Investigating the impact of Family Drug and Alcohol Courts on parental offending

21 October 2022

A new research project, supported by the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), will investigate whether Family Drug and Alcohol Courts (FDACs) - specialist courts within care proceedings - have an impact on parental offending.

The study, led by Professor Judith Harwin, from Lancaster University Law School, working in partnership with UCLan and the Centre for Justice Innovation, will fill an important gap in the evidence.

The project has been awarded a grant worth a quarter of a million pounds from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) to investigate whether the FDAC approach is associated with changes in maternal and paternal offending and reoffending.

Care proceedings, which are triggered when there is risk or actual harm to a child, have increased significantly in recent years. Proceedings typically involve parental substance misuse, domestic abuse, and mental health difficulties and frequently result in children being placed with alternative permanent families or in foster care.

Family Drug and Alcohol Courts (FDACs) are based on the view that courts must address parents’ underlying problems as well as adjudicating.

Previous research has found that, by treating the parental problems that led to the care proceedings during the court case, family reunification rates are higher than in ordinary care proceedings and there are also financial savings.

The Department for Education has invested over the last decade in the expansion of FDACs and the President of the Family Division and Head of Family Justice, Sir Andrew McFarlane, wants to see an FDAC in every area.

The Ministry of Justice is also interested in problem-solving courts and has recently set up pilots for women offenders, domestic abuse perpetrators and substance misusers.

“But an important gap in evidence is the impact of FDACs on offending behaviour,” says Professor Harwin, “and this is the inspiration for the project.”

The 24-month study will investigate whether, compared to parents who go through ordinary care proceedings, FDAC support is associated with a reduction in the likelihood of offending and re-offending, its frequency, type, seriousness, and resulting penalties imposed by the Criminal Justice System.

"The study is really important. Breaking the link between care and crime is a top priority."

Professor Judith Harwin, Lancaster University Law School

Mediating influences such as gender, previous history of offending, previous history of care proceedings, and stability of family reunification during and after FDAC support will also be explored.

This project is an analysis of approximately 1700 individual parental records in England from three administrative data sources, FDAC, Cafcass (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) and the PNC (Police National Computer records), which will be used to create a new dataset.

It aims to address a significant social and economic problem in providing a greater understanding of parents with involvement in FDAC, ordinary care proceedings, and in the criminal justice system, focusing on their needs and how to meet them.

Policy-makers, local authorities and police commissioners will gain new evidence to inform decisions about future investment in FDACs.

The study will also provide the first benchmark of the impact of FDAC on offending, with new insights for practitioners working in FDACs, ordinary care proceedings and criminal courts in England, Wales and in other countries, such as the United States, which operate family drug treatment courts.

“The study is really important,” said Professor Harwin. “Breaking the link between care and crime is a top priority. Understanding what part, if any, FDAC can play in this process, is a crucial question. This study will generate the first ever examination of the impact of FDAC on crime.

“Through a comparison with ordinary care proceedings, it will provide unique insights on the value of FDAC’s therapeutic interventions with parents in care proceedings and its associated work with criminal justice agencies.

“The new dataset will tease out the complexities of the care/crime connection allowing a nuanced account of what helps maintain or reduce this corrosive cycle of harm. This is a question of international importance.”

The research team includes Professor Harwin and Dr Bachar Alrouh from Lancaster University, Dr Les Humphreys and Dr Charlotte Barlow from UCLan, and the Centre for Justice Innovation.

Senior Lecturer in Criminal Justice and Policing at the University of Central Lancashire Dr Humphreys said: “Findings from our study could have direct implications for policy relating to supporting children and parents at crucial points in their lives and development”.

Deputy Director of the Centre for Justice Innovation Vicki Morris said: “The transformative approach of FDAC has long-lasting benefits for parents and their children. This original research presents an exciting opportunity to explore the wider benefits of the FDAC model in relation to offending.”

"Findings from our study could have direct implications for policy relating to supporting children and parents at crucial points in their lives and development."

UCLan's Dr Les Humphreys, Senior Lecturer in Criminal Justice and Policing