When walking down the corridor of a county court, it’s unusual to hear laughter behind the heavy doors. The atmosphere outside is tense, hot and over-crowded. But inside one particular court room, things are different. The judge is on a spinny office chair, placed at the same level as the mother whose children is subject to proceedings. She sits between her children’s social worker and her substance misuse practitioner. There are no lawyers in the room, and everyone is giggling at a joke about bananas.
This is a non-lawyer review at a Family Drug and Alcohol Court (or FDAC), presided by a District Judge. While the issues being discussed are no less complex than in a standard care proceedings case – ranging from heroin dependency to abusive relationships – the atmosphere is far more inclusive than in a normal court room, where parents sit in the back row as their barristers speak to the judge in a legalistic language they do not understand.
Non-Lawyer reviews are regular bi-monthly meetings between the parents and the judge. They are a key component of the judicial monitoring and problem-solving approach which define the FDAC process. The hearing is a chance for parent, judge and different agencies to thrash out issues and advocate their case with genuine transparency and understanding.
It is also the epicentre of the model’s commitment to relationship-based practice, which invests in the concept that real change for families is achieved through, and in, trusting relationships. The parent speaks directly the judge, who is both encouraging and challenging. She asks difficult questions and pushes for explanations in relation to risky decisions or lapses, but in turn offers clear reasoning for the decisions the court makes.
Currently, there are nine FDACs operating across England. While there are slight variations in delivery models, practitioners and judges work across the board with compassion and a belief in parents’ capacity to change. Social workers often speak about the relief of moving into an FDAC team after working in ordinary child protection, how within this model they get the chance to form relationships and deliver the life-changing work they always wanted to do.
We are therefore delighted to be delivery and iteration partners to the Department for Education’s Safeguarding Families, Investing in Practice programme, which is releasing innovation funding for the expansion of the FDAC model. The DfE announced today that all the existing sites have been successful in their bids, stabilising the position of this often precarious service.
Even more exciting is the announcement that the funding will be supporting the establishment of seven new FDAC sites, across 17 Local Authorities. The new FDACs will be in the Black Country, Birmingham & Solihull, Pan-Bedfordshire, Newcastle, North Tyneside & Gateshead, Essex, Suffolk & Southend, Stockport and Somerset.
We at the FDAC National Partnership look forward to working with the new sites to embed the FDAC model of therapeutic, problem-solving justice, while responding to particular local contexts. The innovation funding is a chance to strengthen the body of research on the model, providing the potential for future growth.