FAMILY DRUG AND ALCOHOL COURT OPENS IN STOCKPORT


12th Feb 2021

After being piloted in London in January 2008, the Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC) has now been set up in Stockport. Farah Ahmed takes a look at the reasons behind setting up the court and its jurisdiction and processes.

What is FDAC?

After being piloted in London in January 2008, the Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC) has now been set up in Stockport since January 2021 and is aimed at families where children are at risk of parental substance misuse. It is anticipated that by April 2021 there will be 14 FDAC sites across the UK serving 35 Local Authority areas.

Families are selected by the Local Authority for FDAC where there is a history of parental drug or alcohol misuse that is impacting on, or likely to impact on, the children’s health and development. It is, however, accepted that the parents will often have additional and other issues such as domestic abuse or mental health difficulties and assistance and support will also be provided in relation to these issues.

The Local Authority select a family on the basis that the parents are demonstrating a willingness to change. This becomes crucial given that places for FDAC are limited. FDAC is completely voluntary and the parents can opt out at any stage and continue their case along the usual care proceedings route.

The success of FDAC in other areas is such that the President of the Family Division has said “The FDAC approach is crucially important. The simple reality is that FDAC works… FDAC is, it must be, a vital component in the new Family Court”, Re S (A Child) [2014] EWCC B44 (Fam) [2014] 2 FLR at paras 35 to 38.

Why FDAC?

Independent evaluation led by Lancaster University showed the following:

  • more parents overcame their problems by the end of the proceedings
  • 40% of FDAC mothers were no longer misusing substances, compared to 25% of the comparison mothers
  • 25% of FDAC fathers were no longer misusing substances, compared to 5% of the comparison fathers
  • More children remained with or returned to their parents at the end of proceedings. 35% of FDAC mothers stopped misusing and were reunited with their children, compared to 19% of the comparison mothers
  • When families were followed up a year or more after proceedings ended further neglect or abuse of children occurred in 25% of FDAC families compared with 56% of comparison families
  • The researchers said “Parents were overwhelmingly positive about the FDAC team”

The figures speak for themselves and certainly one can see the attraction in ensuring a client is placed under FDAC for potential lasting change.

FDAC Team

Given that the approach of FDAC is problem solving there is a multi-disciplinary team of specialists offering support with a potential family:

  • Child Protection Social workers
  • Psychiatric Nurses
  • Substance misuse specialists
  • Parent mentors (volunteers with history of recovering from addiction and care proceedings experience who can be present during court, assessment and intervention periods for support)
  • Child and adolescent psychiatrists
  • Adult psychiatrists
  • Therapists
  • FDAC has named links in the Housing and Domestic Abuse Teams within the Local Authority and elsewhere
  • London FDAC has domestic abuse experts

The key is to give the parents support and advice on being abstinent from drugs and alcohol, as well as domestic abuse and criminal activity. Regular testing will take place by FDAC to monitor and assess. This is essentially why it is crucial to the process that parents who engage are demonstrating a willingness to change.

What does FDAC entail?

Once a family has been selected for FDAC they will be informed in writing prior to the first hearing.  The parents may still have their children placed in foster care whilst engaging with the FDAC process and what professionals may find is that at the first hearing you will engage with the FDAC court with the designated FDAC judges (DJ Manasse and DJ Crisp at the Manchester Family Court) as well as considering the usual interim care order and removal hearings. The parents then have to make it clear whether they want to engage with the FDAC process.

Between the first and second hearing the parents will take part in an assessment day and an intervention planning meeting where a plan is agreed for the court’s approval at the Further Case Management Hearing. This sets out the timescales for the children, the parents’ goals and the treatment and support that will be provided. The parents also sign an undertaking to be open and honest with the court. This plan is reviewed every 2 weeks (with short reports provided to the Judge) and can be modified accordingly. Also included in this initial assessment is a mental health screen and where appropriate an FDAC Adult Psychiatrist will assess in the first 8 weeks.

Around 8 weeks the FDAC Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist will chair a Children’s Needs Meeting with the parents, foster carers, teachers, social workers, Guardian and potentially others to assess the children’s needs.

The idea is that after the parents have been able to demonstrate a period of abstinence and that they have made progress with their own problems, an assessment of the parents’ relationship with their children and capacity to meet their children’s needs is undertaken.

By the third intervention planning meeting (around 18 weeks) the FDAC team will advise whether the parents have made enough progress for their child to be permanently placed in their care. Similar to the standard court process the intention is for the case to conclude by 26 weeks with an Issues Resolution Hearing at around 20 weeks.

The Court process

Although FDAC is not enshrined in any legislation it follows the PLO timetable with the aim of cases completing within 26 weeks.

There will be the standard case management hearing, further case management hearings and IRH however every fortnight there will be non-lawyer reviews with the Judge, parents and the FDAC team. This enables the parents to speak freely with the Judge and for the Judge to encourage and motivate the parents. The purpose of these non-lawyer reviews is to seek solutions to any problems the parents may be facing with the Judge leading the hearing. If there are any issues arising in the non-lawyer reviews the parties can ask for the matter to be returned with lawyers present. Typically there will be 10 non-lawyer review hearings and 3 court hearings (case management, further case management and IRH).

During the fortnightly reviews the FDAC team will review the plan and assess attendance for treatment and results for drug and alcohol testing. The aim is to see improvement with abstinence, understanding and repairing their underlying substance misuse (or domestic abuse and mental health problems) as well as support around being more responsive with their children and wider families.

The success of the FDAC is the non-lawyer review hearings where the District Judge has a more supportive, encouraging and emphatic role, with a requirement of the same Judge on the case as part of developing a relationship with the parents.

Naturally for legal representatives it goes against the grain to have potential meetings where the Judge and social work team, the Children’s Guardian and the parents are present but the legal representatives are not. However, the role of the parent’s legal team remains the same during the 3 court hearings and it should be remembered that the purpose behind the non-lawyer reviews is completely different to the court hearings.

Further information about FDAC can be found here : https://fdac.org.uk/

Conclusion

Having recently appeared before FDAC, I found there were some initial difficulties given that invariably the courts are incredibly busy at present. The case first came before a District Judge for the FDAC first hearing and then before a different District Judge for the contested removal hearing and then returning back to the original FDAC District Judge for case management hearing due to the FDAC District Judge not having sufficient time to hear the removal hearing. Given that this process is new there also appeared a lot of confusion from professionals and clients alike.

However with such a range of services on offer and regular testing of the parents, the FDAC process becomes an incredibly attractive option for families and professionals alike. FDAC has only just started in Stockport this January 2021 and it envisaged that it will become a vital resource locally. Judging by the statistics one can imagine that many other local authorities will be wanting to sign up to this process. As such the teething problems identified in my own experience will be ironed out in time.

Farah Ahmed

12 February 2021


Farah Ahmed is a member of the Family Law Department at 18 St John Street Chambers. Farah has considerable experience in serious and complex public law cases and has regularly been instructed on behalf of Local Authorities, Parents, Children’s Guardians and the Official Solicitor.

For more information on Farah and the rest of the department, please click the image below or contact a member of the family clerking team on 0161 278 8263 or via email family@18sjs.com