First experience – substance misuse problems
I had my first experience of the Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC) as a trainee solicitor. My supervisor was representing a father with longstanding alcohol dependency. He was a decent intelligent man who had this terrible problem for most of his life. His partner, the mother of his child, had similar issues of her own. Their youngest son was about 7 at the time. Like his parents he was an intelligent boy. He charmed the professionals that came into contact with him. He was, however, beginning to show the effects of being cared for by parents with substance misuse problems. The local authority view were that his needs could not be met at home unless there were significant changes. That was where this FDAC came in.
FDAC was completely different to any other court I attended before or since. There was a team of professionals on hand to work with the family. DJ Nicholas Crichton, the driving force behind the court, was sitting as the Judge. He knew the parents well, having met them and spoken to them without lawyers present. The father had a lot of faith in him having seen his commitment, and that of the team, to helping his family. He spoke openly in court about the challenges he was facing with the process and his determination to succeed. He was told that they would have the full support of FDAC in facing these challenges, but that ultimately success or failure rested with him and his partner making the changes they needed to. In that case, they did and their son stayed with them.
The establishment of FDAC
FDAC was started in the Inner London Family Court at Wells Street almost 10 years ago. District Judge Crichton was inspired by a similar scheme he had seen in the United States. As well as the specially trained judges, the FDAC team include specialist social workers, mental health professionals and substance misuse workers. It is voluntary, so parents have to agree to do it. It has now been expanded, with centres opening at various locations around the country. It is hoped that more will follow.
Outcomes for families
There has been anecdotal evidence over the years of the success of FDAC. A recent study confirms this. It shows a significantly higher proportion of families staying together or being reunited at the conclusion of the proceedings (37% compared to 25%) compared to the family courts. 35% of mothers had ceased to engage in substance misuse at the conclusion of the proceedings, as opposed to 30% in the family courts.
Significantly, there is also evidence that change is being sustained when 3 and 5 year follow ups were conducted. On top of all of this, it has been shown to save public money. By keeping children with their families, the high cost of placing them in foster care is removed. In addition, the families are less likely to be involved in further family court proceedings, and there are reductions in other areas such as the NHS and criminal justice system.
Of course, there are no guarantees for those families working with FDAC that it will end as they want it to. From my experience of working with many parents who have been through it, it is extremely tough. The FDAC team are generally dealing with people who have longstanding issues that have not been addressed for years. Nobody, not even FDAC, can wave a magic wand and fix everything.
On a practical level, parents will be kept busy with the many appointments involved. In addition, it takes an emotional toll. Substance misuse tends to be the manifestation of real underlying problems that have to be tackled. That means talking about painful issues, stuff that they may not have spoken about in this type of forum before. It takes huge commitment and determination on the part of the parents. For those that succeed, the rewards are great.
For my own part, I have had many days representing clients at FDAC since that first time as a trainee solicitor. Some have been more successful than others. For those parents that do not make it, it is particularly painful. For those who succeed, the impact on their lives is immense. Despite all the ups and downs, I believe now as I did on that first day, that FDAC is a cause for optimism in situations where optimism can be hard to find.