Nicholas, who has died at the age of 75, spent his adult life as 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', the FDAC,
in 2008. It was based on the fact that parents who are seriously addicted to drugs or alcohol are in danger of having their children taken into care. He also worked abroad on projects in the field of child protection, most notably in Bulgaria where he visited all 28 family courts and many specialist institutions. His work in other countries invariably left him horrified at the suffering he saw where children were left forgotten in institutions, without the care they needed and deserved.
Born during the Second World War in 1943 in Eton, Buckinghamshire, the younger son of Vera and the film director, Charles Crichton,
brought up in the village of Denham and at the age of 11 was packed off to the boys' public school, Haileybury and Imperial Service College, Hertfordshire, where he was an accomplished rugby player and cricketer. He studied for his Bachelor of Laws at Queen's University Belfast in the 1960's and at the age of 28, in 1971, began his 16 year tenure as a solicitor in private practice working on criminal legal aid work, already specialising in care proceedings/child protection.
He later recalled : "When I was a solicitor, I sat in a court corridor with a woman who was having her seventh and eighth babies (twins) taken away. Her first child was in borstal – five times the cost of Eton; her second in a detention centre – four times Eton; her third and fourth were being adopted and her fifth and sixth in care – with all the attendant costs. Then there were the NHS costs of her poor health due to addiction, police costs for constantly attending domestic violence incidents, social services, court time, legal aid and local authority legal bills and an awful lot of human misery. We worked out she alone was costing the taxpayer half a million quid."
In the first instance, it was clearly his effort to curb the amount of misery being generated, rather than the amount of money being spent, which was to motivate his ground-breaking family court reforms thirty years later.
In 1986, his life changed radically, when, at the age of 43, he started his nine year's service as a District Judge or 'Metropolitan Stipendiary Magistrate'. It wasn't until 16 years later that the seed of the idea for the FDAC was planted in his mind, when, at a conference in Melbourne, he 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. He recalled : ”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 Nicholas returned home, he started to stimulate interest in a reassessment of how a family court could respond to the problem of parental addiction, he knew that usually, parents were told to 'get themselves clean or lose their children'
, but he knew that : "most of these people are in far too much of a mess to do this by themselves".
After his visit to the USA Nicholas thought : “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”.
He posed the 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? “If we are looking to remove the 8th, 9th or 10th child, the family courts can’t be doing very well by this family”.
He spoke from experience, having had to remove the 14th child from one family and admitted this was a clear indictment of how the family courts handled these cases. He felt that the family courts had to find ways of working with these families rather than concluding that children were not safe and then removing them. The creation of the FDAC was his solution.
Now, in his early 60s, he began a three year campaign and with backing from the three local authorities and the 'Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service', formed a fighting fund. In 2007 he featured in an article in 'The Telegraph' entitled 'Law : The judge with children at heart'
and the campaign group, led by Nicholas, presented the project to four government departments in one afternoon. Funding was approved, the FDAC opened in 2008. In 2015 he explained : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aTlirU-kjqA&t=4m58s
Nicholas was clear from the start that the “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”
. The time frame was 12 months.
He believed that : "To be successful, you have to address simultaneously the addiction and the problems that trigger it, like housing, debt and domestic violence." As a result, the parents :
*were brought into court every two weeks and saw the same judge throughout the legal process because : "Continuity is absolutely crucial "
and it was a process like WeightWathcers "with the judge as the scales".
* had their progress monitored in the Court Reviews, which were the problem-solving aspect of the court process and allowed judges to speak directly to them and motivate them and to find ways of resolving problems that may have arisen.
* were given the benefit of extra support from volunteer parent mentors, themselves, former addicts.
He was also clear that nurturing the parents, placed considerable demands on them : “The first three months get them stabilised, 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.”
In addition the FDAC team carried out Pre-Birth Assessments with four local authorities because : “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 bought the team valuable time to help the mother before her baby was born. By then they had a very good idea of whether the mother was committed to the programme.
The results spoke for themselves and :
* research from Brunel University and the Nuffield Foundation revealed that nearly twice as many mothers going through FDAC were reunited with their children, compared with those in the comparison group used who were in normal care proceedings.
* in addition, the number of guardians and social workers commented that fathers were more involved and supported in FDAC cases than in ordinary proceedings and were more likely to get support and receive much more encouragement. They found that 36% of FDAC fathers were no longer misusing substances, but not one father from the comparison group stopped misusing.
In 2011 he received the 'Outstanding Achievement Award' at the 2011 'Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year'
and received fulsome praise from his fellow professionals : https://vimeo.com/26163149
In addition to that the two awards his FDAC Intervention Team received in 2011 must have been particularly gratifying to him : the 'Guardian Public Services Award for Service Delivery for Children and Young People'
and the 'London Safeguarding Children Award.'
In 2013 he explained the FDAC process of working with parents suffering from addiction in the the documentary, 'UNSPOKEN', made for DiversityInCare's awareness campaign to raise awareness of the issue of drug addiction amongst women in Britain : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hfo9B_mQGfI&t=11m45s
He retired at the age of 71 in 2014, but continued to lend support to the spread of his family courts and in 2016, he extolled the benefits of establishing a FDAC in Wales on BBC News for Wales : https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-wales-37805494/welsh-children-in-care-try-something-different
and a year later BBC News highlighted the work of the FDAC with the case of a drug addict called 'John' under the title : 'How I got my children back'.
Although he had the satisfaction of knowing that by 2018, ten specialist FDAC teams had been set up, working in 15 courts covering 23 local authorities, it must have been a big disappointment for him to see the National Unit based in London closed in September, due to lack of support from local authorities and funding from central government. The Guardian highlighted its dissolution in an article in July under the title : 'Courts for addicted parents work, So why are they being stripped of support ?'
No one could doubt that the welfare of children were the key motivation for this judge who sometimes brought the family dogs he shared with his ex-wife into his court and having checked : "If we have an adoption, I ask the lawyer if the child likes dogs"
and if the answer was "Yes", he hid them under his desk and when the child came up to him at the end of the proceedings, with a 'hey presto gesture', he said : "There are the dogs!"
and confessed, of the children : "They love it."
When interviewed, in 2010, on the 'New Guidelines for Talking to Children in Family Proceeding' he said : "We see it as important that children should be treated with respect. They are citizens after all, no less because of their age. We would not deny an adult the opportunity to speak to the judge, so why would we deny the same opportunity to a child, unless there are good reasons for doing so."
He said that the FDAC was :
“better for parents, better for children, better for families and ultimately better for our society.”
Of his work, he once said :
"We are involved in a process that seeks to make life better for these children. Why wouldn't you find that inspirational ?"
A good and great man, he died at the Isabel Hospice on 17th December surrounded by family and friends : https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/nickcrichtonmemorial