Family Drug and Alcohol Courts: Private donors raise £280k

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A group of private backers has stepped in to fund a national unit supporting courts which help parents deal with drug or alcohol addiction so their children are not taken into care.

The unit, which supports the 13 Family Drug and Alcohol Courts (FDACs), mostly in England, was forced to close last year when government funding was cut.

Since then, £280,000 has been pledged to fund a new national unit.

The aim is to expand the special courts to help more families stay together.

Supporters say this saves taxpayer money in the long run.

FDACs are led by specially trained judges and work closely with a team of social workers, psychiatrists and substance misuse workers.

Their day-to-day work was not affected by the closure of the national unit - but the unit was needed to set up new courts, co-ordinate the existing ones and train staff.

Research has found children are less likely to be taken permanently into care in cases heard in FDACs, and less likely to experience further neglect and abuse. Parents are also more likely to stop using drugs.

'It was the scariest thing I've ever done'

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Charlie, 36, not her real name, went to an FDAC after she became addicted to opiates.

Her mental health had deteriorated after ending a domestic violence relationship of over a decade.

She says social care gave her "chance after chance", but eventually she ended up in care proceedings for her five children.

As part of the proceedings, she was required to undergo parenting assessments and attend meetings about her drug misuse.

"They want to know you are in that process of change," she says.

"They want to make sure that I'm understanding my addiction, where that addiction has come from, and actually how I've not probably safeguarded my children."

Charlie describes going through the process as "the scariest thing I've ever done", but says she still felt supported by the court.

The judge addressed her directly, not through a solicitor. Everyone wore normal clothes.

Her son even got to have his photo taken in the judge's chair. "It makes you feel that bit more relaxed," she says.

Having the same judge also gave her confidence that the court understood her situation.

"One time the judge came down hard on me, but it was honest. And coming from a judge made it feel different.

"That's the highest person you can get saying 'look what you've done'. It's scary."

Despite the harsh words, she said she's always felt like she was treated fairly.

"I felt like I've always been listened to by the judge. The court reads the paperwork, but they also look at the parent."

Professor Judith Harwin, from Lancaster University, welcomed the news and said that her team's research on FDACs was "very positive."

They found that 58% of the mothers who used an FDAC did not return to misusing drugs or alcohol, compared with 24% who went through ordinary court.

Mary Ryan, a former lawyer who was part of the original team that set up the system, said the courts designed to prevent parents coming back into the system over and over without their problems being sorted out and were "value for money".

"We believe this should be much more widely available to children and families across the country," she said.

Phil Bowen, director of the Centre for Justice Innovation, which will direct the new national unit, said the funding would help expand the valuable work of the courts.

"They get to the root of difficulties faced by parents struggling with substance misuse using a therapeutic, problem-solving approach, giving vulnerable children a better start in life, keeping families together and saving taxpayer money," he said.

What are Family Drug and Alcohol Courts?

FDACs help families in which children are put at risk by parental substance misuse.

Most families seen by them have additional problems such as domestic abuse or parental mental health difficulties.

The court works with social workers, substance misuse specialists, psychiatrists and mentors to help parents keep their children.

Parents are given a "trial for change" that gives them the chance to overcome their problems with the support of professionals.

The same judge reviews the case every fortnight, usually without lawyers present.

The courts were modelled on US-style problem-solving courts. The first one was set up in London in 2008, with cross-government funding.

The Department of Education supported the rollout of FDACs, of which there are now 13 in England and Northern Ireland.

However last year it withdrew funding for the national unit which supports the courts, forcing it to close.

After the government stopped financing the national unit, a fundraising campaign was launched by the co-founders of Hall Brown Family Law Solicitors.

It followed a meeting with Judge Nicholas Crichton, who founded the first Family Drug and Alcohol Court in 2008, and the Earl of Listowel, who is one of the courts' most prominent advocates in parliament.

The campaign was subsequently backed by LCM Wealth, which advises high net worth families; family law firm Family Law in Partnership; and AddCounsel, a provider of bespoke behavioural health programmes, along with other anonymous supporters.

A government spokesman said the courts offered "important support" for families.

He said the government was also investing £16bn in public health services and had set out a wide-ranging drug strategy to help families facing problems with substance misuse.

My priority wasn't playing with toys, it was using drugs

Media caption,
'My priority wasn't to sit and play with toys .. it was using [drugs]"

One woman, "Claire", had been addicted to heroin for more than 10 years when she went into FDAC.

She told the BBC in 2015 that she was put on an intensive detoxification and therapy programme.

Her children were taken away and placed with her own mother.

"It is really hard - really draining," she said.

She went through regular tests, meaning she could not lie about her drug use.

When the programme finished, and she was clean, she got her children back.

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