Evaluation of Family Drug and Alcohol Courts (FDAC)
About the study
Family Drug and Alcohol Courts (FDACs) offer an alternative to standard care proceedings involving parental drug or alcohol misuse, using a “problem-solving” approach to justice to support parents to reduce their misuse issues. The primary aim is to improve outcomes for children and families, ensuring that children can either live safely with parents at the end of care proceedings or, where reunification is not possible, have the best chance for permanency and stability outside the family home. FDACs also aim to reduce the risk of families re-entering care proceedings at a later date.
The National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) were commissioned to assess and understand the impact of FDAC and to assess how FDAC has been implemented to date in England. The evaluation was commissioned by Foundations and was part of the Department for Education’s Supporting Families: Investing in Practice programme.
Aims of the study
The evaluation comprised two strands:
- An impact evaluation (IE), which aimed to quantify the impact of FDAC proceedings on reunification for children and families at the end of care proceedings compared to standard care proceedings (this was the primary outcome). 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 (one of the secondary outcomes we assessed) and if there were any differences in the rate of contested final hearings (where it was not possible to reach an agreement between the caregiver and courts on what should happen) or the use of expert witnesses in proceedings (both of these were also secondary outcomes).
- An implementation and process evaluation (IPE), which aimed to assess a number of dimensions relating to how FDAC has been implemented and delivered, including participant experiences of delivering and receiving support through FDAC; variations in delivery across different FDACs, including facilitators and barriers to delivery and drivers of success; and comparisons between delivery of FDAC and standard care proceedings.
Findings from the impact evaluation
We were able to match on child and primary carer demographics, primary carer experiences of domestic abuse and their current misuse of drugs or alcohol. However, due to challenges obtaining data, it was not possible to match on the following covariates that we know are very likely to be important: primary carer’s mental health diagnoses, their severity of drug and alcohol misuse, and their stated motivation to abstain from alcohol and drug use. The findings from this evaluation were indicative of positive (statistically significant) effects of FDAC on the outcomes of interest.
- 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 local authority care compared with non-FDAC care proceedings (28.6% versus 54.7%).
Findings from the implementation and process evaluation (IPE)
Overall, there was a strong sense that FDAC was meeting IPE participants’ expectations. Comparing FDAC with the process for standard care proceedings, participants highlighted three inter-related benefits:
- A perception that FDAC was a more supportive process for parents, allowing them to demonstrate their ability to meet their child’s needs – rather than feeling like a punitive process, participants spoke of FDAC feeling supportive at a crisis point, helping them sustain changes that could lead to successful reunification outcomes.
- A perception that FDAC led to better outcomes – including reductions in drug/alcohol use, higher rates of reunification, improved parenting skills (including for parents who were not ready for reunification at the end of proceedings), and lower rates of contested cases.
- A perception that FDAC achieved long-term cost savings – participants acknowledged that FDAC required investment upfront to provide intensive, wraparound support and supervision to parents, but felt it achieved savings later on.
Two key facilitators of perceived positive outcomes for families were:
- The package of high-intensity, wraparound, multidisciplinary support FDAC provided: flexibly tailored for each individual; and
- The FDAC judges’ role: leading and providing active oversight to the whole process; and having direct contact with parents, encouraging them to make and sustain changes.
The impact of FDAC was assessed through a quasi-experimental design (QED), using coarsened exact matching to generate a matched comparison group. It compared data on families in FDAC care proceedings drawn from 13 FDAC sites with similar families in standard care proceeding. Information from nine different local authorities (LAs) was used to construct the control groups. All these LAs have FDAC care proceedings operated within the area, except for Manchester. In all cases (both FDAC and standard care proceedings), parental substance misuse was the key factor in the application for care proceedings.
IPE findings are based on 40 interviews that were undertaken with a broad range of stakeholders, including FDAC 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 with diversity across key characteristics (operational timeframe, caseload, number of local authorities served, geographic setting and types of cases) and four non-FDACs to enable comparisons to be drawn.