How the Family Drug and Alcohol Court is navigating the 26 week deadline

Manager Sophie Kershaw says court deadlines are reasonable but should not become a strait-jacket

“As the manager of the UK’s first Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC) I’m used to navigating challenges. The latest in a long line is developing the model in line with the Family Justice Reforms.
People constantly ask how FDAC will fit into a 26 week time limit and the Public Law Outline (PLO). We think we can meet this challenge head on as we have always tested new ideas in creative ways.
However, our aim, wherever possible, is to help families stay together and give them “a fair go”. Cases are heard by the same district judge throughout, so parents can build a relationship with “their” judge. Working with the court is a specialist, multi-disciplinary team. We have volunteer mentors who have overcome their own substance misuse, some through help from FDAC.
If parents agree to join FDAC, the team does an initial assessment within a couple of weeks of proceedings starting. In collaboration with all parties, we develop an intervention plan which the team will co-ordinate and which the court sanctions. Expectations of parents are made explicit and the work is broken down into clear steps. Progress is monitored regularly, by the team, and by the judge at fortnightly hearings without lawyers.

The intervention plan tests whether parents can overcome their substance misuse problems and meet their children’s needs. Parents get the maximum help to overcome their problems and keep their children, provided they can do that in a timeframe compatible with their children’s needs. They must abstain from street drugs and alcohol, begin to address difficulties driving their substance misuse, strengthen relationships with their child, and create a child-centred lifestyle. Work with older children helps reverse the damage done.

Is this do-able in 26 weeks? In my view six months of a child’s life should be enough time to determine the possibility of return home. If this isn’t possible by then, a final order can be made. But if parents are making good progress, and showing capacity to meet their child’s needs, extending the case beyond 26 weeks seems both fair and necessary.

We welcome the decision by the Department for Education to fund an exploration of how FDAC can rise to this challenge. Positive, too, are some recent comments from the President of the Family Division of the High Court:

“We must see how best the PLO can accommodate the FDAC model (I put it this way, rather than the other way round). We must always remember that the PLO is a means of achieving justice and the best outcomes for children and, wherever possible, their families. It is not, and must never be allowed to become, a straightjacket, least of all if rigorous adherence to an inflexible timetable risks putting justice in jeopardy…” (View 7, October).”

Sophie Kershaw will be running a workshop on working with care proceedings timeframes at Community Care Live on 14 November in London.

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