14 June, 2019
The Government has announced it intends to spend £15m to keep children out of care with an innovative scheme based on existing Family Drug and Alcohol Courts (FDACs) and Family Group Conferencing (FGCs) models.
The new scheme named Supporting Families; Investing in Practice will be rolled out to up to 40 new council areas over the next year.
Family Drug and Alcohol Courts (FDACs) offer a court-based, family intervention approach to ordinary care proceedings for families whose children are put at risk by parental substance misuse. The first one was set up in London in 2008, with cross-government funding. There are now 13 in England and Northern Ireland.
Parents can be introduced to the FDAC at the first Case Management Hearing and must agree to have a full assessment by the specialist team within the next five days. The Further Case Management Hearing takes place between weeks 2 and 4 of proceedings. By this time an intervention plan, drawn up by the specialist team, will have been discussed and agreed by all the parties. At the Further Case Management Hearing, parents formally agree to have their case heard in FDAC. As the FDAC is voluntary, if parents do not wish to proceed with the FDAC, their case will be heard in the usual family proceedings court.
FDAC's are led by specially trained judges and work closely with a team of social workers, psychiatrists and substance misuse workers. Parents are given a chance to overcome their problems with the support of professionals. The same judge reviews the case fortnightly, usually without lawyers present. Independent research into their effectiveness found that the FDAC model was more successful than ordinary care proceedings in helping parents achieve abstinence from drugs and alcohol and thus enabled more children to be reunified with their parents.
The Department of Education supported the rollout of FDACs, however in 2018 it withdrew funding for the national unit which supports the courts, forcing it to close.
This voluntary scheme also intends to help families work together on issues such as domestic violence, substance misuse or addiction when those children are at risk of removal. A family group conference (FGC) is an opportunity for family members to get together to make a plan for their child which addresses the problems identified by professionals who know the child (like a teacher or social worker), with extra help being given by other appropriate agencies. The child is usually at the meeting (if they are old enough) and they may have an advocate to help them have a say.
FGCs are increasingly being used to make plans for children who are the subject of, or are on the brink of care proceedings and provides the family with an opportunity to take the lead in making safe plans for the child, which address the identified concerns.
Government guidance says that children's services should consider making a referral for a family group conference 'if they believe there is a possibility that the child may not be able to remain with their parents… unless this would place the child at risk."
The new scheme is modelled on the existing Family Drug and Alcohol Courts (FDACs) and Family Group Conferencing (FGCs) models.
Under the new scheme, Local Authorities are to implement one or both of the above programmes and will receive support from Daybreak FGC and the FDAC.
The What Works Centre is to oversee the implementation of the scheme and will be working in partnership with Local Authorities to review the scheme's effectiveness at keeping children and families together.
Children and Families Minister, Nadhim Zahawi has welcomed the scheme stating:
"Every child, no matter what hand they have been dealt, deserves the opportunity to grow up in a stable, loving family so they can develop into confident adults equipped to take on life's challenges successfully. For too many children, this is not the reality, and we are seeing rising numbers of children going into care. Often, their parents are struggling with problems of their own and that has an impact on the whole family. Projects like these are making sure vulnerable families get the support they need from experts who can help them address their problems head on and stop them from spiralling out of control."
This new scheme has been proposed in addition to the £84m already committed by the Department of Education in April 2019 to assist up to 20 councils to support families to stay together through the "Strengthening Families, Protecting Children" programme.
As the current population of the UK is at its largest ever, it is interesting to see how the Government is developing innovative ways to reduce the number of looked after children.
Statistics seem to show that in appropriate cases these schemes help families to get to the root of their difficulties using a therapeutic, problem-solving approach, thereby giving vulnerable children a better start in life, keeping families together and consequently saving money by reducing the number of looked after children.
As ever, determining which cases are appropriate for referral to a scheme will be the most difficult question. Clearly where risks to a child are already approaching thresholds, it may be considered contrary to the child's best interests to remain any longer within the family home, particularly, where the child is being exposed to domestic violence, substance abuse or addiction.
We know that both failure to remove quickly enough as well as premature removal of children can result in further harm suffered by the child/ family and civil claims in negligence and/or pursuant to the HRA 1998.
Local Authorities will therefore need to make themselves familiar with the framework of the new scheme, consider whether they wish to adopt the FDAC or FGC system (or both) and if so, which cases would benefit from it. However, the existence of more proactive options for the maintenance and rehabilitation of family units is in many ways positive, and should result in better outcomes for all involved.
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