Children whose parents are referred to family drug and alcohol courts (FDACs) are more likely to be reunified with their families than those involved in standard care proceedings, research has found.
Parents involved in FDACs are also more likely to have stopped using drugs or alcohol by the end of their cases than those in standard proceedings.
But study limitations mean these positive effects cannot be attributed entirely to FDACs, so further research is needed to evaluate whether the courts cause improved outcomes, said evidence body Foundations (formerly What Works for Children’s Social Care).
It commissioned National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) to carry out the study, as part of the Department for Education’s (DfE) Supporting Families: Investing in Practice programme, which is designed to identify effective interventions for keeping families together.
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Promising evidence for FDACs
The research was designed to build on promising existing evidence about the impact of FDACs, an alternative to care proceedings in substance misuse cases geared towards keeping children with their families, where possible.
Under the model, multidisciplinary teams work with parents to help them tackle their alcohol and drug misuse, including through key worker support, individual or group therapy and referral to other services.
At the same time, specially trained judges undertake fortnightly sessions with parents – in the absence of lawyers – to oversee progress and foster positive working relationships between families, the judiciary and FDAC practitioners.
Since first being piloted in London from 2008-12, the number of FDAC teams has grown to 15, covering 36 local authority areas in England and Wales.
Randomised controlled trial model rejected
This study was originally designed to be a randomised controlled trial (RCT), which would have involved families being randomly assigned to an intervention group receiving an FDAC and a control group who did not, with the two groups having similar characteristics overall.
However, while this would have helped identify whether FDACs caused improved outcomes, an RCT was rejected on the grounds of legal obstacles, such as families in the control group appealing the outcome of the case or the assignment process.
Instead, researchers chose a model – known as a quasi-experimental design (QED) – in which families referred to FDACs in 13 areas were compared with families involved in standard care proceedings, where parental substance misuse was the key issue, in nine local authorities.
All but one of the latter councils were covered by FDAC sites and researchers sought to ensure that families in the two groups had broadly similar characteristics, in the data they analysed.
Better outcomes from FDACs
On the two key outcomes analysed, the study found that:
- Over half of children with a primary carer in FDAC care proceedings (52%) were reunified with this carer at the end of proceedings; the figure for children in the comparison group was one in eight (12.5%).
- A third of FDAC parents had stopped misusing drugs or alcohol by the end of the case (33.6%) compared with 8.1% of parents in the comparison group.
Interviews with 40 practitioners and parents involved with FDACs also highlighted three key perceived benefits with them compared with standard care proceedings:
- They were a more supportive process for parents, allowing them to demonstrate their ability to meet their child’s needs, rather than feeling punitive.
- They led to better outcomes including reductions in substance use, higher rates of reunification, increased insight and parenting skills and lower rates of contested cases.
- They achieved long-term cost savings despite the upfront investment required to provide intensive support and supervision to parents.
However, the study report warned that the positive results needed to be treated with caution because there was a high risk that the differences in outcomes were being driven by differences between the FDAC families and those in the comparison group.
Researchers lacked data on key characteristics that may have influenced outcomes – such as parents’ mental health diagnoses, the severity of their substance use and their motivations to stop misuse.
And, in their final analysis, the study team had to exclude a number of families in order to match the FDAC and control group samples as far as possible, which the report said “limited the generalisability of [the findings]”.
Foundations chief executive Jo Casebourne said this meant “unable to draw firm conclusions about the impact of FDAC based on this study” and that a “more robust comparison” was required, involving either a randomised controlled trial or a quasi-experimental design with better data.
Findings ‘a testament to practitioners’ hard work’
Despite the caveats, the research was welcomed by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) and the Centre for Justice Innovation, which provides national leadership and support for FDACs.
Its director, Phil Bowen, said the findings were “a testament to the hard work and diligence of the judges and professionals” within FDACs across England and Wales.
“These positive findings build on a strong evidence base, reinforcing the message that if we expand the number of FDACs across the country, we will improve the life chances of hundreds of children and parents across our country.”
ADCS president John Pearce said FDACs were an example of the value of problem-solving approaches in helping keep children with their families, where this was in their best interests.
However, he said that “the piecemeal nature of new funding has meant the benefits have been limited to a small number of local authorities”.
“ADCS would welcome a shift in approach so that all local authorities were resourced to explore new ways of working and where there is evidence of what works, all were resourced to implement such models,” Pearce added.