The President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew MacFarlane, has described FDAC as the most frequently evaluated intervention in the family court. This is not by chance. From the day that the decision was taken to pilot the London FDAC, there was an agreement by the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Education, Home Office and pilot authorities that the model needed to be evaluated. Policy makers, service planners and practitioners alike all needed to know whether FDAC was better, worse or no different from business as usual.
A recent meta-analysis of FDACs internationally, reported by the What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care, confirms what the English studies have shown. FDACs achieve higher rates of reunification at the end of the court process than business as usual. Based on a large sample of 7085 participants (including the London FDAC), the What Works Centre, which seeks to provide best evidence to practitioners and decision makers, awards FDACs its maximum strength rating for family reunification. This is an important result. The sheer size of the sample increases the robustness of the evidence base for FDAC, and allows closer examination of who does well under FDAC, and why. It confirms that problem-solving courts that empower participants to become active problem-solvers within a court process which they perceive to be fair and motivational, transcends country boundaries and can achieve better outcomes for all.
However, the What Works Centre also reports that the international evidence suggests that FDACs have no effect on re-abuse or re-entry to care. This finding was based on high strength evidence concerning a total of the 1474 participants included within the evaluations within the meta-analysis. Yet the English 2016 evaluation from Lancaster University found that a significantly higher proportion of FDAC than comparison mothers who had been reunited with their children at the end of proceedings were estimated to experience no disruption to family stability at 3-year follow up (51% v 22%). With family reunification involving parental substance misuse known to be particularly fragile, this was an encouraging finding.
So how should practitioners and decision makers respond to this seemingly contradictory evidence from the English and international evidence on re-abuse and re-entry to care? First, our English 2016 evaluation has no direct equivalent internationally. In our review of the international evidence, we found very little exploration of the contribution of family drug courts to the durability of family reunification and substance misuse cessation outcomes. It was not therefore possible to give an authoritative answer as to their contribution. Second, as the What Works Centre emphasizes, “no effect” is very different from evidence to show harmful results. Third, context is important. After the court process ends, outcomes are more likely to be mediated by local contexts so it may be harder to compare studies internationally.
From this we can draw several conclusions. First, more largescale post intervention evaluations of FDACs internationally are needed to inform public policy and practice. Second, we need fine grained evaluations of how interventions are implemented locally and, third, user views and experiences are vital as are those of the professionals. This multi-layer approach to evaluation is exactly the approach taken by FDAC and what has made it so unusual from the outset. It has provided the underpinning evidence framework to the work of the former FDAC National Unit and should continue to be what guides national and local decision makers and commissioners. The ongoing challenge for all of us interested in better outcomes for children and families is to continually strive to identify what works and to ensure it reaches those citizens who need it the most.
Judith Harwin is the Professor in Socio-legal studies at Lancaster University and co-director of the newly established Centre for Child and Family Justice. She previously held a Chair in Social Work at Brunel University London and before that was Professor of Social Welfare Studies at Sussex University.