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‘No easy answers’ to long-running child protection cases

  • 12 Jun 2017

Some cases covered by study took up to 50 days in court, spread over months or years

Kitty Holland, 12th June 2017

The Irish Times

Protracted child-protection cases, involving disagreements between State agencies as well as difficulties securing services for troubled teenagers, are among cases published on Monday by specialised child-protection law reporters.

The 22 reports from the Child Care Law Reporting Project – the first of two tranches this year – also show the ongoing extent to which mental ill-health, cognitive disability and addiction lead to parents facing child-protection proceedings.

The project, which is directed by Dr Carol Coulter, was established by the government in 2012 to provide independent, anonymised reporting on child-related cases before the courts. Since the start of last year it has concentrated on long-running, complex cases with a view to identifying reasons they became so lengthy.

Some in this report took up to 50 days in court, spread over months or years, requiring considerable legal and social-work resources, during which the lives of the children and parents affected were anxious and uncertain, said Dr Coulter.

They include five cases involving serious allegations of child sexual abuse, as well as five detailed accounts, over many months, of cases concerning the detention of troubled teenagers.

In one case a judge in a rural town ordered gardaí to release DVDs of interviews they had conducted in early 2016 with three siblings who had allegedly been sexually abused by their parents. In the case, which is ongoing, the Child and Family Agency applied in late 2016 to get copies of the DVDs.

The judge remarked that children alleging sexual abuse should be interviewed jointly by gardaí and the agency, to avoid having to be interviewed repeatedly.

As the gardaí were preparing a file for the Director of Public Prosecutions they were reluctant to share the DVDs prior to completion of the investigation.

The judge adjourned the application over the Christmas break, noting the gardaí had not taken on board that these interviews should be jointly conducted. Two weeks later he granted the agency’s application.

Troubled teenager

In another case, the High Court spent three months hearing, weekly, the case of a troubled teenager detained in a medium-secure psychiatric unit in the UK despite the fact her treating psychiatrist deemed her fit for discharge and her ongoing detention unethical.

The Child and Family Agency told the court the girl was on medication normally only prescribed to adults and the “careful management” of taking her off the medication could take “years”. The judge ordered a full clinical review and that the agency request an echocardiogram in the UK unit, given the possible side effects of the medication.

The judge went to visit the girl and said the ECG would take place before the end of the week, but two weeks later it hadn’t.

Dr Coulter said the cases showed “certain child-protection matters are very complex indeed and require considerable resources.

“There are no easy answers to the problems they raise. We hope the reports . . . contribute to the discussion on how such difficult cases can be dealt with in a timely way that protects children while ensuring the rights of parents.”