When families enter the new Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC) in London, they immediately know they are in for something different. Rather than seeing a gallery of seating with straight rows, dual attorney tables and a raised platform for the bench, they enter what appears to be a room used for group counselling sessions. Tables, desks, and chairs are all arranged in a horseshoe design with the bench at floor level.

The new court is part of a pilot programme that has been funded by the government for three years. However, the differences at the FDAC run far deeper than just the way seating is arranged. It is unique in that it approaches parental addiction problems from a completely different perspective. The judges assigned to this court look for ways to help parents deal with their core issues without having children taken away from them.

Retired district judge Nicholas Crichton is one of the justices presiding over the court as a standby judge. He has been credited with doing most of the legwork to secure the pilot programme’s funding. He believes the new approach will pay off with big dividends, especially where mothers and children are concerned.

Taking Children Away

Crichton’s primary motivation in pushing for the court stems from his many years of experience on the bench. He told the Law Society Gazette that it is common for Family Court justices to remove as many as five or six children from the same mother unable to get her drug or alcohol problems under control. There have been cases where judges have removed up to 15 or 16 children consecutively.

The problem, says Crichton, is that as soon as they remove one child the mother has another. Take a second child and she is likely to have a third. The cycle just repeats itself until the number of children removed is unsustainable by the social system. All the while, the mother is not dealing with the drug or alcohol issue that remains at the root of her problems.

Crichton believes that dealing with addicted parents in a way that allows children to remain at home will accomplish two things. First, it reduces the likelihood that those parents will produce more children. Second, it provides an incentive for parents to cooperate with the drug recovery imposed by the court. The result is families that remain intact and parents that get the help they need.

A Multidisciplinary Approach

The key to how the FDAC operates is found in its multidisciplinary approach. The first step in the process is to call a meeting between the parents, their attorneys, and social workers in order to explain how the court works. Parents are then given the option to have their case dealt with in the FDAC or sent through the normal Family Court process. As Crichton so eloquently states, the FDAC “can’t work with people who are in denial.”

Those who elect to participate in the FDAC are then assessed by addiction recovery specialists who develop a customised recovery plan. Participants are required to sign a pledge stating they will attend all scheduled appointments, participate in the recovery therapies they are assigned to, show up for all court proceedings, and be honest and open in all their dealings with the court.

The approach taken by FDAC is new to the UK, but it is a model that has already shown some success in the US. We hope that the three-year pilot programme will exceed the expectations of both Crichton and the various government agencies providing funding. Then it could be expanded.

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