“It wasn’t like the experience I’d had of the criminal court. Very early on a relationship started to build up. I was given the opportunity to speak and build up this relationship with the judge, the social worker and the professionals. I knew what was happening. I knew the plan. It makes me want to cry thinking back to it. I was given the opportunity to speak about myself, and to learn, and to gain trust.” [Parent]
About Family Drug and Alcohol Courts
The first FDAC was piloted in London in 2008, and the model is now operating in nine sites across the UK. As DfE innovation funding is finalised for the development of seven new FDAC teams across the UK, we take a look at the details of this groundbreaking family court.
Care proceedings are the court process which ensues when a local authority applies to the court as they believe a child is at serious risk of harm at home and needs a legal order to keep them safe. A final order from care proceedings can involve the court ordering children to be removed permanently from the care of their parents, without their consent. In other cases, it will involve children remaining with their parents, with different levels of supervision from children’s services.
The Family Drug and Alcohol Court is a therapeutic problem-solving court model, which replaces standard care proceedings. FDACs are courts for parents whose children are subject to proceedings due to their drug and alcohol problems. The model is designed to enable parents to stop misusing drugs and alcohol so that where possible, children can remain with their families. Practitioners and judiciary work from the belief that all parents can change and should be given the support to do so, as well as an understanding that much change is achieved through, and in, trusting relationships. The approach, therefore, seeks to reduce the adversarial and punitive elements of proceedings, and introduce a collaborative model.
Judges as agents for change
“Whenever a case is called into court I always try to address the parent or parents first, even when they are represented. It is important for them always to understand that they are central to the proceedings and the most important people in the room.” [FDAC judge]
FDACs use a problem-solving court approach which means that the judge not only adjudicates the case but plays a proactive role in motivating parents.
This is achieved through judicial continuity and judicial monitoring, as well as a focus on the relational power of the judge as an agent for change.
The judge in an FDAC case is encouraged to form a relationship with the parent. They meet them regularly in bi-weekly non-lawyer reviews. At these reviews, the judge speaks directly to parents without their lawyers present, encouraging them and recognising the difficulty of their circumstances but also challenging them on risky decisions or lapses. In turn, the judge speaks with transparency, explaining the decisions of the court and the priorities they must consider. Judges make use of motivational interviewing techniques in these NLRs to build on the therapeutic work of the FDAC team.
Intensive support from an MDT
“When I signed up for FDAC I was a broken person, but I didn’t realise it. I’d had trauma from my teens, mental health problems, violence, and sexual assault and I’d become an addict. I’d gone from one violent relationship to another and was using. To go into court as an addict but to be seen as a human being was the start of my journey to treatment.” [Parent]
Judicial monitoring runs parallel to intensive support from a multi-disciplinary team. The specialist team takes the place of an expert witness report and provides in-depth assessment and support to parents.
Support often involves key work, individual or group therapy and active signposting, especially in terms of making referrals to appropriate treatment providers for counselling, community prescribing or inpatient detoxification and rehabilitation. Some FDAC teams also run Video Interaction Guidance, which is an intervention which helps parents to enhance their insight into their relationships with their children.
The specialist team also has the input of a clinician, who will chair ‘Formulation’ and ‘Intervention Planning Meetings’, which are both key parts of the psychologically-informed FDAC approach. At Formulation, the MDT come together to discuss and conjecture in order to draw out the needs of the family. At an IPM, the family and other professionals involved in the case, like the Children’s Social Worker and Guardian, are invited to take part in collaboratively drawing up the intervention plan.
The MDT is responsible for regularly testing parents to measure their drug and alcohol use. FDACs do not take a zero-tolerance approach to substance misuse and are experienced in helping parents recover from lapses or relapses within the court process.
Growth & Change
FDAC started in London in 2008 as a three-year pilot, funded by the central government, and run in partnership with the Tavistock & Portman NHS Trust and Coram, a children's charity. Since its inception, the availability of FDAC has grown over time. In April 2019, there were 8 FDAC teams, serving 17 local authorities and 11 family courts. Further support has been provided by the ‘Supporting Families; Investing in Practice’ programme, so, by April 2021, there will be 14 FDAC specialist teams servicing 35 local authorities and 21 family courts, with a further FDAC team
opening in Wales in 2021, likely to serve one family court and at least two local authorities, funded by
Despite this growth, by the end of 2021, 79% of local authorities will still have no access to FDAC.
Moreover, even in areas with an FDAC, not all eligible cases are referred in to the FDAC due to capacity
constraints. Yet a number of important strategic reviews have called for the wider use of FDAC in care
proceedings. For example, the Public Family Law Working Group’s interim report stated that “a multi-
agency, problem-solving approach of the sort seen in the Family Drug and Alcohol Court is the key to
successful and better outcomes for the children, and this should become the standard rather than the
exception.” In the President of the Family Division’s November 2020 message, he stated that “The ultimate goal remains for FDAC courts to be available in all areas of England and Wales.
In September 2016, the DfE funded a ‘Five Years Later’ Study, which built on the evaluation of the initial pilot by following up with families involved in London FDAC to judge outcomes over a long period.
The research emphasised the success of the model in improving outcomes for families:
- A significantly higher proportion of FDAC than comparison mothers had ceased to misuse by the end of proceedings (46% v 30%)
- A significantly higher proportion of FDAC than comparison families were reunited or continued to live together at the end of proceedings (37% v 25%)
- A significantly higher proportion of FDAC than comparison reunification mothers (58% v 24%) were estimated to sustain cessation over the five-year follow-up.
- In relation to the single variable of return to court, a lower proportion of FDAC than comparison reunified children were estimated to do so in the follow-up period (34% v 55%).
If you have any questions about the FDAC model or are interesting in starting an FDAC in your area, contact Vicki Morris at firstname.lastname@example.org or Phillippa Heath-Philpotts at email@example.com
This case study was written by Albinia Stanley in 2019 and updated by Maysa Clam in 2022