Today Karen Kiernan, One Family’s CEO and Stuart Duffin, our Director of Policy & Programmes, attended the hearings by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice in relation to the Children & Family Relationships Bill and highlighted our concerns regarding ancillary supports for court, child safety issues and Child Contact Centres. Karen’s presentation is included below and the full transcript of the discussion can be read here on Oireachtas.ie, with our submission on page 5 and follow-up questions later in the document.
One Family is Ireland’s leading organisation for one-parent families, providing services to people parenting alone, sharing parenting and going through family transitions. Our policy work is rooted in our extensive family support work over the past four decades.
We welcome the heads of this Bill as it is long overdue and badly needed to support the thousands of families in need of family law services every year. This Bill attempts to reflect the realities that many children and their parents experience in Ireland today and to provide safety and security for them.
We refer the Committee to our written submission for an overview of all our recommendations; however, today we are going to focus our comments on issues relating to Part 7 – Guardianship, Custody and Access, Part 8 – Safeguarding Interests of Children and Part 9 of the Bill – Making Parenting Orders Work.
We are very familiar in One Family with the practical, financial and legal challenges faced by mothers and fathers going through the family law courts in relation to separation, custody, access, maintenance, domestic violence and related issues. We have been particularly concerned with the lack of information and services available to family law courts when they attempt to make orders in relation to these issues.
Child Contact Centres
We undertook research into the need for Child Contact Centres in Ireland which we published in 2009. Child Contact Centres are safe, neutral and child-centred services where children can spend time with their non-resident parent. They are widespread outside Ireland and are used by courts, social services and families as safe places for high-conflict families to facilitate children having an ongoing relationship with the parent whom they do not live with who is often their father.
Following this research we received funding for a two year pilot project which we delivered in partnership with Barnardos. We offered family and risk assessments, court reports, contact services including handovers, supported contact and supervised contact, family support services including counselling, play and art therapy for children, parent mentoring and mediated parenting plans. These services cost about €200K per year and have closed due to lack of funding.
The independent evaluation of this project was launched last week at an event attended by five members of the judiciary, a large number of legal practitioners as well as family support services, with overwhelming support for the service expressed and offers of resources made. The key policy issues that have arisen through this work which were also published last week are extremely relevant to the Children & Family Relationships Bill and there is an opportunity to get this right for children in the future.
Evidence-based Court Orders
At the moment, family law courts are making critical decisions about children and families in a vacuum. They do not make evidence-based decisions, unlike other branches of law. Irish family law courts do not have independent, quality information on the families presenting to them because unlike other jurisdictions we do not have a court welfare system. This must change.
It is not possible for Head 32: Best interests of the child for example or Head 63: Enforcement Orders to function as you might envisage if courts are not resourced with relevant background information on the family. Children are having unsafe and unsuitable contact with their non-resident parent on a daily basis in Ireland because courts are ordering it as there is a strong pro-contact assumption inherent in family law, because courts do not have full information on the extent and impact of domestic violence and abuse, because courts do not have independent information on addiction and mental health issues, because parents may not recognise the negative impact of violence on their children or their ability to parent, and because courts do not have anywhere to refer parents to for family or contact supports.
So what are the solutions and what can you do?
The provision of a court welfare system must be included in this legislation as family assessments are the basis for making evidence-based decisions. The need for courts and social services to collaborate much more closely to ensure the safety of children is required. A range of appropriate family support services must be included that families can be referred to including a national network of Child Contact Centres. Children’s voices and their best interest may be more appropriately determined through external independent services as was facilitated in Child Contact Centres. The legislation should be clearer around domestic violence and abuse and the required support systems. The legislation must be clear on the range, the benefits and limitations of family supports. There is a serious impediment to people with low incomes accessing family supports however and resourcing needs to be looked at in the future.
Inclusion in this legislation is just one of the steps required to ensure safety for children in private family law proceedings and to avoid repeated court visits for high-conflict families. We estimate that each of the 17 Child & Family Agency areas could have a comprehensive, trained and accredited Child Contact Centre service including all family assessments, contact services and family support services for a total cost of €3.5m per year. We believe that this is excellent value for money particularly compared to legal or court based supports and this is a defined rather than open funding stream.