A large-scale evaluation of the impact of Family Drug and Alcohol Courts (FDAC) as an alternative to standard care proceedings (the new legal framework introduced by the Children and Families Act in 2014). FDAC aims to address the problems which have led the local authority to bring the parent(s) to court by using a ‘problem-solving’ approach. This involves a specialist multi-disciplinary team working closely with a judge and other professionals to provide intensive support to parents, with the aim of reducing their substance misuse issues.
Concurrent studies evaluating additional interventions to support the delivery of FDAC:
- A randomised control trial (RCT) of a behavioural intervention that aims to increase parental attendance and engagement within the FDAC process. It involves giving three letters, written in the voice of another parent, to parents at three different stages of the FDAC process. This intervention is developed by the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) and FDAC.
- A pilot evaluation of the Gloucestershire’s Family Drug and Alcohol Court’s post-proceedings support (PPS), which is delivered by the Turn Around for Children Service (TACS). The PPS focuses on providing on-going support for families after graduation from the FDAC program. It focuses on permanency planning for children, with a view towards recommending a 12-month supervision for families who have successfully been through the FDAC program. It consists of a range of support from social workers and specialist workers.
- A mixed-methods pilot evaluation of the implementation and delivery of parent mentoring programme as part of the FDAC service model in two FDAC sites. The programme aims to provide a volunteer parent mentor (with prior experience with FDAC) to parents engaged with FDAC services. Parent mentoring is an integral component of FDAC services but is not delivered in all FDAC sites. The evaluation was part of the Department for Education’s (DfE) Supporting Families: Investing in Practice Programme and aimed to explore feasibility and scalability of parent mentoring.
For more information on the methodology of these concurrent reports, please refer to the reports themselves.
The objective of the impact evaluation was to understand the effect of FDAC proceedings on reunification for children and families at the end of care proceedings compared to standard care proceedings. The evaluation also aimed to test if parents who had been through the FDAC process as opposed to standard care proceedings were more likely to stop misusing substances, and also investigated if there were any differences in the rate of contested final hearings or the use of expert witnesses in proceedings.
We also ran an implementation and process evaluation to assess how FDAC has been implemented and delivered.
How we went about it
We used a quasi-experimental design (QED) in which families referred to FDAC were matched with families who were not referred. We used data from nine different local authorities which all had FDAC care proceedings operating within the area, and from 13 FDAC sites.
The IPE findings were based on 40 interviews that were undertaken with a broad range of stakeholders, including leads, support staff, members of the judiciary and parents from FDAC; as well as leads and members of the judiciary from non-FDACs. The interviews were completed across six FDAC sites.
There were limitations with the methodology and data collection in this evaluation which mean that we cannot attribute the effects found entirely to FDAC and we are unable to draw firm conclusions about impact of FDAC based on this study. Bearing in mind this caveat, we found:
- Children with a primary carer in FDAC care proceedings were more likely to be reunified with their primary carer at the end of the care proceeding in comparison to children with a primary carer in non-FDAC care proceedings (52.0% versus 12.5%).
- A higher proportion of FDAC than comparison parents had ceased to misuse drugs or alcohol by the end of the proceedings (33.6% versus 8.1%).
- The proportion of hearings being contested was lower for FDAC than standard care proceedings (4.2% versus 23.8%).
- A lower proportion of FDAC cases used external expert witness assessments compared with non-FDAC care proceedings (7.7% versus 96.1%).
- Children in FDAC sites had lower probability of being placed in LA care compared with non-FDAC care proceedings (28.6% versus 54.7%).
- The positive outcomes for cases supported by FDAC is in line with the evidence on FDAC in the WWCSC’s Evidence Store and the literature base.
- There were no statistically significant differences between the group that received letters and control groups in relation to attendance of meetings, engagement score, abstinence from substance use or family reunification.
- There was very mixed evidence about the acceptability of the letters to staff and parents. Some viewed the letters as beneficial, motivational, hopeful and positive.
- Other staff and parents were sceptical about the value of the letters. Some parents were angry, upset, confused, or viewed the letters as validating unhelpful behaviours about substance abuse.
- We found that the Post Proceedings Support (PPS) model aligned with the FDAC model, using the same professional and administrative structures, and provides substantial support for parents after graduation from FDAC. It was generally well received by parents and professionals. Families who completed the PPS had higher sustained cessation, higher family reunification and lower long-term family disruption than families in previous FDAC only studies. However, it may not be sufficient for all families due to differences in the recovery process, making wider replication of the PPS model unlikely.
- We identified consistent positive impacts for both FDAC parents and mentors who took part in the parent mentoring intervention. For parents, enhanced parental wellbeing, resilience, engagement with FDAC and improved family functioning were observed. Mentors had improved self-confidence, life aspirations and increased capacity to ensure successful recovery. The mento-mentee relationship was also perceived positively.
- The Department for Education and the Care Proceedings Reform Group should consider embedding evaluation, including a cost analysis, in any scale up of problem-solving approaches in family courts: We agree that there is promising evidence to support the use of problem-solving approaches in family courts, but to conclusively show the impact of FDAC, a more robust comparison, provided by either a QED with better data, or an RCT, is required. Embedding this further evaluation in any scale up would enable more families to benefit from extra support, while building the evidence Government needs to assure itself that problem-solving approaches in family courts improve outcomes and present good value for money.
- The learning from the process evaluation conducted as part of this study can be used to strengthen problem-solving approaches in family court: The information in the IPE around how best to establish Family Drug & Alcohol Courts and overcome the challenges in implementation should be considered when delivering problem-solving approaches in family court.
- Given the overall evidence base, local commissioners should consider how Family Drug & Alcohol Court can form part of their services for families, and how it would operate alongside other substance misuse services: This study, in the context of the wider evidence base, suggests that Family Drug & Alcohol courts can have a positive impact on child and family outcomes. Commissioners should consider whether a Family Drug & Alcohol Court would meet local needs.
- Data collection during standard care proceedings should be improved: The findings from this evaluation were weakened by the lack of data in the comparison group on parents going through standard care proceedings. This prevented more robust comparisons with parents going through Family Drug & Alcohol Court care proceedings. If more data was collected in a consistent format by local authorities, including those that do not refer to Family Drug & Alcohol Courts, this would be a significant step towards enabling a robust impact evaluation. There should also continue to be investment in the routine collection of the detailed FDAC national dataset, currently collected by the Centre for Justice Innovation.