The complexity of child care cases

The protection of children from abuse and neglect is an issue that has generated extensive public debate and a series of detailed inquiries in recent years.

Just a fortnight ago, the full gaze of the national media was focused on removal of children from Roma families due to (unfounded) concerns about their identity.

Yet in spite of all of this documentation and discussion, society has known little or nothing to date about the court proceedings that determine whether (and how) the State intervenes in family life to protect children at risk.

Against this backdrop, the publication last Tuesday of the first interim report of the Child Care Law Reporting Project is most welcome. The project was set up in 2011 under the direction of Dr Carol Coulter, tasked with observing childcare cases in court and drafting case reports, documenting trends, and making recommendations.

Although Tuesday’s report is just the first of several, and is based on just a sample of cases, the value and potential of the project is already abundantly clear.

Many of the headlines about the report have focused on the statistics on reasons why children come into the care of the State: Neglect leads the way, with mental illness of parents and drug or alcohol abuse being other prominent reasons. Physical or sexual abuse, or domestic violence, feature in fewer cases by comparison.

However, the report is at pains to stress the complexity of the cases and the fact that the reasons assigned in each case are merely the primary reason; often, a combination of reasons is present. In this light, the report should serve to raise awareness of the stark reality of some people’s family life in society. It is too easy to dismiss such parents as simply being “bad people”.

Anyone who has confronted the challenges of parenting should ask themselves how well they would have coped had they been a single parent who suffered from mental illness and drug or alcohol addiction and lived in poverty. Some of these parents simply don’t have a chance.

In the short-term, children cannot be left in such environments; but in the longer term, there is a broader societal challenge in trying to address the factors that create such scenarios, so that children don’t have to be removed.

Aside from highlighting these trends, the original contribution of the project is to lift the lid on the hidden world of district court childcare proceedings. While this interim report comes too early in the project to generate a fully representative picture, a number of trends are nonetheless apparent.

For example, it seems clear that the approach taken to childcare cases varies from judge to judge (and from one area to another). This is particularly the case outside of Dublin and may be explained by factors including the lower volume of cases in areas of lower population density and the consequent lesser degree of specialisation among district court judges. They may deal with childcare as one small part of a wide-ranging role that includes criminal matters, road traffic offences, and so on. Inconsistent approaches do not necessarily mean undesirable outcomes — but nonetheless, it is not how a legal process is supposed to operate.

It is also clear that the approach to hearing the views of children in childcare cases varies significantly, and that children are frequently excluded from participating in such cases (especially outside of Dublin). Given the significance of the court decision for the child’s life, it is clearly unacceptable to leave them voiceless.

From a statistical perspective, two interesting aspects are worthy of comment. The first is the small number of cases in which supervision orders (under which children remain in the family home under the supervision of the HSE) are sought instead of care orders — just 8.4%. The other is the number of cases in which no order is made by the courts — just 1.2%.

These figures point to an under-resourced and crisis-driven social service where scarce resources are channelled into the most serious cases, where no other option remains other than removing children from the family home. This suggests a pressing need for a shift towards earlier and less serious intervention, designed to prevent the situation reaching this point. However, this will only work if adequate resources are provided to support such an approach.

After years of obscurity caused by the rigid application of the “in camera” rule, the Child Care Law Reporting Project is the foremost of a number of recent initiatives designed to paint a picture of how the district court decides whether children should be taken into the care of the State. The law has recently been changed to allow the media to report on these cases for the first time, and such reports will greatly contribute to transparency over time.

Secondly, a research project undertaken by academics at the school of applied social studies and the faculty of law at University College Cork has captured the experiences of judges, social workers, solicitors, and guardians ad litem involved in childcare proceedings in one county (preliminary results were reported on in the Irish Examiner on Oct 26).

Over time, these efforts should lead to a better understanding of district court childcare proceedings, and a greater level of transparency in the process.

Given what is at stake, this will be long overdue.

* Dr Conor O’Mahony is director of the master’s in child and family law at University College Cork and a member of the UCC Child Care Proceedings Research Group.

Twitter: @ConorUCCLaw

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