London’s pioneering Family Drug and Alcohol Court keeps more families together

London’s Family Drug and Alcohol Court has pioneered a new way of supporting substance-misusing parents and keeping families together. Its success tells us some important things about how we improve our social services. This successful justice innovation offers lessons to others who are trying to introduce new ways of working.

Growing up with a parent who misuses drugs or alcohol can be harrowing. But it is tragically common. As many as 1 in 10 children in the UK live with a parent with a substance misuse problem. These children are at risk of a huge range of harms, including poverty, physical and emotional abuse or neglect and dangerously inadequate supervision. All too often, these families end up in family court, at risk of having their children removed.

A new report by the New Economics Foundation, looks at the Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC) – a London court that is working to transform the way such cases are dealt with in order to improve outcomes for children.

Tackling the root causes of family break down

FDAC helps to keep families together where possible, and places children in permanent new homes quickly where necessary. It’s one of England and Wales’ most successful problem solving courts and an example of successful innovation which offers lessons for others trying to introduce new ways of working.

FDAC is different from normal care proceedings in two key ways. First, FDAC families are supported by a multi-disciplinary specialist support team. As well as organising addiction treatment, the team coordinate a programme of more personalised support, such as help with parenting skills or counselling to help parents come to terms with their own traumatic childhoods. Second, the FDAC court process is designed to motivate and support families to address their substance misuse. FDAC cases are managed via fortnightly hearings where families and the treatment team meet with the judge without their lawyers in order to frankly and openly discuss their progress.

A recent Nuffield Institute-funded evaluation by Brunel University concluded that FDAC families are more likely to stay together, that parents are more likely to reduce their drug use, and are less likely to demonstrate further neglect and abuse compared to similar families passing through mainstream family courts. Former clients cite the importance of the support and encouragement of the judge and the co-ordinated care overseen by the treatment team as helping them succeed. There are now a number of sites elsewhere in the country replicating the London approach.

What can court innovators learn from FDAC’s success?

Our research sets out to identify which key decisions made early on by FDAC set the court up for long-term success – and how these might be relevant to other court innovations. Here are four of the most important:

1. The FDAC team had a clear picture of the problem they were trying to solve. The high incidence of parental substance misuse in care proceedings in inner London (64% of cases), and the poor outcomes for children were already well-documented, making the project an easier sell to colleagues, local authorities and funders.
2. They made intelligent use of the evidence that already existed about what works.FDAC’s founder and advocate, Judge Nicholas Crichton, borrowed the initial idea from California’s drug treatment courts. But the team carried out detailed research to understand how to tailor that model to fit the very different context of Inner London.
3. The project had an independent evaluation built in from the start. The project launched with an independent evaluation team from Brunel University, supported by the Nuffield Institute, already in place.
4. FDAC minimised the investment required by making creative use of existing resources.While funding was sought for the specialist treatment team, the additional review hearings were supported by reallocating existing courts staff, which significantly reduced the headline cost of the project.

Parental substance misuse is just one of a range of complex and entrenched social problems we must find effective tools to deal with. To find those tools, we need to get better at implementing, evaluating and sustaining innovation. In other words we need to learn from successful projects like FDAC – not only about what works, but also about how we put ideas into practice.

Stephen Whitehead leads the Better Courts Programme, a UK-based partnership between the New Economics Foundation and the Centre for Justice Innovation which supports and advocates for court innovation. The new report Building Better Courts: Lessons from London’s Family Drug and Alcohol Court, is available to download free of charge.