Mary Ryan, FDAC National Unit and Independent Consultant
When evidence of promising outcomes for families began to emerge from the evaluation of FDAC this prompted a further question about whether it was possible to predict which families were going to be successful in FDAC and, linked to this, which were the ‘right’ cases to select for FDAC. This question became particularly important once government funding for the FDAC pilot ended in 2012 and the burden of funding the FDAC specialist team fell onto children’s services departments in the participating local authorities.
As FDAC has been rolled out to more areas across England the FDAC specialist teams continue to be primarily funded by children’s services, with some areas receiving contributions from Public Health commissioners. In each site commissioners set out the number of cases they anticipate will enter the FDAC process each year. This varies between 35 and 6 cases, depending on the area and whether the team is funded through a consortium of local authorities or by one or two only. The limit on numbers necessarily involves senior managers and/or local authority lawyers having to make decisions about which cases they will refer into FDAC.
The question about which families are likely to be successful raises yet another question, which is ‘what is meant by success in FDAC?’ FDAC aims to help more parents control their substance misuse so that children can return home safely, so an obvious and measurable success is parental substance misuse cessation and the care proceedings concluding with a supervision order and the children returning home. Over time, those involved with FDAC have identified other successes, which include early completion of cases where there is clear evidence that the child will not be able to return home, parents making great strides in their journey towards recovery even when they cannot complete this within their child’s timescales, parents feeling that they have had a fair chance to prove themselves and have been listened to by professionals and the judge, parents understanding and accepting why a decision is being made that their children must live elsewhere and parents better able to ensure that contact with their children is a positive experience. Apart from early completion of cases, these other successes are harder to measure in an objective way.
All FDAC sites are now collecting data on their cases using the same data tools and systems for analysing outcomes. The aim is to build up the evidence base and one spin off from this will be the possibility of identifying whether there are particular case characteristics that predict different types of ‘success’ or better outcomes for parents and children.
The evaluation of the FDAC pilot did look to see whether there were particular characteristics in the parent or family background that predicted success in the sense of cessations of substance misuse and reunification with children. The researchers identified 25 factors that might predict outcomes, based on research findings from similar courts in the United States and risk factors identified through longitudinal studies in the UK. These factors included parental experience of domestic abuse, parents having been in care themselves or having previous children removed, length of drug or alcohol misuse, type of substance misused, length of family contact with children’s services, age of children and number of children involved in proceedings, children with developmental delay and children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. Checking each these factors individually did not produce any predictors of parental success in controlling substance misuse and family reunification as a result.
In addition to carrying out this exercise with individual variables the researchers did the same with a combination of seven characteristics for mothers and children. These seven characteristics were a mother’s history of being looked after, the family being known to children’s services for more than 5 years, domestic violence, maternal physical ill health, children born with developmental delay, children born withdrawing from drugs, and children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. These particular factors were chosen because when looked at individually there was some indication that they might have an impact on outcomes although larger sample sizes are needed to reliably establish this. The findings from this exercise, carried out on both FDAC and comparison cases, indicated that if a family had fewer than three of these specific characteristics then the rate of substance misuse cessation and reunification was significantly higher in FDAC than in comparison cases. The researchers concluded from this that in such cases FDAC was significantly better than ordinary proceedings in harnessing parental capacity to change. In cases with more than three of these characteristics there was no significant difference between FDAC and comparison cases in relation to the proportion of families who were successful (see 2014 evaluation here