US-style court to offer help to Scots addict parents

SCOTLAND’S first US-style family drug and alcohol courts are being planned to protect children from abuse and neglect at the hands of addicts.

Judge Nicholas Crichton, who has pioneered the only UK court of its type in London, is headhunting a judge and child protection expert to set one up in Edinburgh.

Talks were held yesterday by Trimega, a firm that tests hair for signs of drug use in court cases, including the the family and alcohol court in London.

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The idea is supported by legal and children’s charity experts.

The family drug and alcohol court (FDAC) in London provides intensive support for parents who know that if they do not take part, their children will be taken from them.

Support includes abstinence work, counselling, testing and fortnightly court appearances.

Parents have to stay clean for nine months before their children are returned to them, and then a further three months before they are guaranteed permanent custody. They are then closely monitored to prevent relapses.

Those parents who successfully go through the process are often used to mentor others. Judge Crichton said: “Drugs and alcohol and domestic abuse go hand in hand.

“Misuse of drugs and alcohol and rearing of children is a worse mix than oil and water, but it’s a mix that parents try again, and again, and again.

“In my court, we routinely remove the fifth, sixth or seventh child from the same family, and in one case I had to remove the 14th.”

His court, which only sits on Mondays in London, costs about £500,000 to run a year and deals with about 45 families annually.

An independent study by Brunel University found almost half of FDAC mothers were no longer misusing drugs or alcohol by the final court order, compared to 39 per cent in regular family courts, and 36 per cent of FDAC fathers were clean, compared to none elsewhere.

Part of the challenge will be proving Judge Crichton’s assertion that the courts offer better value for money by easing the pressure on foster and residential care.

“We’re cheaper than normal core practices,” he said. “Quite apart from the long-term benefits.

“The problem is persuading politicians and civil servants that this is a better way of spending their money.”

Although the court aims to keep families together, the judge also stressed it is not a soft option when dealing with parents, nor does it fail to put children first.

“We need to be clear about what this is about,” he said. “This is about whether you get to keep your children.

“The court says if you want to keep your children, you have to be clean for a year.”

Scotland already has family courts dealing with similar issues in a slightly different way.

However, John Fotheringham, one of Scotland’s leading family lawyers, said: “We may or may not need a separate court, but it needs to be able to do what it does down south.

“Funding, law and structures are different (in Scotland compared to England and Wales), but the essential social issues are the same and we have to be able to address them in Scotland.”

Alex Cole-Hamilton, head of policy at Aberlour Childcare Trust, said: “I believe it would absolutely dovetail with the work we do. There’s a lot of common ground.”

The system

The family drugs and alcohol court in London is focused on rehabilitation and support.

Aside from two judges, the court has at its disposal a team of social workers, substance misuse experts and psychiatrists.

When a parent first appears and commits to beating their addiction, the court gets them into treatment within two weeks.

The addict then appears back at the court fortnightly, so their progress can be checked.

While some parents go into rehabilitation clinics, the aim is to see them stay drink and drug free in the communities where they live. However, that does not necessarily mean sending them home. The court has links with housing associations to move mothers away from violent partners or neighbourhood drug dealers.