‘Children get lost in turmoil of family breakdown’

Children are getting lost in the emotional and legal turmoil of family breakdown, a leading children charity has claimed.

Barnardos has called on Justice Minister Alan Shatter to ensure that plans to reform the family law system prioritises children in separation cases.

At a conference in Dublin yesterday, chief executive, Fergus Finlay, said that while the decision to separate might be the best one for the family, how it happened was crucial.

“All parents want what’s best for their children, but in the highly-charged environment of family separation, children can sometimes get lost.”

In some cases, courts made every effort to include the voice of children in its decisions about family separation, but this was not universal, said Mr Finlay.

He referred to Mr Shatter’s stated commitment to moving family law away from the combative environment of the courts towards greater use of mediation.

“That’s very welcome, in cases where it is appropriate. However, reform needs to be based on what’s best for children and their parents, not simply on what will save the State the most money.

“Since Barnardos and One Family together set up a small number of child contact centres on pilot bases, we have learned how much children suffer in these situations.

“We have also learned that when a safe, therapeutic space exists, many parents are willing to use that space to put the interests of their children first.”

While the Government supported the idea of contact centres in principle, they were now waiting to see if the support was more than lip service.

The constitutional change resulting from the passage of the Children’s Referendum should ensure in any case where a child is involved, their voice and best interest will be heard and prioritised.

However, Barnardos is anxious the right of a child to be heard in court proceedings is embedded, not just in law, but also in practice, as a matter or urgency across all services dealing with family separation.

Barnardos head of advocacy, Catherine Joyce, said research showed that children did not want to be the final decision-makers in the family separation process, but they did want the decision-makers to listen to them and take what they wanted into consideration.

Mr Justice Michael White, who has dealt with a considerable number of family law cases, said judges should have an inquisitorial role at a early stage in family law proceedings to see if they can advance a settlement.

He said judges should be able to interact with other services and to seek expert opinion without compromising their judicial independence.

It was also important that the new family court structure was adequately financed. “If it is going to be starved of funds, it is not going to work,” he warned.

There was also a case for the inclusion of certain types of juvenile justice cases within the family court structure.

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