Courts lack system to assess risk to children in unsafe homes

Children are being forced to stay in “unsafe” contact with parents suspected of child abuse and domestic violence because there is no system for family courts to adequately assess the concerns.

The crisis has been revealed by an independent two-year pilot review of court supports during family separation cases. However, the review itself has since been scrapped due to a lack of funding.

The major review, conducted by children’s charity Barnardos and single parent family group One Family, discovered half of the children assessed were being ordered by the courts to stay in contact with parents they no longer live with and, furthermore, a “current risk of domestic violence or child abuse”.

It found that, despite the serious issues involved, judges are effectively being told to decide on cases “blindfolded and deafened” because vital ancillary supports are not available.

According to the detailed pilot review, available at www.irishexaminer.com, under the current family courts system, judges cannot access information on potential domestic violence, child protection notifications and the “parenting capacity” of those involved.

This is because a “professional” support service to assess the concerns has never been in place in Ireland, despite the fact it is widely available in other European and north American countries.

While a private service can be requested under a Section 47 order, this costs the parents involved thousands of euro and is considered “ad hoc” as it does not involve specialist, accredited assessors.

Between October 2011 and April 2013, Barnardos and One Family opened two pilot projects in north and south Dublin to assess the scale of the problem.

A total of 128 families were referred by the courts to the Child Contact Centre pilots — which have received widespread backing from judges including family law committee chair and High Court judge Michael White — with 56 ultimately being assessed after all parties agreed to the process.

It found 50% of families had “a current risk of domestic violence” and 59% had “a current risk of child abuse” involving at least one parent with whom a child was court-ordered to stay in contact.

The pilot said the serious hidden problem in the justice system can only be addressed if 37 centres are rolled out nationwide at a cost of €3.5m a year to the Department of Justice and Department of Children and Youth Affairs.

However, despite the findings, €200,000 in funding needed to continue the pilots was instead no longer made available this year.

“The courts need access to professionally conducted family assessments in order to make child-centred decisions that will be safe and enforceable.

“This will ensure children do not experience unsafe court-ordered contact visits,” said One Family chief executive, Karen Kiernan.

When asked by the Irish Examiner if the current system is putting children at risk, she said: “Yes, children do spend time with parents who are unsafe and unsuitable. It happens all the time.”

Those behind the pilot reviews have urged Justice Minister Alan Shatter to include the reforms in the Children and Family Relationships Bill.

The draft legislation is currently under public consultation, and can be found at www.justice.ie.


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