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'I mistakenly believed I had legal rights to my own children'

New legislation being published today will give protections to non-traditonal Irish families.

Image: Shutterstock/Dina Uretski

THE CHILDREN AND Family Relationships Bill will be published later today – and it’s very good news for children who live in diverse families.

Existing law in Ireland does not always recognise the realities of family life in the country today. The Bill – which has been in development for many years and is to pass through the Oireachtas in the months ahead – is needed in order to modernise family law in Ireland. It will provide protections for children living in non-traditional families, as well as for couples who separate and use family law courts.

Based on our 42 years of working with families, One Family has been advocating for the Bill along with many other children, family and human-rights organisations as part of the Children’s Rights Alliance.

If this version of the Bill is substantively similar to the previous one, then there are many aspects to be welcomed. Some important changes for children include:

  • The best interests of the child will be central in decisions made about them in family law courts,
  • Children must be consulted in family law decisions that affect them,
  • Grandparents will be able to apply for contact and access visits with their grandchildren,
  • Courts will be able to refer separated parents to mediation, counselling or parenting supports if they need them,
  • A mother will no longer have to adopt her own children in order to permit step-parent adoption by her husband
  • Children will have a right to their identity and it will no longer be permissible to use unknown genetic material in assisted human reproduction procedures.

Unmarried fathers will finally gain new rights

Guardianship, access, custody and maintenance rights and responsibilities will be extended to cohabiting, civil-partnered and extended family members in some instances so children will be able to have a legal relationship with the people raising them – even if they are not their biological or adoptive parents. This includes step-parents, informal foster parents and the second parent in a same-sex headed family.

Many more unmarried fathers will have automatic guardianship of their children depending on how long they have cohabited with the mother.

John, a father of two who recently separated after six years living with his children and their mother, told us:

I mistakenly believed I had legal rights to my children as my name is on their birth certificates and I had been living with my partner since the birth of our children.

As an unmarried father, John has no legal rights in relation to his children – but this Bill will mean that a father in a similar situation to John’s will have automatic guardianship rights in the future because he had cohabited for the requisite time. This means he will have to be consulted on all major matters concerning the children and his consent will be required in order for them to be relocated, and the children will continue to have a legal relationship with their dad.

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The bond between stepparents and stepchildren will be strengthened 

What about when someone’s relationship with their child’s other parent has ended, and later they develop a relationship with a new partner? Within this relationship, their new partner may parent their child for many years yet is unable to grant permission for medical emergencies or even for extra-curricular school activities. The changes mean that guardianship can be granted to step-parents and other people who raise children in a range of family settings.

Stepdad Steven explains why this legislation is important to him and his family:

Even though he is treated with love by us, and we have never made any kind of distinction between my role as care giver and provider for our two sons, he [my wife’s first child] has hang ups that he is different from his brother.He is now a very advanced eight year old, and, as much as a child his age can be, very aware of his legal status. He often asks questions about what would happen if his mom died, who would he live with, would he get to stay with his brother and me? When he is sad these questions keep him up at night.

While it is not perfect, this Bill is groundbreaking in recognising the real lives of so many families in Ireland today. Organisations like One Family who work daily with parents and children and hear what they tell us they need, welcome it as a positive step towards equality for all our children.

As six-year old Oliver said: “I think my life is pretty good! I have two mums, I get good food, I’ve got toys. I have a good mom who bakes stuff and a good mama who drives and goes on walks. If the law is being changed so that my family can be even stronger, I think that is a good thing.”

Karen Kiernan is CEO of One Family, Ireland’s organisation for people parenting alone, sharing parenting and separating. One Family was founded in 1972 as Cherish and provides family support and welfare to work services as well as campaigning, advocacy and membership. More at www.onefamily.ie or lo-call helpline 1890 66 22 12.

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About the author:

Karen Kiernan

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