC is to improve family life for children, through finding ways in which they can remain in, or return to, their parents’ care. However if parents are unable to control their substance misuse, the aim of the FDAC is to ensure swifter decisions are made to find permanent alternative homes for the children involved.

Image of Justice Scales

One of the founders of the FDAC, District Judge Nick Crichton, describes how in court: ‘We hear of police going in to houses and flats where they find children sleeping on filthy, urine (and worse) sodden beds, sleeping in the clothes that they walk around in all day…and not going to school.’ Furthermore, ‘we regularly find ourselves removing children from the same parents. (Women think) the only way of dealing with the pain (of having their child taken away) is to get pregnant again.’

The FDAC aims to help these parents before their situation gets to the stage where the children are removed from their custody. Through employing a team of three social workers, three substance misuse experts, and both a child and adult psychiatrist, the FDAC work with parents intensively for a 12 month cycle. They also have a team of parent mentors – comprised of people who have been there and turned their lives around – to provide further support for these parents.  In reference to the parent mentors, Judge Crichton explains: ‘It is very important to be supported by someone who understands what you’re going through (and) who understands where you’re at.’

According to psychiatrists, a parent has to be clean and sober for a minimum of one year before they are capable of looking after a child. ‘We work on a twelve-month cycle and we split it up into three-month sections’, says Judge Crichton.

During the first three months in FDAC, the aim is to get the parents stabilised through trying to get them on a methadone prescription. Once they reach the second three months they start working on relapse prevention, which is given in the form of community based treatment five days a week. ‘We need to see how they can cope in the real world’, explains Judge Crichton. ‘If they’re still with us at six months, we start working on parenting aspects.’

According to FDAC statistics, the six month marker is where parents commonly begin to get excited, as they see a chance of getting their child back. Judge Crichton explains, ‘the idea is that at the end of the nine months the child goes home and we’re testing it out (for a three month trial period) to see how that goes.’

Unlike conventional care proceedings, parents in FDAC are assigned the same judge to oversee the entire course of the proceedings. Furthermore, they have far more court hearings than ordinary care cases.

When questioned, the majority of parents said they valued judicial continuity because it meant the judge was clear about the details of their case and knew them and their children. Comparing the procedures of FDAC with a normal care case, one parent said: ‘In the ordinary court no one actually works with you. All the social workers said was “go to rehab”.’

However, some parents took a different view, finding the continuous hearings ‘upsetting and tiresome’ due to being ‘hard to understand’, and ultimately ‘a waste of time’ to attend so often.

The families with significant drug and alcohol problems are identified by the local authorities who bring them to FDAC. They then go through regular drug and alcohol testing in the form of mouth swabs, urine, blood tests and hair strand tests.

The detox process is intensive, with drug tests performed almost every day at the beginning. ‘These children can’t wait indefinitely’, explains Judge Crichton, a fact understood by many of the parents on the FDAC programme. One mother relayed: ‘I was willing to do anything that would make me a better mum and take on responsibility for asking for help. When the opportunity came up it was like a godsend.’

The FDAC has been recognised for its impact and innovation, and has won numerous awards including: The Partnership Working Award (2012), Psychiatric Team of the Year (2011) and Children and Young People’s Service Delivery Award (2011).

An evaluation by Professor Judith Harwin at Brunel University, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, found that the FDAC has seen 1 in 3 children returned home, compared to the 1 in 5 or 6 in normal care proceedings.

Published in May 2011, the evaluation proved the FDAC to be more successful at controlling substance misuse and reuniting families than ordinary proceedings.  39% of FDAC mothers were reunited with their children compared to 21% of mothers in ordinary care proceedings.

Some parents expressed their concern about the lack of support once their case ended and they left FDAC, however all but 2 of the 24 parents asked, said they were in favour of the FDAC approach.

One parent said: ‘If I’ve got a problem, I know I can ring FDAC and anyone who picks up the phone there can help me.They take time to listen. They don’t judge you straight away.’

Reflecting on the progress the FDAC has made since it was formed in 2008, District Judge Crichton concludes: ‘What is success? Well, for me, success is children going home who can be looked after satisfactorily.’

What are your views on the FDAC? Tweet us at @Claritest