04:57, November 20 79 0 theguardian.com

2017-11-20 04:57:03
Family courts are a revolving door for too many parents

How do we upgrade the family justice system so that it disrupts patterns of family violence, drug abuse and mental distress, which blight children’s lives, at great human cost and expense to the taxpayer?

These behaviours of violence, drug abuse and mental distress are passed down from generation to generation. They are amplified by traumatic childhoods, social isolation and social injustice. Standard care proceedings fail to address them.

For too many parents, the family court is a revolving door, with child after child removed, often for similar reasons. Indeed, the parents themselves have often been subject to care proceedings as children. Our conventional model of family justice is not working for children. There is a need to innovate.

That is why my trust, the Tavistock and Portman, has developed a family drug and alcohol court (FDAC); and we want to spread the concept.

Few parents want their child to suffer and most parents in difficulty want to solve their problems. The UK needs a psychologically-informed approach: the FDAC does this.

It is based on a process known as “trial for change”, which aims to give parents the best possible chance to overcome their problems while testing whether they can meet their children’s needs in a set timescale. Families work intensively with a specially trained judge and a therapeutic team that can include child protection social workers, specialists in adult substance misuse and domestic abuse, psychotherapists, psychologists and psychiatrists. The skills mix depends on individual circumstances.

And it works. Independent evaluation found families and professionals report a better experience of justice, the outcomes for children and families are better, and the public purse is better invested. Recent research shows that families receiving the FDAC model are three to four times more likely than families receiving standard care proceedings to be doing well three years after the proceedings came to an end.

The FDAC is about problem solving. It recognises that parents often do not know how to sort things out for themselves; they may feel ashamed and frightened they will be judged and punished. By treating parents with empathy and compassion, they feel heard and able to retain their dignity. This is not a soft option – the motivation and hard work has to come from the parents.

The judge, therapeutic team and other professionals give parents every possible encouragement but they are realistic about the challenges and whether parents are on track to meet their children’s timescales.

Why is the FDAC not commonplace?

The way we account for public spending can often get in the way of doing the smart thing. Despite the evidence, the cost of upgrading the model becomes a barrier to achieving change and making significant savings to the public purse.

How do we expand the FDAC approach?

The Tavistock and Portman has successfully bid for government Life Chances funding by developing a social investment case for the FDAC and a social impact bond has been developed. The bond is a form of outcomes-based commissioning, engaging social investors, who provide both capital and expertise. In this case, it will give local authorities upfront investment to establish an FDAC. The local authority will repay the investors only when the service meets agreed outcomes.

The bond will enable hard-pressed local authorities to help families turn their lives around, without the fear that the service will run out of funding halfway through the process. This opportunity for long-term sustainable funding – in this case over seven years – also gives time to collect robust evidence about the outcomes the FDAC achieves. Above all, it gives hope to more children and their families.

  • Paul Burstow chairs the Social Care Institute for Excellence and the north London-based Tavistock and Portman NHS foundation trust

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