26-week target ‘could limit help for substance misusing parents'

Derren Hayes
Thursday, May 1, 2014

The effectiveness of a specialist court to tackle parental substance misuse could be undermined as a result of the introduction of the 26-week care proceedings target, academics have warned.

Independent research published today shows that the Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC) is nearly twice as successful at keeping families together than standard family courts – 35 per cent of FDAC mothers stopped misusing and were reunited with their children, compared with 19 per cent of mothers who had been through ordinary care proceedings.

Key to its success is the additional support and court monitoring given to parents that work with FDAC, but an evaluation by Brunel University London raised fears that this could be jeopardised because the move to completing care proceedings within six months could curtail the amount of help made available to substance misusing parents.

FDAC tends to work with parents for nine months before making a decision about whether progress has been sufficient to keep a family together or pursue a permanent care placement. The evaluation found that where children were unable to return home, the average length of proceedings was 62 weeks.

Under reforms introduced in April through the Children and Families Act, care proceedings should be completed within 26 weeks, unless there are exceptional circumstances.

The study, based on the cases of 90 FDAC families involving 122 children over five years, found there were concerns among professionals about the impact the act could have on FDAC’s approach.

It says: “The government’s agenda for adoption reform places emphasis on speeding up decisions and action in placing babies and young children with potential adoptive parents. When combined with the push to complete care proceedings within 26 weeks, and the research evidence about the fragility of reunification in some circumstances, this could serve to heighten doubts about the value of FDAC’s focus on supporting reunification in cases where that is appropriate.”

The report also highlights that the shorter proceedings timescales will reduce the time available to test parents’ motivation and ability to control and overcome their addiction, although it states that this could help the court make quicker decisions in clear-cut cases and focus resources on those most likely to succeed.

It also concludes that in FDAC cases where the child looks likely to return home, an extension to the 26-week rule using the exceptional circumstances caveat should succeed, but adds that this is not automatic.

It says: “There is a risk that the courts might prefer to conclude promising cases quickly, making a supervision order as a way of keeping the case under review and enabling its return to court, if necessary. There is some evidence of the increasing use of supervision orders.

“Our findings on the variability of support under a supervision order suggest that this might not provide enough support to consolidate the progress that parents have made in FDAC.”

The Brunel evaluation also found that for FDAC parents the rate of neglect or abuse one year after children returned home was more than half that of those who had been through ordinary care proceedings.
First trialled in the London boroughs of Camden, Islington and Westminster, FDAC is now run as a consortium of five inner London local authorities and is beginning to be adopted outside of the capital.

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