Children ‘weapons of war in spousal disputes’

Disputes between estranged spouses frequently turn into a “war over children”, inflicting “terrible damage” on them, Justice Minister Alan Shatter has said.

He said children were often used as a weapon to “take revenge” and that some parents “untruthfully” accused their former partner of being violent or abusive to the child.

He said that in his 30 years of experience as a family lawyer, he had seen the children of these parents coming back to him with relationship difficulties of their own as a result.

The children’s charity, Barnardos, welcomed the comments and said a “huge amount of damage” was done to children in some cases — but said the court system made it worse.

Family support group One Family said the adversarial legal system was the reason why some parents brought their children into the dispute and called for “root and branch reform”.

Speaking at the Oireachtas justice committee, the minister said the new Family Court will set up a structure replacing the system where three courts — the district, circuit, and high courts — deal with separate family issues, from maintenance to custody issues to child abductions.

The dedicated court will have trained judges and welfare and mediation services.

Mr Shatter urged parents to use mediation instead of the courts. “Unfortunately and tragically and all too frequently disputes between estranged spouses turns into a war over children and the child is used as the weapons in the war.”

He said some parents use their children “as a means of taking revenge”.

“They create difficulties on children not only in coming to terms with the breakup, but in their later lives forming relationships.”

He said there were exceptions, including where parents were violent, or abusive, to their children.

However, he said some parents made “untruthful” allegations of this type as a “weapon” in disputes.

Barnardos CEO Fergus Finlay said much of what the minister said was true.

“In some cases a huge amount of damage is being done to children, but we need research on the extent and scale of the problem.”

He said the experience from child contact centres — piloted in Dublin by Barnardos and One Family — revealed adult relationships that were “very poisoned” and that children can be “badly hurt”. He said the adversarial legal system made the situation worse.

One Family director Karen Kiernan echoed this and said part of the reason why some families put their children in the dispute was because of the adversarial legal system.

She said the system was also very costly, drawn out, and poorly explained and understood by people. She said parents needed support: “We need mediation, family support services, child contact centres and family assessments for the courts.”

*One Family helpline: 1890 66 22 12.;

*A Department of Justice consultative seminar on the Family Court will take place on Jul 6 from 9am to 1pm at the Law Society of Ireland, Blackhall Place, Dublin.

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