Early completion and fewer contested hearingsIn addition to the clear success of children returning home, our team has been reflecting on the specific elements in FDAC that lead to early completion of cases or a reduction in the number of contested hearings. We regard these case features as extremely successful for the families because protracted and adversarial legal proceedings are stressful and introduce more uncertainty for the children. We have identified the following practice elements.
- There is an explicit focus on the children’s needs and timescales – e.g. at every review meeting, Children’s Needs Meeting, key work session and, where appropriate, discrete child psychology assessment. These FDAC interventions seek to increase insight so that, as well as thinking about their own progress, parents can also consider the depth of the child’s needs as a result of chronic exposure to substance misuse/alcohol use.
- If it becomes clear that the children’s needs/timescales are not compatible with the rate of parental progress, the FDAC team assists the parents to arrive at an understanding about why it is in the children’s best interests to live elsewhere. This increased level of understanding has led to acceptance of professional opinion and so less need for contested hearings.
- While not the decision desired by the parents, in such cases we have been able to work with parents to ensure that they play a full part in determining what is said to their children and for parents to be part of that conversation with their children. This is especially relevant when a child remains in the family system – e.g. under a Special Guardianship Order (SGO). It is well known that SGOs can falter as a result of conflict between biological parents and the family members who look after the child. We have seen that the involvement of parents from the outset directly contributes to placement stability for the children.
- Parents feel that FDAC is a much fairer process – they have been given clear expectations and consistent support within a defined timescale. They have had the best chance to prove themselves within the 26-week court timetable. During this time, they have had the opportunity to express their views to the FDAC judge and other professionals and they have had the experience of being listened to by them.
Other measures of successThe team have seen other successes in FDAC, some known, others unknown at the time of the Final Hearing. One clear observable is an improved relationship between parents and their child’s local authority social worker. We think that this stems from the overall experience of FDAC as transparent and fair, with parents actively involved in the proceedings, but also from the explicit emphasis on the importance of establishing trusting relationships (e.g. between parent and child, parent and FDAC key worker, parent and social worker).
What we know less about so far is how successful will be parents’ capacity to remain focused on their recovery in cases where the court timescale has not been compatible with a rehabilitation plan. For instance, one mother was very critical and angry with FDAC for recommending that despite the progress she had made her children could not wait any longer for permanence. Her key worker from FDAC met her following the Issues Resolution Hearing/Final Hearing to discuss the issues raised and to encourage her to continue to engage with treatment services. The mother has continued on her own recovery path, including a residential detox, and arguably this is as a result of the insight and understanding she developed while working with FDAC to look critically at how her lifestyle had impacted on her life and that of her children.
When a child remains within the wider family, we envisage that parental acceptance and active involvement in reaching this conclusion is likely to result in a much stronger relationship between parent and child in the future. It is not possible to measure this outcome at the end of proceedings, although it might be possible to obtain a rough confidence rating from the parent and other family members.
As we all know, a high number of parents will go on to have subsequent children, with the potential for further proceedings. Will parents succeed in having an opportunity to care for subsequent children even if they were not able to make the necessary changes within the timescales of previous children? The FDAC team supports parents to develop their insight and understanding of what children need in order to develop a secure base and, in a couple of cases, we have been pleased to see parents caring for their children who were born following the conclusion of the original FDAC proceedings.
How to involve fathers successfully?The involvement of fathers is a challenge to all professionals working in this area. Our team have worked with 17 fathers, although only 10 have remain involved throughout proceedings. Early lessons were learnt, with the team now much clearer with fathers about their role in these proceedings: whether they come forward as primary carers, whether they are putting themselves forward as co-parents with the mother, or whether their focus is to have a meaningful relationship with the child through consistent contact (which would limit the usefulness of FDAC given that it is focused on establishing who is able to care for a child as a primary carer). It is our view that our early explicit discussions have promoted engagement with fathers and that this counts as successful in itself.
ConclusionWe hold in mind that our overall aim is to reduce risk to a sufficient level so that children can live with their parent/s in a safe environment for the rest of their minority. Sometimes this is possible. When it is not possible, we will continue to look at the definition of success in the broadest of terms. We have been struck by the bravery of our parents, especially those who have reached the heart-breaking decision that they cannot meet the needs of their child. This deep level of parental acceptance can only yield a range of successful outcomes for the child.
The work of the National Unit and news from the FDAC sites is available at www.fdac.org.
You can follow the FDAC National Unit on Twitter @FDAC_NU
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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