On a cool September morning in a small courtroom in Central London, a judge is meeting with a parent and a group of caseworkers. At first glance, it’s not obvious who is who. The seating is laid out like a horseshoe, with no apparent hierarchy. When the session begins, a cordial woman – who turns out to be the judge – tilts her head ever so slightly to the man sat next to her and asks him why he missed the previous court hearing.
If you’ve never been to a session at the Family Drugs and Alcohol Court (FDAC), this setup might come as a surprise. There are no lawyers present and everyone here speaks for themselves. Hence, why the judge is now asking the man about any hiccups in his addiction recovery. But all of this is intentional and part of what makes FDAC so special.
“It’s one of the best courts you can sit in,” says Judge Nina Tempia, an FDAC judge who’s worked with families for 14 years and sits as a district judge at the magistrate’s court, when she’s not in the family court.
“It’s a worthwhile cause, the parents appreciate the work put in with them by the FDAC team, and they feel they’re getting a voice which is probably how they don’t feel in normal court proceedings, which has lawyers talking on their behalf. Here they can talk for themselves and speak on how difficult things have been for them. Most parents value being able to have that dialogue with the judge. They’re not scared to say I’ve relapsed; I’ve misused this week. In FDAC this honesty is encouraged. By coming to see the judge every two weeks, you get this honesty.”
FDACs offer an alternative to standard care proceedings, involving complex parental needs including drug or alcohol misuse, mental health difficulties and domestic abuse, using a “problem-solving” approach to support parents to address their needs in a timely and co-ordinated way. Families work with a multi-disciplinary team and an assigned judge to reduce risk and increase safety within families.
And it works. 52 percent of parents involved in FDAC are reunited with their children at the end of proceedings, compared to the 12.5 percent of parents reunited with their children through standard court proceedings.
FDAC was pioneered by the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, in partnership with several government departments, Camden Council and Coram, the children’s charity. There are now 15 FDACs serving 36 local authorities across the UK.
Research attributes FDAC’s success to the package of high-intensity, wraparound, multidisciplinary support flexibly tailored for each individual, the role of FDAC judges in overseeing the process, and having direct contact with parents, encouraging them to make and sustain changes.
Having reunited many families through her work with FDAC, Judge Tempia believes it is the holistic approach that makes this court so successful.
“We try and encourage the parents if they’re slipping, and we have an honest and frank dialogue”, says Judge Tempia.
“FDAC held my hand”
Deanna is one of the many parents Judge Tempia has worked with in FDAC. The mother of five had substance misuse problems and was entangled in an abusive relationship. Her four youngest children, all under the age of 10, were taken into care whilst her case was being considered by FDAC.
Deanna was terrified of losing her children.
“I was isolated in a toxic relationship, and I never knew what a red flag was. FDAC sent me on courses, and taught me all about boundaries, how things should be and how to manage my emotions in a healthy way. All of it helped, how it was put together, they went into my whole childhood. They were there with me holding my hand throughout the whole process. They don’t make you feel like you’re in an intimidating court,” says the 38-year-old mum from South London.
Deanna was assigned a case worker and met with the judge every two weeks. Over the course of several weeks the FDAC team carried out therapeutic work to get to the root of her problems.
“Rather than asking, ‘Why do you take drugs?’ or saying, ‘Stop taking drugs,’ we would say ‘What’s happened to you that’s led you to the situation you’re in?’ We’re trauma informed,” says Martin Slack, Service Manager and Operational Lead at FDAC.
“We think that parents have suffered trauma which led to them being in the situation they’re in, and we try and look at what they’ve experienced and address that, then say, ‘Let’s look at reducing drugs and alcohol’.”
This trauma-informed approach is a critical difference between FDAC and standard court proceedings.
In standard court proceedings a local authority typically orders an assessment, and a parent would meet a limited number of times with a social worker, who then submits a report with recommendations to the judge. In FDAC, the work is holistic and aimed at repairing families.
Martin says: “We work within the 26-week court timescales, although we provide our recommendation first, around week 18. Rather than just a social worker, parents have the opportunity to meet with a range of specialist clinicians including a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a social worker, substance misuse specialist – we’ve got a big team with us so they see a lot of people, and we do a dynamic assessment where we are continually reviewing the parents’ response to interventions. We also offer reunification support, so when the child goes home, we can continue to be involved for a short period of time. We offer different therapeutic work during that time.”
‘FDAC saved me’
This approach is crucial because it considers the complex situations that might keep parents in harmful patterns of behaviour.
For Deanna, this mattered.
“At the beginning of court, when my ex-partner walked in I wanted to crawl under a table. Everything just made me cringe when he was there because he was very controlling, and I didn’t realise it. It was fear in me. But FDAC adjusted things around me, and I was able to shine. They get to the bottom of everything. They made me feel if I learned and cooperated and listened to them, I’d get my children back. Some parents think, ‘They’re just saying this, we’re not gonna get our children back.’ But they really make you feel like there’s hope, so it makes you want to give it your best shot.”
FDAC’s use of parent mentors was another feature that gave Deanna hope.
“I was embarrassed that I lost my children, and I had no friends who could understand. But there was a parent mentor and every time I saw him there was hope that I’d get my children back,” says Deanna.
Parent mentors are a testament to the lifechanging work that FDAC does. They have been through the FDAC process themselves and volunteer their time to peer-support parents currently before the court.
Agnieszka Uniyal has been volunteering at the court every Monday for the past two years.
“We bridge the gap between keyworkers and parents. I was on my own with everything, and I felt that way. At the time you think everyone is against you, but it’s not the case. That’s what I’m trying to tell parents. FDAC wants to help,” says Agnieszka.
During her time with FDAC, Deanna was able to work through her problems and was reunited with her children in April. Now she is working towards becoming a parent mentor herself, after being inspired.
“I want to help other women understand and show them how far I’ve come. You’re almost like a new baby when you come back out into the world. I handed myself over to FDAC. I just wanted my kids back. FDAC really saved me. It’s changed my life for the better.
“They’ve given me freedom in everything. Towards the end of the process I thought, ‘This was what I needed.’ I’ll never get into a drugs and alcohol problem again. They helped with everything, my relationships, and friends I have around me. I’m learning every day, more and more about me. I’m a totally different person. They taught me self-care.”
Stories like Deanna’s aren’t uncommon in FDAC. And this is just one reason why Martin says there’s a growing interest in their work. FDAC also scores high in terms of cost savings – its proceedings are often resolved earlier, and hearings are less contested than standard proceedings. Despite this, FDAC was never rolled out nationally. Judge Kenneth Grant tells us FDAC is the gold standard and asks, “Why can’t we have FDAC in every court?”
From everything Judge Tempia has seen, the way forward is obvious.
“If a parent knows they cannot parent their child, even if they contest the hearing, they invariably accept the outcome, and sometimes the recommendations of FDAC. For example, if FDAC says ‘mum can’t look after her children but her own mother can,’ parents accept it because they know they’ve given everything they can in the process.”
Judge Tempia says that FDAC is not a magic wand, where everything is fixed after the assessment and intervention. But that’s why parents are signposted to other agencies. FDAC helps them get on a better path to their future.
And Deanna’s looking forward to hers.
“I’m so much happier now, my children are happy and I owe it all to social workers, the judge, and FDAC. I never thought I could have a happy, good life and now I think everything is possible.”