What does your role in Gloucestershire FDAC entail?
I’m a senior safeguarding social worker and the service manager for the Turn Around for Children Service. I lead the multi-agency team that includes a few social workers, but mainly health professionals such as nurses, speech and language therapists and health visitors; so an amazing group of professionals. Though we’re all from different areas, the team is co-located so we all sit together, and I think that’s really important and powerful. We deliver a very intensive and therapeutic programme with parents, which is located in a court. So it has this wonderful framework; the external setting of a court which is really motivating for parents, and then a set of therapeutic interventions to service that court. Within this is the whole FDAC legal system – obviously including the judge – but also all the other stakeholders within that; the guardians, the solicitors, the court ushers etc. It’s all these people that work in and understand FDAC that create that therapeutic experience, and that setting to hear the family’s voice.
How do courts implement FDAC?
It’s definitely a very different model from conventional proceedings. Occasionally I am unfortunate enough to have to dip my toe into conventional proceedings, and I am always shocked at how brutal and difficult it is. Obviously, courts are a well-oiled machine. The justice system is one of the pillars of our democracy and our state, which is one of the things that makes FDAC so powerful because it’s a state trying very hard to be therapeutic. So, the first thing to say is that it gives parents access to fair justice, which is such an important thing. And you need absolute commitment of the courts and the court stakeholders, even before you start thinking about the therapeutic professionals who need to work alongside it. The court has to be really committed to want to do something different – to give up some of its power, in a sense, which is quite a brave thing to do for such an established setting. So it takes a concerted effort and dedication from CAFCASS, local solicitors, judges, court ushers, security and all the other relevant people in the court setting. And they must be unified in their approach, because everyone there regardless of their role is key and important to creating something different around the actual hearings. Next is the court list itself; in Gloucestershire Judge Howell and I are responsible for the list. This is really flexible, we can change this as we like if we feel it will benefit people – obviously we make sure everyone has their slots and an equal amount of time, but if there’s something we want to do differently, we just go ahead and do it. It creates that kind of local control in a sense and allows for creativity; a way about the court proceedings which you wouldn’t normally see. So that is how the court is set up, but alongside that it must engage the local authority which holds the gateway to the proceedings. Gateway planning meetings are where decisions are made by professionals; social workers who represent the child’s voice and lawyers who discuss the legalities. They discuss whether a threshold is met for the child, and if so there’s an opportunity to go forward and test that threshold out in court with parent’s access to fair justice. The courts are then serviced by the FDAC teams, who ensure that the content around reports is evidence based, clear and honest while remaining compassionate. This gives the court the information they need to have meaningful discussions, whilst minimising the use of superfluous information that can be re-traumatising to families and harmful. This allows the process to be empowering for families involved, as the reports are values based and built using traditional social work values like integrity and social justice. It’s a dynamic process; reports look at both static and dynamic risks. So it addresses the ACEs that families have experienced and adverse historical experiences that can’t be changed, indicating immediately if the person has had a significant amount of trauma. But it also looks at the risks that change over time and that can be addressed; and this is the focus for the intervention plan, using their strengths and protective factors to reduce the dynamic risks. The judge will often start by speaking to parents and explaining this, that over the course of FDAC they will see the list of dynamic risks shrinking, while they build on their strengths and protective factors.
How does Gloucestershire FDAC work in partnership with parents to address issues of trauma, loss, and grief?
There are a couple of broad principles relevant here, but it starts with the initial assessment. In an assessment day we give parents the space to tell their story and alongside that we use evidence-based tools. This relates back to the court acting as an external control, with the internal being their inner narratives of their experiences. The way our minds work is that we all tell ourselves our stories repeatedly, we regurgitate it and over time this internal story is slightly different. Listening to the parents’ story allows the professionals involved to develop an understanding about their experiences, but we also have checks and balances in place. We check the story against the history, the chronologies we have on our systems, and ask questions to the parents to get a fuller picture. In our pre-assessment formulation, we look at multi-agency chronologies and think about some of the gaps. The assessment day is about filling those gaps in, finding out what we don’t know. In addition, we’ll do screening tools, calculate their trauma scores and consider their experience of adverse childhood experiences. We also have specialist staff who work with the children and get a sense of how things are impacting on the children and any hidden harm. All of this is gathered and informs our work with the family going forwards; shaping the partnership working that defines FDAC.
How do you incorporate the voice of people with lived experience?
Within the FDAC model there is an innate voice for the parents; they speak straight to power. The parents speak to the judge about the support they’re receiving including any issues they’re facing; there’s a sense of a flat structure that inherently incorporates people’s voices. In addition to that there are multiple mechanisms in place to incorporate the voice of people with lived experience into how we run services. In Gloucestershire we have ‘experts by experience’ groups, made up partly by those who have experience of FDAC. This includes FDAC parents who have graduated and those who are near completing FDAC; those with more emotional space. They talk to directors and other decision makers and use their experiences to input into provision of children’s services, treatment services and in commissioning. For example, we are currently recommissioning children’s treatment services in Gloucestershire and there’s a cohort of people with lived experience who are contributing to that process. Emerging Futures is also run by people with lived experience. There are many formal routes to incorporate the voice of people with lived experience structurally, and there’s a push from leadership for this which is brilliant. In addition, there are other routes such as routinely asking for feedback and using that constructively. These formal routes are important and positive, but for me FDAC’s relationship-based work is the real source of learning. Me and my colleagues learn from the parents in FDAC daily, it’s built into the model. Integral to this is a sense of collaboration, transparency and shared power.
Gloucestershire FDAC provides post-proceedings support. Can you outline what this support looks like?
The post-proceedings support we provide is an important aspect of our service that I’m really proud of. Judge Exton (our initial FDAC judge) and I set up the post-proceedings 12-month supervision order around the time of our first graduations. We’d seen how beneficial FDAC had been for families and the high rates of relapse within the first year were at the forefront of our minds. Continuing to work with the families and harnessing the positive relationships that they had made with the FDAC judge and team felt like an important safety net to provide. The way the 12-month supervision order works is that parents come back to court to see the judge every three months for informal reviews. These are written as a voluntary component within the requirements schedule of a supervision order. The informal reviews have no basis in law but exist to extend the beneficial relationship that parents have with the judge. We have a policy which has been signed by CAFCASS, the courts and relevant agencies and a social work process which separates it from FDAC. It also includes a clinical pathway. The general idea is that people are held for the first three months as they were in FDAC clinically, potentially with testing. Over time this is reduced, until they reach the end of the post-proceedings. This is generally 12 months but is also flexible. If people are doing well, they can end before the 12 months as there is no point being involved when people don’t need it. In these cases, we just let the order lapse. In other cases, we will extend beyond the 12 months if more support is needed. In post-proceedings, the focus shifts very much onto relapse prevention and building recovery and social capital. For example, we start to explore training and employment or consider additional therapy that might be useful. We have another semi-graduation at the end of the supervision order too. In tangent to the official post-proceedings, we run weekly recovery café sessions. These are informal group drop-in sessions ran by our consultant psychiatrist and occupational therapist. They serve as a place where families involved in FDAC can come and discuss their experiences, or even just have a chat. Those that attend include parents at varying stages of FDAC; both those who have just started, those engaging in post-proceedings and those who have long finished their orders. This mix makes the sessions very powerful and motivating and touches on aspects of mutual aid.
Nationally, the risk of women reappearing in the family courts and experiencing further care proceedings has not reduced since earlier research findings first established this problem. How does your service seek to address this issue?
We start properly at the beginning, aiming to give people the right help and support that they need there and then, to try and prevent them travelling further down the line in care proceedings. We focus on curiosity and taking time to properly think about what would help the family, taking a multi-agency approach to enable a holistic view rather than just a social work view. I think a lot of children’s services don’t start with the end in mind – the end being that linear process which is court and proceedings. Services are so busy and over-ran that they often don’t want people coming in, they signpost them elsewhere. In our service we want those people who are a little more vulnerable or less resilient to be given a chance in FDAC. We start with the end in mind, that we do not want this family to have to come back into services. Gloucestershire does have very high re-referral rates though and we see children coming into services sometimes multiple times throughout their childhoods before they are potentially removed. By then, a lot of harm has been caused to them and their families. We work to try and prevent this, but also to build what you could loosely determine as recovery capital to support both the children and parents regardless of the outcome. We want to scaffold the support around families and mobilise the network around them so they have more protective factors and resilience for what they may face in the future. This involves work directly with children, such as speech and language support, having health visitors and support to have positive experiences at school, amongst many other things. But the fortunate position that we have in Gloucestershire FDAC is that we also have that focus on the parent, as the agent of change for children, whilst working alongside the parents with their children and babies. We support them holistically, both individually and together as a family. FDAC is about people feeling valued, heard and held. Often people we work with haven’t felt that before and haven’t had their emotional needs met. By providing this, FDAC offers a point of change and is often just the start of a journey of learning and development that continues long after it’s completion.
Research suggests that FDAC achieves significantly better outcomes than standard care proceedings. In your opinion why do you think this?
I think you need to look at it systemically. You can look at it in terms of permanency planning for children, foster care experts, therapeutic interventions or any of the specific aspects of FDAC, but I think it’s better to think about it societally, looking at the bigger picture. I think about reduced offending and anti-social behaviour. About citizenship and parents becoming part of pro-social networks, those democratic networks of society. It’s about them becoming productive in that way, becoming part of society; adding something, getting something back. Then it’s about them modelling that for their children, the next generation and shifting generational scripts. Parents will gain skills that help them to care for themselves, care for their children, maybe care for others beyond their immediate network. It’s about the citizenship view and democratic view; the whole of FDAC models that for parents. It lets them know that they can be heard, and that being heard is not only a beautiful thing, but that actually people with power and status will hear and listen to them, actively help and support them, and ultimately care about them. This is so different to oppressive practice, and I think that experience has such potential for parents and families as they live their lives going forwards to have confidence that that can happen. They can be heard, and they can challenge that otherness they might feel- that feeling of being outside of society and of marginalisation. FDAC supports families to think about coming in and being a part of democratic structures; it allows for people to know that they’re valued.