An Interview with District Judge Nicholas Crichton

District Judge Nicholas Crichton has been described as “a family justice pioneer.” With funding for the Family Drug and Alcohol Court pilot scheme due to end on 31 March, he talks to Ffyon Reilly about its future.

Nicholas Crichton has been the resident district judge at the Inner London Family Proceedings Court since 1997 and a district judge for 25 years. He chairs the Voice of the Child sub-committee of the Family Justice Council. He has worked internationally on various projects in the field of child protection, most notably in Bulgaria where he has visited all 28 family courts and visited many specialist institutions. He is a passionate advocate for children’s rights and was the driving force behind the setting up of the award winning Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC) in 2008. I spoke with him at court early in January when the issue of future funding for FDAC was uncertain.


Family Drug and Alcohol Court – trying to find a solution

Crichton assisted in setting up the FDAC as a problem - solving court to help break the intergenerational cycle of harm associated with parental substance misuse. His aim was always to “get into the maternity units” and help the young mothers break their addiction before the birth of their child.

This intergenerational cycle of harm came under the spotlight after the August riots. David Cameron has pledged to tackle 120,000 of the country’s most “troubled families” who are said to be costing taxpayers £8bn a year.

Crichton states that some family judges are dismissive of this approach, likening it to that of judges becoming social workers. He poses this question: “Just what is it that family courts are there to do? Just take away children? Or are we there to provide part of the whole construct of support around families to try to enable children to remain within their families”? He thinks that it should be the latter, particularly as the courts are lousy at the former. “If we are looking to remove the 8th, 9th or10th child, the family courts can’t be doing very well by this family”.  He has had to remove the 14th child from one family, he knows two judges that removed the 15th. This, he says, is a clear indictment of how the family courts handle these cases. He feels that the family courts have got to find ways of working with these families rather than concluding that children are not safe and then removing them. FDAC is his solution.

Background to the FDAC

The seed for FDAC was planted in 2002, when at a conference in Melbourne Crichton met Len Edwards, a Californian judge, who was talking about the strategies he used for drug-and-alcohol-using parents at his court in San Jose. ”I was completely captivated by everything Len had to say because we had been struggling with these cases for years. These children are being born into terrible circumstances, and it just seems so wasteful, so stupid. He was offering a way of dealing with these families that was so different.”

When Crichton returned to England he started to stimulate interest in a reassessment of how a family court could respond to addiction: “We British are far too cautious. Everybody wants evidence based research before they can tentatively dip their little toe into the water. In America this is spreading across the country like a rash and there are over 300 of these courts. They say: ‘We are not good at dealing with these sorts of cases, here is something that looks better, let’s run with it, learn from the experience and start from the understanding that we are not good at this. I have had mothers scream at me in court: ‘Take this one away and I will keep having one a year until you let me keep it.’ I have read a psychiatric report that said every time you take a child away the only way that some mothers can deal with the pain is to have another one. I can’t even imagine how it must feel and I’m not even a mum”. After significant campaigning over three years, he formed a fighting fund with backing from the three local authorities and from Cafcass. They presented the project to four government departments in one afternoon, funding was approved and FDAC opened in 2008.

Approach of the FDAC

He describes how the project works: “FDAC takes a different approach from normal care proceedings. We don’t tell the parent to go away and to get help; we bring a tough structured programme to them. We tell the parent that it is the best chance to turn their lives around and that it is about getting the child sent home or moved on. The local authority found families for the court to work with and they gave us some really challenging families that they had already worked with for years and got nowhere. These parents needed to show that they could change enough to meet the child’s needs within the child’s timeframe”. That timeframe is 12 months.

The parents are brought into court every two weeks. Parents see the same judge throughout the legal process. The Court Reviews are the problem-solving aspect of the court process. They provide opportunities for regular monitoring of parents’ progress and for judges to engage and motivate parents, to speak directly to parents and to find ways of resolving problems that may have arisen. They will get the benefit of extra support from volunteer parent mentors (all former addicts).

As Crichton explains, the process, while nurturing, places considerable demands on the parents: “The first three months get them stabilized, hopefully off drugs altogether or on methadone. If they come through the first three months, the second three months is about relapse prevention. We identify the triggers and what it is that has created the parents’ relationship with drugs and alcohol.  By six months we should know if there is likely to be a reunion. If they are still with us and w still doing well, then we start addressing their parenting issues, enabling them to meet the child’s needs and to build relationships. This is all done with a view to returning the child at the end of nine months. Some take a little longer.”

The maternity unit

Crichton’s plan to get into the maternity units is underway; the FDAC team are now trialing Pre-Birth Assessments with four local authorities. This is always where he felt FDAC should be. “We should be catching these young mums at an early stage and then we have a real opportunity to break the habit. We initially got the toughest end when we started in 2008, but we still did twice as well as normal care proceedings, and with the most difficult families.” Having access to mothers while pregnant buys the team valuable time to help the mother before her baby is born. By then they will have a very good idea of whether the mother is committed to the programme.

There is independent evidence that FDAC has met with staggering success. Research from Brunel University and the Nuffield Foundation (fig.1)demonstrates that FDAC is producing highly positive results. Very nearly twice as many mothers going through FDAC are reunited with their children, compared with those in the comparison group used who were in normal care proceedings.

Support for fathers, focus on the family and judicial continuity

A number of guardians and social workers commented that fathers are more involved and supported in FDAC cases than in ordinary proceedings. Fathers are more likely to get support and receive much more encouragement. 36 per cent of FDAC fathers were no longer misusing substances, but not one father from the comparison group stopped misusing.

The FDAC approach with a focus on the whole family is in line with the governments 2010 Drug Strategy.  The final report of the Family Justice Review has recommended a limited roll out of the FDAC and says that it shows considerable promise.  It also emphasises the importance of judicial continuity: having the same judge follow a family through all stages of proceedings is a unique and important feature of FDAC. The Munro Review of Child Protection also stated that it was ‘impressed’ by the pilot FDAC court and used it as an example of how multi-disciplinary teams can provide effective interventions for vulnerable children. However, despite the potential of the FDAC model and its evident alignment with the current Government’s social policy, funding for the pilot runs out on the 31st March and there is as yet no guarantee of further funding.

FDAC’s future

The cost benefits to Local Authorities are also plain to see. The cost of the expert evidence element of the FDAC team is, on average, £1,174 per family, but in non FDAC cases it is £2,389 per family. Children in FDAC cases spend fewer days in out of home assessments, saving an average of £4,000 per child. The research also shows that FDAC reduced costs in other ways (shorter care placements, shorter court hearings, fewer contested cases). Crichton points out persuasively that there are unquantifiable benefits. “Parents who are offered the programme but who cannot cope are more likely not to contest at final hearing. Parents who do succeed and who do not have their child removed have broken the cycle. They will not go on and on having more and more children costing the state up to £100,000 per child in secure foster care. I can easily demonstrate how just one of these families can cost the state up to £1,000,000 per year.”

Where now? “We started with Camden, Westminister and Islington. Hammersmith and Fulham are now involved and Southwark want to do it. Manchester, West Sussex, South Wales are talking about it, we are trying to plan a meeting for Gloucestershire and intend to approach Liverpool. However the first thing to do is to secure FDAC at Wells Street.”

The FDAC is a shining example of hope and success in a dark corner of society, and Nicholas Crichton is an inspirational and motivated man. “We believe very strongly in FDAC,” he states – one can only hope that his conviction will be enough to get this initiative up and running nationally in the near future.

Ffyon Reilly Castle Chambers (currently on maternity leave). Visiting Lecturer City Law School

Achievements

Awards won by the Family Drug & Alcohol Court team:

Outstanding achievement award at the 2011 Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year (LALY) awards: District Judge Nicholas Crichton
Outstanding Contribution to the Field of Family Law at the 2011 Family Law awards: District Judge Nicholas Crichton
Best Psychiatric Team of the Year 2011 at the Royal College of Psychiatrists awards: FDAC Intervention Team
Guardian Public Services award for Service Delivery for Children and Young People 2011: FDAC Intervention Team
London Safeguarding Children Award 2011: FDAC Intervention Team

Research (fig.1)
Family Drug and Alcohol Court Evaluation Research Study,

FDAC Research Team, Brunel University:
Professor Judith Harwin, Mary Ryan, Jo Tunnard, Dr Subhash Pokhrel, Bachar Alrouh, Dr Carla Matias, and Dr Momenian-Schneider

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