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Family courts were shrouded in mystery, now it's not, we should be paying attention

During court proceedings the state failings are often highlighted, but should that be the case?

Image: Shutterstock/Marcel Jancovic

FAMILY COURTS OPERATE up and down the country, in every small town and city in Ireland. Unlike other court sittings, you can’t just waltz in, take a seat and watch what’s going on.

This court deals with sensitive and personal matters, including but not limited to divorce, custody, child maintenance, domestic violence and children in state care.

For a number of years, this court was shrouded in mystery. Only judges, lawyers and the families affected were allowed to attend.

Three years ago, the rules changed and the public got an insight into what happened behind closed doors.

Under the Child Care Law Reporting Project in 2012, family court proceedings became more transparent. The following year, the then-Minister for Justice Alan Shatter changed the law to allow journalists attend and report on proceedings (with strict regulations about anonymity).

Why should you care?

The final report of the Child Care Law Reporting Project published in the last month gives an insight into how we are looking after Ireland’s children in care.

The report presents data from 1,272 childcare proceedings between December 2012 and July 2015. They are not just run-of-the-mill court hearings. They involve hundreds of Ireland’s young people.

These are the children that live beside you, the children that your kids go to school with and, if nothing else, they are the children that your tax money is supporting.

What is striking about covering the family court as a journalist is just how sheltered some lives can be in comparison to the stories that are heard there day in, day out.

Case after case, there are recurrent issues: mental health problems, homelessness, drugs and alcohol. With some cases, you wonder what went wrong, while with others, you wonder if people had a chance at all?

Cases where young parents, who are in care themselves or have bounced from foster home to foster home, find their own children being taken into care.

Then there are the cases that feature discussions about what happens to these children when they are no longer the state’s ‘problem’. After care programmes need to be put in place. Do they have a place to live? Will they stay living with their foster families? Will they go on to further education?

There are happy stories as well though, especially where children are reunited with their parents.

So, why are these children in care? 

There is never just one reason why a care order is sought. However, the latest report finds that parental disability emerges as a major factor in one in six cases. The vast majority of these involved cognitive disability or mental health problems, and sometimes both.

Drug and alcohol abuse feature in one in five cases. The report finds that in recent months the issue of homelessness has cropped up with increasing frequency. The report finds:

The single biggest factor leading to care proceedings in these cases was the mental health of one or both parents, usually the mother, which featured in 28 of the case reports, almost 10% of the total.

Where are these children being cared for?

Just under 80% of the children went into foster care with 8.3% remaining at home under supervision orders. The remainder – just over 10% – went into residential units.

In the past, various bodies were responsible for child protection and welfare but these were relatively recently brought together under the Child and Family Agency (CFA).

During many proceedings, lapses on the part of the State and its duty towards children have been highlighted. The 2015 report points out that the agency was established at a time of severe economic crisis and the CFA has been hampered in its work by a shortage of social workers and a reduction in many of the family support services previously existing in the community.

This is to the frustration of many judges who have a mammoth workload. In one such interim care order case attended by TheJournal.ie earlier this year, a judge was critical of the delay in appointing a foster link worker to a child’s relatives who were caring for the child.

He stated the agency was in breach of “clear regulations” as the social worker said a link worker had not yet been appointed as the relatives had not gone through a fostering assessment.

“At the risk of repeating myself on this issue… the regulations are absolutely clear,” said the judge, opening his law book and reading the section aloud to the court that an emergency assessment, even when a child is placed with family members, should take place as soon as possible and not later than 12 weeks time from the date of the placement.

He said one of the most important times when foster parents need to be supported is at the beginning of the process

This is not rocket science. It’s all set out in the regulations… which are all being ignored and bypassed.

However, he stated that he was not blaming the social workers in the case for the shortcomings.

Linking up agencies 

In one case, a child’s guardian said she was anxious to get a full psychological and health screening on a child as there were a number of gaps in the public health record. The court was told that once a referral is made there could be a waiting list of up to six months.

The judge said the regulations state that a child entered into care is a matter of priority, yet, an assessment was yet to be carried out on the child.

Where is the priority here, there hasn’t even been a referral yet?

The judge said there were specific regulations for this, not so people can “jump the queue” but because it is understood that when a child is taken into care there is likely to be issues that need to be addressed” as a matter of priority.

Can someone write that down so I can say that again in the next case? It happens time and time again.

The report states:

The welfare of children and their families is not the sole responsibility of the CFA and cannot be. Many of the issues affecting the well-being of children fall outside the remit of the CFA and we have been struck by the extent to which services mentioned in court that might assist children and their families are not within the control of the CFA.

Often the services for children required by the courts are not within the remit or the CFA.

For example, the report states that public health nurses, who usually are the first public servants outside the maternity hospital to encounter a new mother and her child, work for the HSE, not the CFA.

Psychologists, who are called upon to assess parents, and child psychologists who assess children also work for the HSE. Disability and mental health services, which may be required by vulnerable parents, also reside within the HSE.

Addiction services are provided by a multitude of organisations, none of them linked to the CFA. Therefore the report finds that it can be difficult for the CFA to ensure that children and their families always get the help they need in a timely way.

The latest report puts forward many recommendations, but what it essentially comes down to is more resources – more for the courts, more for the CFA and more for children and families.

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