Conor Fottrell: Putting health and safety on the line to help most vulnerable

The restrictions are likely to cause serious difficulties for young people in special care — and the staff who work with them, writes Conor Fottrell.

Conor Fottrell: Putting health and safety on the line to help most vulnerable
The Courts Service, including the judges and court registrars, continue to give a significant amount of time, commitment, and interest to ensure these vulnerable young children receive the necessary care and support at this difficult time.

The lockdown announced by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on March 27 has changed everyday life. The Courts Service has, in turn, introduced various measures for the conduct of business. 

Many of the courts have adjourned cases and lists to later dates, and are simply dealing with urgent or emergency applications at this time.

The High Court continues to deal with essential urgent business, including bail applications, urgent wardship cases, habeas corpus, injunctions, and judicial reviews.

However, one list that continues to operate at this time on a weekly basis in the High Court is the ‘minors list’. This deals with an extremely vulnerable cohort of high-risk young children.

Special care involves the civil detention of minors who are subject to special care orders from the High Court, placing them in a number of special care units around the country under the management and control of the Child and Family Agency.

Special care was placed on a statutory footing in January 2018, with an amendment to the Childcare Act 1991. 

Special care orders can be granted for up to three months, and the Act provided, under section 23(i), for the High Court to carry out a statutory review every four weeks for the duration of the order.

The dates for these reviews are set out at the initial application for a special care order, and included in any order granted by the court.

Given the restriction on a young person’s liberty placed in special care, the need to keep these cases under review and continue with the minors list during this health crisis is necessary and critical.

While understandable restrictions have been placed on the parties attending court, the list takes place as normal each week during the court term.

It should be acknowledged that there has been a high level of collaboration between the legal representatives involved in these cases during this time to ensure that minimal number of legal representatives are present in court each week, as directed by the judge.

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The Courts Service, including the judges and court registrars, continue to give a significant amount of time, commitment, and interest to ensure these vulnerable young children receive the necessary care and support at this difficult time.

The children referred to special care are between the ages of 11 and 17, and present with extremely challenging behaviour with complex psychological and sociological profiles. 

Many of the children also have either an ongoing or previous involvement in the youth criminal justice system.

They have had traumatic early-life experiences, including separation and loss, engagement or exposure to alcohol and drug misuse, and have suffered physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse or exploitation.

The risk profile of these young people often means that they can engage in threatening or aggressive behaviour while placed in special care. 

The management and care of these children is the responsibility of the Child and Family Agency and the residential staff of the various special care units.

Social workers and the residential staff working in these units are included in the list of essential services, permitting them to travel to and from their place of work during this health crisis.

While the job of residential care staff working in both special care units and community residential placements is a difficult one at the best of times, the current health crisis has only increased the challenges they face on a daily basis.

Young people in special care are now faced with a reduction in mobility out of the unit, and restrictions on their contact with family and their court-appointed guardians.

This will, undoubtedly, lead to a heightened sense of frustration and anger, which the staff working in these units now have to manage, on top of everything else. Inevitably, there will be serious incidents of property damage and potential assaults on staff.

The staff in these units are on the frontline each day, working with a complex group of troubled young people. 

The job they do often goes unnoticed, and many members of the public are unaware of the risks they face on a daily basis.

Today, as the country is faced with an unprecedented medical crisis, these staff members continue to carry out their work, faced with even greater risks to their health and safety.

Similar to those on the frontlines in the HSE, these staff members deserve our gratitude, recognition, and respect.

Conor Fottrell is a partner with Mason Hayes & Curran, which acts on behalf of state agencies, including Tusla, dealing with vulnerable high-risk young children. This article first appeared in the Law Society Gazette.

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