You are on page 1of 2

District Judge Nicholas Crichton The riots or disturbances of last summer didn’t have any direct impact on my work

because I don’t sit in criminal cases, thank heavens, because some of my colleagues found themselves sitting through the night. I specialise in family law and have done for forty years, first as a solicitor and then as a judge. The reason Natasha has asked me to speak this evening is because at my court, we deal with some very, very troubled families and of course the Prime Minister and others have made frequent references since the riots to the 120,000 most dysfunctional families in our society and those families cost a vastly disproportionate amount of money to the tax payer. I haven’t got time to go into detail but I could very easily explain how just one family can cost the tax payer as much as half a million pounds to a million pounds a year, without any difficulty. I am concerned with children and families. I’m less interested in the cost to the tax payer but that’s what interests the politicians and the civil servants. I’m interested in kids living within their families, but the two marry up. In my court as in many others, we deal with many kinds of family problems and children who, for whatever reason, are not properly cared for, who have their physical and emotional needs neglected, who can become unhappy and disaffected and themselves dysfunctional, and then the whole cycle repeats itself. Many finish up in the care system and of those, many finish up in the criminal justice system. You will all probably be aware that less than one percent of our children commit criminal offences, yet anything from 30-50% of the youth population in custody are, or have been, in care at some time which means they come from dysfunctional families. I have here a recently published piece of research from the Prison Reform Trust, “Care – A Stepping Stone to Custody?” In it, some young people say important things. Here is a girl of sixteen who says “I was moving around homes, I was pretty unsettled; I was starting school then coming out of school, then home- schooled, then finished home-school because I couldn’t stay in that placement. Another girl says, “What I’ve heard from different police officers when I’ve been arrested, it’s like” and I quote, this is what police officers are saying to her, “You’re a kid in care, you’re never going to get out of this way of life, you’re in care, kids in care are always on drugs, kids in care always make themselves unsafe, kids in care always self harm”. And she said, “they put a title on kids in care, like they’re something bad”. So, how to break the cycle? The biggest single problem in the centre of London in the family courts in care proceedings is the parental misuse of drugs and alcohol. The Hidden Harm Research in 2003 suggested that there are 350,000 children in England and Wales living in families where the misuse of drugs is a significant problem, and 1.3 million children living in families where the misuse of alcohol is a significant problem. That was five years ago. I believe that we are now thinking that that was an under-estimate, that the figures are far higher than that. It is an appalling start to life for children born into those families. In my work I quite routinely remove the 6th, the 7th, the 8th child from the same family. In one case I removed the 14th child; I know two judges in England and Wales who are removed the 15th child from the same family and nothing has been done or very little has been done to address the core problem.

In the worst cases, I see parents who have been heroin addicted from the age of nine or ten because that was the circumstance of the house in which they lived. Today I have been sitting in the Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC), which is a project which we have been running at my court for the last four years, a project upon which I could talk to you for an hour but I promise I won’t. We provide very intensive support for these families within a very structured and very clear timescale. We have a team of social workers, substance misuse experts a child and adolescent psychiatrist and an adult psychiatrist and we use parent mentors; people who have been there and done it and who encourage these parents into believing they too can do it. And we bring them back to court every two weeks in front of the same judge to see how the last two weeks have gone. We are on their case all the time. I liken it to Weight Watchers. You come back every two weeks and you answer for the last two weeks and we think that’s very important. It is extremely hard work. It’s extremely hard work for the parents, we put them into intensive treatment, intensive programmes trying to break this dreadful cycle that they are in. It’s extremely hard work for the FDAC Team and I have to tell you, it’s extremely hard work for the judges too. There are two of us who do it and we work on alternate Mondays, seeing our own cases so they come in front of the same person every two weeks. They stand on the same set of scales, every two weeks. We have been the subject of a preliminary evaluation by Brunel University, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, which suggests that we are getting more children home than in normal care proceedings. We’re getting about one in three children home successfully. For those children who can’t go home, we’re getting them into alternative care more quickly, either kinship care or into adoption. And - and this is what the politicians and the civil servants want to hear - we’re cheaper. There is also the suggestion that when the children can’t go home, the parents having been into this have a better understanding of why they couldn’t keep their children and when they have another child, which inevitably they do, they start from a better place. I haven’t really got time to tell you much more but we need to address the problems of these families. It’s no good just saying that these kids are not safe and removing them, we have to tackle the core problem. If we can enable this child to remain in this family, then I think that we are significantly reducing the risk of this family having another child every year for the next ten or fifteen years. I have had women scream at me in court, “If you take this one away, I’ll go on having one a year until you let me keep one”. I have read a psychiatric report in which a mother said that “every time they take a child away the only way I can deal with the pain of the loss is to get pregnant again”. That is no way for a child to start their life because these children are born, frequently premature, suffering from drugs withdrawal symptoms from the moment of birth because the mother has been taking drugs throughout the pregnancy. If you hear the people who work in the intensive care units in these hospitals and you hear how these kids are suffering, you just feel something’s got to be done to stop it. In the last two or three months the Team have won three major awards, including the Team of the Year award from the Royal College of Psychiatrists. They are an amazing team doing amazing work. I’ve had my five minutes, I want to thank Natasha for the opportunity to speak to you and thank you for listening.