Reflections from current practicePatrick Peruško and Carole Burgher were the two District Judges who set up the Milton Keynes and Bucks FDAC in June 2014. Those were two of the 10 courts involved in the 2016 study. After a successful pilot, this FDAC now has permanent local authority funding. Approximately 65 cases have been completed, only six of which ended with a contested final hearing. Below, the judges reflect on their work.
NLRs are at the very heart of a successful FDAC. On day one parents are told very clearly that they have a 4-5 month period (we call it a trial for change) in which to evidence change. We explain that abstinence and honesty are non-negotiable and, importantly, we support them in an encouraging/motivational way. The parents build up rapport with the judge very quickly. They want to show you the progress they have made in the 2 weeks since you saw them last. They carry and complete, sometimes for the very first time, a diary with appointments and a folder of the work they are undertaking. If, as often happens, there have been difficulties (a negative test, a missed contact) there is open discussion about where the parent is in the cycle of change. The growing relationship between judge and parents fosters serious and honest reflection: it is not uncommon for a parent in a NLR to say that they have come to the conclusion that they cannot care for their child.
One of the reasons why we find FDAC so rewarding as judges is that the NLR process provides a humane way of both encouraging and challenging parents who are struggling to deal with their addiction and to meet their child’s needs. Parents feel empowered to have a real and loud voice in the process. Even in lawyer hearings the parents want to speak, and we encourage them to do so. No longer is the judge somebody that only lawyers can speak to.
It is vital for social workers and guardians to be present, and the review works best if we have the same professionals each time. The regular contribution from the social worker enables parents to see how the worker is trying to help them and their child, and the guardian’s presence throughout means that parents have time to understand and absorb the thinking behind their decisions. Along the way, they can help resolve often small but important issues, such as contact and housing. We can lend a hand, like writing to housing officers in support of a housing application where a parent is engaging well in FDAC but we cannot pursue a rehabilitation plan unless accommodation is offered. Sometimes the attendance of other professionals can help, such as a worker from the local substance abuse service joining us to ensure there is a coordinated approach to a treatment package or intervention plan. In these ways problems can be averted or become solvable, often very quickly.
It helps, too, that we can be flexible in how we organise the NLR. For example, when parents have occasionally found it impossible to travel to court or get time off work we have arranged for them to join the review by telephone. Where domestic abuse features, it is sometimes helpful to hold a separate review with each parent. We always welcome the involvement of supportive family members, and the excellent work that the FDAC team does to engage children’s fathers means that we are fortunate in having them at most NLRs.
FDAC, and in particular NLRs, require a very different judicial approach because the judge is one part of the team working together to motivate parents to sustain change as well as to watch for and solve problems as they arise. It does take a while to adapt to this way of working because it is contrary to the adversarial approach of non-FDAC care proceedings. What makes it so rewarding is the humanity it injects into the process. More often than not parents come away from proceedings feeling that they have been listened to and given a fair chance to parent. As we said to the researchers:
'We have all been part of the normal care process for years. In many cases the outcome is predictable and the process perceived to be unfair. Parents are assessed, including their prospects for change, but without adequate support very little does change. That is why FDAC works: it gives parents the support they need. Importantly, it is humane, and the outcome for children is better as a consequence. Even parents who do not succeed acknowledge that they have had a proper chance. FDAC is fair. That is why so few cases end in a contested final hearing.'
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For practical guidance on the FDAC see the Lexis®PSL Family Practice Note: The Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC) (subscription required), produced in partnership with the FDAC National Unit, which includes details of the main features and procedure for cases being heard in the FDAC. It also provides information about the FDAC National Unit, the expansion of the FDAC to new sites, research that has been conducted into the FDAC and the challenges that the FDAC approach faces in light of the Public Law Outline 2014 and the changes introduced in the Children and Families Act 2014 – the 26-week time limit, and the emphasis on pre-proceedings work and assessment.
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1 Wexler D and Winick B (eds) (1996) Law in a Therapeutic Key: Developments in Therapeutic Jurisprudence. Carolina Academic Press.