What does the evidence say about Family Drug and Alcohol Courts?

What does the evidence say about Family Drug and Alcohol Courts?

Today we published the results of our large-scale evaluation into the use of Family Drug and Alcohol Courts (FDAC) as a problem-solving alternative to standard care proceedings. 

The findings of our study point in a positive direction, with children being more likely to be reunified and a higher proportion of parents ceasing to misuse drugs of alcohol – which is consistent with the existing evidence-base – but there are limitations in both this study and the wider evidence which means these results should be interpreted carefully, within that context. 

Our study aimed to match FDAC participants to a comparison group, but this was difficult due to limitations in both data quality and volume. The study largely compared outcomes for families referred to FDAC with families in the same local authority who were not referred into the intervention. However, whether families were referred to FDAC or not is based on a subjective judgement call which is likely to be based to some extent on the specific characteristics of the families, such as their level and history of substance misuse or their capacity to change. This means it may be that it was differences in these characteristics, rather than FDAC itself, that led to or exaggerated the differences in outcomes that the study found.  

The limitations of this evaluation mean that we cannot attribute these effects entirely to FDAC and we are unable to draw firm conclusions about the impact of FDAC based on this study. While we agree that there is promising evidence that problem-solving approaches in family courts can improve outcomes, to conclusively show the impact of FDAC, a more robust comparison provided by either a quasi-experimental design (QED) with better data, or an RCT, is required. We know that there are challenges to delivering either of these successfully, but this evaluation would be important in allowing LAs to be more confident in the impact of FDAC.

Instead, we have four recommendations for policy and practice:  

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

For more information, see our implications for policy and practice.

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