Inside the secret court that helps victims of drug abuse keep their families together
It is a Monday morning in an anonymous room in a grey building in central London. But Jenny Smith is smiling broadly as she poses for photographs with a graduation certificate in her hand.
She looks like a million dollars and she has come a very long way. Sixteen months ago she was addicted to class-A drugs, an alcoholic with a history of attempted suicides, a victim of domestic violence, with a child who had been placed in foster care.
Today that child is by her side, returned to her care, as she celebrates a remarkable victory. But we are not in a college, or any other educational institution. This is a court, and Smith has been presented with her graduation certificate by the presiding judge, Nick Crichton.
It doesn’t look much like a court, and Crichton doesn’t look much like a judge. He is wearing neither wig nor robe, and the court resembles an undistinguished conference room in an undistinguished corporate HQ. Pale pine desks are arranged in a horseshoe; the judge sits at one end, with just an undersized crest on the wall behind him to suggest that this might be a courtroom.
For the past seven years, the London Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC) has been pioneering a new approach to child protection cases in which one or both parents have drug or alcohol problems. It has been so successful that others have been established in Milton Keynes, Gloucester and Buckinghamshire; in February the government announced £2.5m extra funding to extend the courts across England and Wales.
Smith is one of FDAC’s success stories. In the words of her court-allocated social worker: “What she has done is remarkable and unusual. She has changed herself and the world around her.” Smith has brought a crowd of friends and relatives to share her triumph; they break into applause as the judge adds his congratulations.
Nearly two thirds of child care cases in inner London involve parents with serious drug or alcohol problems. According to an independent evaluation carried out by the consultants Ernst and Young, the FDAC approach keeps significantly more families together than the traditional approach, with an average saving of £76,000 a family over three years.
But not all cases will have happy endings. And not all parents are prepared for the rigorous supervision and constant monitoring for drug and alcohol use that the FDAC approach involves.
Sarah Jones, for example, hasn’t turned up in court once, nor has she responded to repeated messages from her lawyer. Two weeks ago, Crichton warned that, unless something changed, he would authorise the local authority to put her three-month-old baby up for immediate adoption.
Today he does just that, but not before her social worker tells him what Jones had said to her before the child was born: “All I want is for someone to love my child and care for it.” The social worker says that the message will be placed with the adoption papers for the child to see when it reaches adulthood.
The FDAC approach works like this: if social workers in an area where FDAC is in operation assess a parent as likely to benefit from the programme, they are offered the opportunity to attend an FDAC hearing. They are allocated a specialist judge, who will preside over all their future appearances, and a dedicated team of social workers, drugs counsellors, mental health experts and domestic violence specialists. The aim is to stabilise their lives so that they can provide safe parenting.
“We treat people with compassion and respect,” says Mike Shaw, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist who leads the London FDAC team. “We give them a chance to turn things around at the last gasp. It’s a more well-rounded view of what justice is, acknowledging human frailty.”
The technical term is “therapeutic jurisprudence”, sometimes known as “problem-solving justice”. The idea is to use the judicial system as a way to tackle underlying problems as well as to punish and protect the vulnerable.
Crichton is the man who developed the FDAC approach in England, having been impressed by a similar system – the Family Drug Treatment Court – in the US. He badgered the government into setting up a pilot project in 2008, jointly financed by Whitehall and three London local authorities.
The results have been impressive. According to a study carried out last year by Brunel University, 40% of mothers and 25% of fathers who had been through the FDAC process were no longer dependent on drugs or alcohol. The comparative figures for cases heard in traditional family courts were 25% of mothers and 5% of fathers.
That means there are substantial savings to local authorities. Children involved in FDAC cases tend to spend less time in care, saving an average £4,000 per child; and added to that are savings on long-term adult drug treatment, health care and probation.
The FDAC team has just been granted additional government funding to pilot a new scheme in London, Coventry and Kent that will aim to help pregnant women who have already had at least one child removed from their care and where there is a risk that further children may also be removed.
The hope is that by extending the FDAC approach, intensive therapy and support can break the cycle in which women whose children are removed from their care frequently become pregnant again very quickly as a way of dealing with their feelings of loss.
Back in court, Terry and Diane Kane are trying to persuade Crichton that they’re doing what’s required. Their child is being looked after by Diane’s mother – both parents are heroin and cocaine users; Terry is also an alcoholic. They are both still testing positive for drug and alcohol use. “I know what I have to do,” says Terry. “I’ve got a good insight into the tools I need to access. But I know I need professional help.”
In the manner of a kindly head teacher, the judge asks Diane what outcome she’s hoping for. “I want my baby back,” she says quietly. “I just want to be a mum. I want to be normal – and clean.”
Parents who sign up for FDAC are expected to return to court every two weeks for up to six months. “It’s like Weight Watchers,” says Crichton. “We put them on the scales and see how they’re doing.” Most hearings are held without lawyers, which make them quicker and cheaper. A brief chat, a report from a social worker, a word of encouragement from the judge, perhaps a quiet warning that they need to do better – and then: “See you in two weeks.”
No one pretends it’s easy to overcome dependence on drugs or alcohol. And no one pretends that even what looks like a success story will remain one, once the intensive support offered by the FDAC process is withdrawn.
The first time I see Katie Black, she is dabbing her eyes with a tightly scrunched tissue. “You seem a bit on edge,” says Crichton. “What’s the matter?” She explains that she had expected her child to have been returned to her by now – but a crucial drugs test sample has gone missing and the test will have to be repeated.
Two weeks later I see her again, and she’s a changed woman. The test on a sample of her hair has been carried out: she is clean. The process of reuniting her with her child is under way.
Crichton addresses her using her first name, as he does to all who come before him. “Katie, you’ve done well,” he says. “You’ve earned this. I’m so happy for you and for your child. But you know, this isn’t the end; it’s the beginning.”
Some names and details have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.