Category Archives: Drug policy reform

When Judges and Bishops “rebel”

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.

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.

Culture Matters

The late John Mortimer QC was a good lawyer, entertaining writer and renowned social reformer. He was also a fine raconteur, drawing upon a fund of Court stories, to bring colourful authenticity to his stories of his compassionate comic creation, Horace Rumpole.

He once told of an exchange he witnessed in a London Magistrate Court, when a drunk was ” up before the beak” having been arrested for being drunk and disorderly after vomiting into the stairwell of an Underground station on the commenting crowd below. It was a pretty vile occurrence.

After sentence the Magistrate attempted to counsel the drunk.

“You must not drink alcohol” he remonstrated. ” Not a drop, not even the teensy  weeiest sherry before your supper”.

The magistrate plainly had no concept of the life of the malefactor, and the story raises a smile because of it. There was a complete cultural chasm which made such well meaning advice frankly comic. However well meaning, the life experiences between them made easy comparison frankly ludicrous.

Brother Ivo recalled this story to mind when hearing discussions about drugs policy and noting that it is suggested that policies adopted in other countries can be ported across to the UK with similar results. It is especially ironic when proponents describe this as “evidence based”.

The elephant in the room for such advocates is the liberalisation of alcohol sales.

There was a time when selling alcohol was restricted to a relatively small number of outlets, only selling the product within narrow time bands and at risk of having their licence renewal denied if their premises was perceived as a hotbed of disorderly behaviour.

Potential licensees had to appear before Justicice to confirm that they would not sell alcohol to those who “are or appear to be drunk”.

The reformers of alcohol laws held out the promise of liberalisation ushering in an era of Italian style cafe culture, with young people sipping an early evening proseco before walking home to Mum with whom they still lived, and who was waiting there with the rest of the family with the customary hand made spaghetti.

One only has to pay a late night visit a University city centre to note how very different our society and its young people responded to such changes.

A similar striking comparison arose out of the sexual revolution. The Dutch attitude to prostitution and extra marital sex was often called to aid during the sexual revolution in the latter part of the 20th century.

Yet today, whilst the UK now stands as the worst, in terms of teenage pregnancy, in the world the Netherlands has the lowest rate, reflecting perhaps an earlier strict Protestant culture  where a child out of wedlock still carried societal disapproval. Similar laws – but very different outcomes.

In yet another field, the prevalence of gun ownership in the USA is often used to suggest a direct corolation between lawful ownership and unlawful deaths, yet Switzerland has similar widespread gun possession without US levels if murder.

Put simply, culture matters.

How the same policy plays out may vary vastly between different communities.

The issue of how we deal with our serious drugs problem is too complex for the scope if this blog, but anyone who believes that easy comparisons can be made between different cultures is misleading themselves and the debate.

The Anglo-Saxon culture has long had a culture of excess in relation to alcohol as literature testifies; Chaucer Pardoner’s tale centres upon it, Shakespeare’s Falstaff is no moderate imbiber, and Hogarth paints a surprisingly modern picture of this country’s relationship with booze.

Offered the chance to engage with oblivion, this culture appears to be drawn to making that existential choice. Even the eloquently liberal Rumpole was an habitué of El Vino’s demanding a bottle of its finest cooking claret, after his latest thumbing of the nose at the legal establishment.

The social evils associated with drugs are many, complex and serious.

The costs are both direct – in terms of health care and crime, but also indirect, in terms of child abuse, undiagnosed mental health issues, self harm and family breakdown. Those indirect costs are not only financial but emotional.

Family dysfunction is a communicable social disease which grows exponentially. Any modern Rumpole knows from direct experience that drugs run like a musical theme throughout the tragedies of most of the characters who populate the case load of any practitioner of law in the fields of crime, domestic violence, child abuse, housing law, or welfare rights.

Many with close knowledge of the devastation which drugs cause to families and, especially, children will view any proposed change with great care. Improved practice is welcome; informed culturally calibrated policy will assist; facile comparisons with unrelated cultures will not.