Family Courts Failing Children, Warns Special Rapporteur on Child Protection
The Children’s Rights Alliance warmly welcomes the release of the Eleventh Report of the Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, Prof. Geoffrey Shannon. Once again, the Report pinpoints areas where the rights of children could be strengthened and puts forward a clear roadmap for action.
Tanya Ward, Chief Executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance, says: “This report, the eleventh of its kind by Prof. Geoffrey Shannon, yet again highlights areas where children in Ireland are at risk from those who wish to hurt them or from systems that are not child-friendly. In particular Shannon points to the fact that Ireland has failed to develop our family law courts system for children and families. This is despite the fact that the Oireachtas modernised family law with the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015. However, it’s a simple fact that our courts reform programme has lagged behind many other jurisdictions and this has to be addressed.”
The Children’s Rights Alliance has noted recommendations in a number of key areas:
Children and Families Should be at the Heart of Family Law
Amongst his chief concerns this year is the state of the family law courts. They are not designed with the presence of families and children in mind. Families are often at loggerheads and the family adversarial system is simply not well-suited to family law. Judges are making decisions in courts around the country about intimate family issues often in the same room as they are sentencing violent criminals. Specialised family or children’s court systems are commonplace across Europe and in other common law jurisdictions. There the judiciary and lawyers have specialised training to equip them to work in family courts. In both public and private family law matters, Shannon recommends that key services should be available to permit family law judges to refer couples to skilled personnel to draw up parenting plans, deal with anger management programmes in domestic violence cases and engage in family therapy.
Children Participating in the Legal System
Six years after the Children’s Referendum, Shannon calls out the fact that judges still don’t have sufficient guidance when it comes to involving children in private family law proceedings and suggests children should have legal representation in specialised circumstances. For the Children’s Rights Alliance, this comes across very strongly from our own information and legal advice clinics. Parents have contacted us on a consistent basis complaining that the voice of their children were not listened in the courts. This is particularly acute in domestic violence situations where judges may decide that a child should have contact with a potentially violent parent.
Retrospective Allegations of Abuse Investigations
It is the tragic nature of sexual abuse that it can take years or decades for victims to gain the courage to come forward. Tusla has a special role to determine whether a potential abuser is a risk to children. Shannon makes recommendations to enhance the investigation of abuse investigations for Tusla and calls for the work to be done by a specialised team of forensic investigators with the final decision lying with an independent body. Shannon also calls for Tusla/investigators in this area to be granted powers to compel alleged abusers to participate in such investigations.
Early Intervention and Prevention
Shannon rightly recognises that the key to addressing many welfare and child protection problems is to deal with them early on in a child’s life. Prevention and early intervention supports are the best way to deal with mental health or learning difficulties as well as supporting parents to cope better. Our children would fare far better if we adopted the old adage ‘a stitch in time saves nine’, addressing problems before they spiral out of control leaving children exposed to even greater risks.
Supporting Families Torn Apart by the Global Refugee Crisis
Families across the world are being torn apart because of the global refugee crisis. Ireland has a vital role to play in supporting the children who arrive to its shores. Shannon says that priority should always be given to a child’s best interests in these migration cases.
Shannon also calls for an end to the Direct Provision system of accommodation for asylum seekers and ensure adequate provision for children’s standard of living. He calls for recommendations from the McMahon Group (Working Group on Direct Provision and the Protection System) to be implemented in full. And in the interim, the Reception and Integration Agency must ensure that agreements with commercial contractors comply with the public sector duty on human rights and equality and ensure high standards of accommodation.
Tanya Ward concluded: “Prof. Shannon has presented the Government with a detailed plan to improve and protect children’s lives in Ireland. We call for this Report to be fully debated in the Houses of the Oireachtas.”
Note for Editors:
• Tanya Ward, Chief Executive is available for interview.
• The Eleventh Report of the Special Rapporteur on Child Protection can be found here
• Prof. Geoffrey Shannon is the Founding Patron of the Children’s Rights Alliance
About the Children’s Rights Alliance
Founded in 1995, the Children’s Rights Alliance unites over 100 members working together to make Ireland one of the best places in the world to be a child. Further information is available at: www.childrensrights.ie or on Twitter, @ChildRightsIRL