The Department of Education has announced a grant of £2.5 million to establish more specialist Family Drug and Alcohol Courts (FDAC) across England, including Coventry, Kent and Medway, Plymouth, Torbay and Exeter, and West Yorkshire – extending this vital service to vulnerable families across the country.

The FDAC currently operates in London, Gloucestershire, Milton Keynes, and Buckinghamshire. It was initially piloted in London in 2008 to deal with care cases in which parents’ main problem is drug or alcohol misuse, one of the common reasons why children are removed from their parents’ care by Local Authorities. In over 50% of FDAC cases, a parent/s has already had one child removed at the conclusion of previous care proceedings and very often due to the same drug and alcohol dependence that precipitated the current proceedings.

To qualify for FDAC, parents must have a significant drug and/or alcohol problem and be at a stage at which they are willing to address their addiction. The parents are expected to engage in a highly intensive programme of drug intervention work and parenting assessment, provided by a specialist, multi-disciplinary team attached to the court. It has widely been considered a success as a multi disciplinary approach is adopted with parents, social workers and specialist professionals working together to address addictions and their underlying causes, and keep families together, where possible. An independent evaluation carried out in May 2014 by Brunel University found that FDAC families had higher rates of family reunification (35%) than those who had been through ordinary care proceedings (19%). FDAC mothers had higher rates of substance misuse cessation (40%) than those who had been through ordinary care proceedings (25%).FDAC 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.

It is hoped that this approach can be adopted nationally, resulting in an increase in the number of vulnerable families being comprehensively supported with their children able safely to remain with them, as well as savings to the public purse.

District Judge Nicholas Crichton, who pioneered the London FDAC, said of the announcement that ‘harnessing the fairness and authority of the court has shown that it is possible to break the cycle of drug and alcohol misuse,’ and ‘importantly, FDAC has the support of parents themselves, which is crucial to its success.’ The Brunel research confirms that parents are receptive to the assistance offered by the FDAC multi-disciplinary team.

Parents are also encouraged to keep in mind the best interests of their children, as the most important consideration. That has lead to some parents acknowledging at an early stage that they are not able safely to care for their children so that the children can be placed with family members, if possible; and if not then with foster carers or adopters. No parent wants to lose their children, but sometimes that becomes inevitable; and the FDAC process can help support parents through that, with a view to them being in a better position to care for any children they may have in the future.

In 2012 direct government funding was withdrawn at the conclusion of the London FDAC pilot, with the local authorities involved, along with 2 additional London local authorities, continuing the funding themselves. It remains to be seen whether the government will provide further funding beyond 2015/16 so that further progress can be made in developing the FDAC model throughout the country – as the President of the Family Division has stated that he wants to happen. Presently there can be seen as something of a postcode lottery in relation to these services and this will continue until these courts are available nationwide. 

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