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Working with parents in a problem-solving way: new evidence about Family Drug and Alcohol Courts

06 December 2016

Jo Tunnard

Image: Jo TunnardFamily Drug and Alcohol Courts (FDACs) offer an alternative approach to ordinary care proceedings. The underpinning principles are firmly focused on problem-solving and working positively with parents. The FDAC judge holds fortnightly court reviews with parents, in addition to the usual court hearings with lawyers present. A specialist multi-disciplinary FDAC team works closely with the judge and other professionals to provide intensive treatment and support for parents wishing to turn their lives around.

Lancaster University has now published the full findings of two research studies that provide new evidence to support the unique way that Family Drug and Alcohol Courts (FDACs) work with families affected by parental substance misuse and other complex difficulties.

The two research studies were run in parallel. The first compared the outcomes for up to five years after the end of care proceedings for children and parents who had been through either FDAC or ordinary proceedings. The second study explored how FDAC judges use time in court to motivate and encourage FDAC parents to change their lifestyle. The studies have implications for those directly involved in the growing number of local FDACs across England (there are now 13 specialist teams serving 16 courts and 21 local authorities), as well as for wider practice and policy developments in social care and family justice.

Comparing outcomes after the end of care proceedings

For the first study, After FDAC: outcomes 5 years later, researchers followed up families who had been through care proceedings in the same family court in central London. All the cases had been triggered by parental drug and/or alcohol misuse. 140 families had received the help of the London FDAC specialist team and court and 100 had received local authority and court services as normal.

The headline findings are that – if the case has been heard in FDAC – mothers reunited with their children after care proceedings are more likely to stay off drugs and alcohol for a longer period, and the children are less likely to have their family life disrupted. The new findings are in line with those of the previous evaluation of the London FDAC, reported on in 2014, but they are based on a larger number of FDAC mothers.

The findings include four short and longer-term results that reached statistical significance (meaning that the results are not down to random chance):

  • Substance misuse cessation by mothers at the end of proceedings was higher in FDAC (FDAC 46% v comparison 30%).
  • The proportion of children and mothers reunited or still living together at the end of proceedings was higher in FDAC (37% v 25%).
  • Continued substance misuse cessation (over a five-year follow-up period) was more likely for FDAC mothers (58% v 24%).
  • Continued family reunification (over a three-year follow-up period) was more likely in FDAC (51% v 22%).

Observing how FDAC judges work with parents

The second study, Problem solving in court: current practice in FDACs in England, is an analysis of observations of 46 hearings in the current FDAC courts across England and interviews with 12 FDAC judges. It provides a snapshot of the positive and enthusiastic way in which judges are implementing FDAC’s distinctive approach.

The style of the judges was tested against the acknowledged practice and principles underpinning a problem-solving approach. These are about building strong rapport with parents, praising them for staying on track with treatment plans, being clear about aims and consequences, and encouraging parents to take responsibility for their actions. The essence of the non-lawyer review hearings is for the judge to help parents understand and act on the changes in behaviour that are needed to meet their children’s needs.

The court observations revealed that adherence to problem-solving practice and principles is at the heart of what happens in the FDAC court. The interviews provided evidence of why the judges were enthusiastic about the new approach: their previous experience as solicitors and judges in ordinary proceedings had clarified the need for a different way of working, both in and out of court, if parents were to get the best chance of overcoming their substance misuse. FDAC provided a process that was ‘fairer’ and ‘more humane’, while keeping the central importance of the child’s welfare at the forefront. It was a style of working that the judges were unanimous in wanting to extend to other care proceedings.

Key messages for practitioners, managers and commissioners

  • Given the evidence that FDAC is better able than ordinary court proceedings to build on the potential of mothers to change, the FDAC model should be made available more widely.
  • Local authority social workers, and children’s guardians, are valued by the judges for the detailed knowledge about children and families that they can bring to the discussion in FDAC non-lawyer review hearings. 
  • The finding – in both FDAC and comparison cases – that the first two years after proceedings is the time of maximum risk for substance misuse relapse, recurrence of neglect and return to court, highlights the need for increased social work support for family reunification.
  • It is timely to explore which other types of cases might benefit from the same problem-solving approach to care proceedings, and how to evaluate this new development.

About the author

Jo Tunnard is one of the founders of RyanTunnardBrown, a consultancy working with Children’s Services in England and Wales, with central government departments and with voluntary organisations. She is part of the FDAC National Unit and the Lancaster University FDAC research team. Jo has a background in teaching and was the founding Chief Executive of Family Rights Group. She is also an associate of Research in Practice.


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