Sir Nicholas Creighton is not a politician, neither is he a bishop. Brother Ivo does not know if he is a Christian, but as he discharges his duties as a District Judge in the specialist Drug and Alcohol Family Court in London, he demonstrates much that is similar in approach to that of the Anglicans Bishops whose recently published pastoral letter urges a fresh approach upon those about to contest the general election.
If you do not know about Sir Nicholas’ innovative work in resolving intractable family problems you can read about it here. http://www.lawgazette.co.uk/practice/family-drug-and-alcohol-court-breaking-the-habit/5041570.fullarticle
In a nutshell the Court which he has created in a pilot scheme, targets the most complex and intractable of cases where parents have failed their children through misuse of drugs or alcohol.
Many of the parents will have been brought up by neglectful cruel or incompetent parents themselves, so the problems are compounded by emotional issues which would be difficult enough to resolve as stand alone problems, even before substance abuse and inevitable poverty potentiated the difficulties.
These “families” are characterised by lack of routine, multiple relationships, and state dependency, and having been neglected or actively subverted by societal messaging that drug use and single parenthood is perfectly capable of delivering ” good enough” parenting.
Such parents are shocked when State and its agents suddenly turn from being indulgent provider to aggressive accuser, giving such fragile parents just 6 months to turn around the habits of a lifetime, with the penalty of losing their children forever should they be incapable of pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.
Sir Nicholas identifies the problem succinctly.
“A system that goes on removing children because of drug and alcohol issues, but does nothing about the core problem, is a ‘failing system’, he adds: ‘We know from experience that a mother who has a child removed deliberately goes out to get pregnant again because it is the only way she can heal the wound of the loss.’
They inevitably return , they cannot heal themselves : “if they knew better, they’d do better”.
These are people with tragic lives, often the product of poor decisions – many their own. Whilst we are enjoined not to be judgemental, they have almost invariably failed to follow the very simple basic rules for avoiding poverty, and family chaos.
1) Don’t drop out of school
2) Don’t have children under 21 years
3) Get married before having children
4) Don’t engage in substance abuse
Our societal failure to promulgate these simple basic rules is at the heart of many of tragedies that arrive in the family courts. Our Bishops could help in this regard but rarely do so with clarity.
Sir Nicholas tired of seeing the pain of families being administered into heartbreaking separation, and of his part in letting it happen. Having seen the value of joined up thinking in the Courts of Santa Barbara California, he started a bold initiative to do things better in London. He convinced Government Departments and Local Authorities to give him enough free rein and funding – “peanuts” – to do things differently,
When Court proceedings are started, parents are brought to him quickly. He sets out a programme in consultation with independent social workers, therapists, child and adult psychiatrists, substance abuse experts and a clinical nurse. He talks plainly, offering failing parents a promise of a fair chance and real support in return for determined engagement and total honesty. If the parents agree, they enter a programme of intensive change, support and regular drug testing.
It is not perfect, it has many failures when even these efforts cannot rescue parents from deep habits and emotional fragility. The project has, however, markedly improved the prospects of success for families staying together- and when this happens the case ends with congratulations and applause for all the hard work – led by the Judge.
So what has this to do with our Bishop’s pastoral letter enjoining politicians to change their modus operandi?
The Judge, like the Bishops, recognised that standing imperiously above the process and passing judgement, was not enough. To achieve what was needed required him to re-define his role. Our Bishops seem of similar mind.
He engages the failing families with direct and refreshing honesty. One might say that he engages them with equality, and refreshing respect: he does not condescend or dissemble. He put the challenge bluntly, offered a hand up, but does not shirk from making a tough decision when the primary interest of the children required it.
He sees that the common good – of the families and the wider community – have a mutual interest in investing time effort and resources to reverse the cycle of failure, which frequently cascades down through the generations.
He plainly believes that the failed families before him were worth the effort of redemption.
He recognises that the people he has spend years judging have a culture of failure; it is not, as our politically correct friends would have us believe, an equally valid life style choice. Nevertheless he offers them respect though a real choice: nobody can do this for them, although if they accept the challenge they may succeed. Nothing is guaranteed, nobody can succeed for them, but the specialist Court gives them their best chance.
Neither the Judge, nor the bishops have got it all right. Both are venturing outside of their traditional roles. Both are motivated by a combination of compassion and informed practicality. We should welcome the good that can come out of it, yet this can only happen if we too fully engage with the process.
There is much to approve in the Bishop’s initiative, yet also a strand of paternalism and trust in the benefits State intervention that many find jarring, especially when they look at our own past and the French present.
Sir Nicholas seems to have struck the balance rather better.
Help is offered – but accompanied by realistic expectation.
Personal responsibility is not overlooked.
Bad destructive values are bluntly challenged.
Resources are targeted in a timely manner, but contractually based, and for carefully defined purpose.
There is compassion, but not indulgent sentimentality.
It is a blend of optimism, tempered by real world experience.
With a Judges talent for succinct communication Sir Nicholas can also encapsulate his thinking in considerably less than 52 pages, Our Bishops might do well to learn by this example.