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Prioritise Family Court Bill call by child care law experts
Dr Carol Coulter

24 Nov 2021 / courts Print

Prioritise Family Court Bill call by child law experts

A new analysis based on case reports from Irish courts recommends a suite of reforms to proceedings in which children are taken into State care.

‘Ripe for Reform’, the Child Care Law Reporting Project’s (CCLRP) eighth analytical report, is based on 403 cases heard at District and High Court levels, from mid-2018 to mid-2021.

It includes a set of particularly challenging cases involving children suffering severe trauma, or exhibiting self-harming or violent impulses or behaviours.  

CCLRP is urging a boost to services supporting vulnerable children and their families involved in such proceedings.

The report is being launched this morning (24 November) by Roderic O’Gorman, Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth.

Coming at a key juncture in the development of Irish courts, the CCLRP draws on three years of reporting from courts across Ireland.

Recurring issues

The report has identified a set of recurring issues that offer a window on ongoing societal problems or arise from gaps in supports or service provision.

The report also outlines a number of issues arising from the pandemic, including reduced or no access between parents and children in care, which could impact on potential reunification; late referrals of neglected children to the Child and Family Agency (Tusla), because their needs were not picked up due to the closure of schools for a lengthy period; and lack of in-person services and assessments, sometimes leading to further delays in proceedings.

CCLRP Director Dr Carol Coulter (small picture) said: “From the hundreds of cases we have attended, we have identified areas where reform could make a considerable difference for vulnerable children in care.

Need for dedicated family court

“These include the need for a dedicated family court, including better facilities, access to adequate mental-health services for children and young people, better inter-agency cooperation, and greater legal safeguards for some groups of children, such as those who had to be transferred to another jurisdiction for treatment while in State care.”

The report also includes analysis of some extremely difficult and complex cases, which pose particular challenges for the law, and for the Child and Family Agency.

These include cases of domestic homicide, where one parent kills the other, usually leading to the child being abruptly deprived of both parents; cases where gender dysphoria is combined with serious psychological and behavioural issues; and cases where children in residential care are at risk of sexual exploitation.

The report comes as legislation to set up a separate family court has been published and the pivotal Child Care Act 1991 is under review.

Advance

This legislation represented a huge advance in legislating for the care and protection of children at the time, but it predated Ireland’s signature of a number of important international instruments, and the 2012 Children’s Rights constitutional amendment.

CCLRP’s Deputy Director Dr Maria Corbett explained that Ireland needs to build its capacity to respond to children who present with diverse needs spanning child welfare, mental health, disability and addiction.

Gaps in inter-agency co-operation and inadequate provision of support services for vulnerable children are a recurring concern highlighted in this report. There is an urgent need to review the capacity of the State to respond to the mental-health needs of children in its care or at risk of entering care, she said.

Compliance

“The report sets out 22 recommendations, which are intended to be viewed in tandem with the ongoing review of the Child Care Act and to strengthen Ireland’s compliance with human-rights law. 

"The recommendations include reform of the law to ensure the views of children are heard, the court is afforded greater powers, inter-agency protocols and policies are strengthened, and more care options are provided for children and their parents.”

Dr Coulter said the report tallies with the CCLRP’s reporting throughout its nine years of work. She said one particular issue, highlighted previously, was the lack of a specialised family court system, due to be addressed in the forthcoming Family Court Bill, along with reform of the family justice system.

“We are strongly supporting the establishment of a family-court structure as soon as possible, and would like to see it include a family drug and alcohol programme, and an independent service to provide expert assessment and evidence,” she said.

“Our analysis also reveals consistently disproportionate representation of minority groups among children entering the care system – we need research to understand why this is the case, and identify the right supports for such families,” said Dr Coulter.

CCLRP publishes regular reports from the courts that make orders under the Child Care Act (mainly relating to taking children into care) on its dedicated website.

It collects and analyses data from the proceedings, reports on the nature and outcomes of the child-care proceedings, and promotes a public debate on the issues raised. The anonymity of the children and their families is preserved throughout.

 

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