A more holistic approach to supporting parents with alcohol and drug addiction

Children|July 2nd 2019

In 2018, a Public Health Report: Addressing the impact of nondependent parental substance misuse upon children, estimated that in England around 162,000 children live with a dependent opiate user and around 200,000 children live with an alcohol dependent parent.

Parental substance misuse is associated with neglect, isolation, physical or emotional abuse, poverty, separation and exposure to criminal behaviour. 

Over the longer term this leads to an increased risk of emotional, cognitive, behavioural and other psychological problems for the children affected. 

To look at how family law addresses these issues we asked Mark Christie, Senior Solicitor specialising in child law from the Stowe Family Law firm in Harrogate to join us on the blog. 

“It is, unfortunately, not uncommon for parents of children to struggle with issues around alcohol and drug abuse as well as mental health problems.

The law, following changes made in 2014, presumes that it is in the children’s best interests for each parent, even when they have separated, to continue to be involved in the lives of any of their children, unless such involvement may subject them to a risk of harm.

This misuse of alcohol, drugs (both prescribed and illegal) and mental health issues plays a key role in a significant amount of children cases coming before the courts, and requiring an assessment by the courts, CAFCASS or Social Services of the risks that may be posed to the children involved.

The family courts deal with such cases day in and day out. They have a number of traditional measures to assess the potential risk and manage it, i.e. alcohol and drug testing/monitoring; the use of undertakings not to consume alcohol or drugs when having contact; attendance on therapeutic and remedial courses; and, in cases where risk cannot be managed and a child could be in danger, the denial of contact. 

However, it is little known that there was an alternative court that specialised in cases of this nature, though operated in the public law forum.

The Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC) was established in London in 2008, offering a different model to deal with children at risk of harm from parental substance abuse and other, often interrelated problems.

This special court was set up with specialist staff and Judge, Nicholas Crichton CBE, who sadly passed away in December 2018.  The court focused on a problem-solving model designed to offer a more holistic approach which engages a multi-disciplinary team to encourages parents to overcome their problems, and avoid becoming embroiled in care proceedings.

The current President of the Family Division of the High Court, Sir Andrew MacFarlane, recently commented that the FDAC is “arguably the most radical development in family justice since the Children Act 1989”.

Unfortunately, in September 2018, funding for the FDAC national unit ceased, much to the dismay of those working for the Court and those clearly benefiting from it. This closure was despite research into the FDAC which confirmed it was achieving better outcomes for the families involved.

The good news is that the government has very recently announced a £15m investment to expand its work and spread with a new programme, Supporting Families: Investing in Practice. This will help families work on issues together, including those impacted by domestic abuse, as well as substance misuse.  The programme is modelled on the existing FDAC and a group known as Family Group Conferencing is to be rolled out in up to fourteen new council areas.

As a family lawyer specialising in private law children proceedings, it is heartening to see this initiative being funded in the hope that families can be helped better in dealing with many of the problems that lead to children being taken into the care of the local authority.

I deal with these same issues on a daily basis.  The innovative approach and model of the FDAC and the new programme should be an insightful example for the courts dealing with private law cases.

For anyone looking for support due to family breakdown following parental substance misuse or you can contact me at mark.christie@stowefamilylaw.co.uk 

Sources of support 

We understand how difficult it is for children to talk about their worries. Whether parental substance misuse is happening now or happened in the past. Listed below is a number of organisations that offer help and support. 

Childline can be contacted 24/7. Calls to 0800 1111 are free and confidential. Or visit Childline Online. 

Addaction offers advice, support and specialist services for adults experiencing drug and alcohol problems and support for their family and friends.

Adfam offers advice and support for families affected by drugs and alcohol

FRANK offers friendly, confidential advice on drugs and details of local and national services.

Mark Christie is the head of Stowe Family Law’s dedicated Children’s Department. Mark has specialised in family law for more than 35 years and provides clients with a wealth of practical experience.

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