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Family Drug and Alcohol Courts – problem solving justice at its best

October 30, 2015


I’m very pleased that Michael Gove has come back from the USA full of ideas for the reform of the justice system and enthused by using the justice system not just to punish but, where possible, tackle the underlying issues which have brought people into court in the first place.

The good news for Mr Gove is that he doesn’t have to go too far to find successful examples of this model in operation. My own Trust, the Tavistock and Portman, working in partnership with the childrens’ charity Coram has been delivering, for a number of years, the Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC) service which uses a problem solving approach to work with parents who have come to court at risk of losing their children on account of alcohol or drug misuse issues.

This is a serious issue. Parental substance misuse is a factor in two thirds of care cases and is a major risk factor for child maltreatment, family separation and offending behaviour.  For the children it is frequently associated with poor educational attainment and other poor life experiences.  Often it has an inter-generational character with histories of trauma and substance misuse destructively repeating themselves.

The FDAC model is based on a multi-disciplinary team of therapists, social workers and other professionals working alongside specially trained judges to provide tailored support which help parents address their substance misuse issues and, if appropriate, keep or be reunited with their children. Further support is provided by a team of parent mentors.

An evaluation of the service was published in 2011 by Brunel University. It demonstrated not only that this was an intervention which delivered much better outcomes for parents and children, it also saved money for local authorities and the judicial system.

So 48% of FDAC mother were no longer using substances at the end of the intervention compared to 39% of comparison mothers and the same was true of 36% of the FDAC fathers while none of the comparison group had done so. 39% of FDAC mothers were with their children at the end of the intervention compared with 21% in the case of those mothers who had not received the FDAC service.

At the same time the service can offer savings to local authorities of £1200 per family on the cost of expert evidence and £4000 on the cost of out of home placements. The service also shows a saving of £682 per family on the cost of court hearings.

This has not been my first experience of problem solving justice. While I was at Rethink Mental Illness we were involved in the delivery of CAS a problem solving and signposting service operating in magistrates’ courts in Plymouth and Cornwall. It was equally effective in demonstrating better outcomes for those at risk of custodial sentences.

These interventions demonstrate a number of key features which together underpin their effectiveness.

The first is the way in which judiciary and health and social care practitioners are able to work together as a single team.   Judges have prompt access to expert opinion and support.  In response judges and the court process provide structure and, in some cases, some persuasive impetus for parents in engaging with the issues they are facing and the treatment which is on offer.  A key feature of the service is an element of continuity in the involvement of judges in particular cases.

The second is the broad range of interventions on offer. FDAC is able to offer not just access to substance misuse services but also a range of therapeutic interventions and practical support to sort out issues such as housing which can so often underpin the vicious cocktail of life problems which makes it hard for people to change their behaviour.  The involvement of peer mentors also provides the shared voice of experience which at times can be even more powerful than that of professionals in helping people to change.

The third feature is a non-judgemental approach, from both judges and practitioners. We heard recently at the Trust’s AGM from four parents who had used the service.  They spoke eloquently of how surprised they had been with how judges and practitioners in FDAC had actually listened to and taken them seriously when all they had been used to, from other services, was being criticised for their actions.

The fourth and related point is the ability of this service to help parents make their own realisation of the need for change in their lives. From hearing their stories there is undoubtedly a role which court proceedings can play in this but almost more powerful, I would judge, is the recognition by the service of the complex stories of individual’s own lives, and the trauma those individuals themselves have experienced,  that can unlock the motivation to change.

In my experience such stories are so often prevalent in the lives of those who end up in the criminal justice system and yet we often pay so little attention to addressing those deep psychological factors and helping people to cope with their consequences.   We have in this country been tough on crime but we have failed, in the same way, to be tough on the causes of crime.

In the last year we have been very excited to have the opportunity to work with a range of stakeholders in others parts of the country to develop FDAC services in four other areas.   There is enormous interest in and demand for this new and different approach to one of the most difficult and intractable of social problems.  However, even as we develop plans to extend the service in new areas, there are difficult conversations about the existing service with local authorities, who despite their support for the services, are under such financial pressure that they are having to review the level of their commitment.

Problem solving justice is an effective response to dealing with issues where a costly punitive approach has been the only previous option open. Government, at the national and local level, and the judiciary should be embracing it with open arms.  In the long term it save a lot of money and a lot of misery.  It would be a great shame if acute short term pressures prevent us from seizing that opportunity.


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