Special rapporteur for child protection says ‘dedicated family court structure’ a priority

It is “imperative” that safe contact centres for children to facilitate access arrangements are introduced, the special rapporteur for child protection, Dr Geoffrey Shannon, has said.

Dr Shannon said a “dedicated family court structure” should be a priority, while there needed to be a “complete review” of the services that the State provided to children.

“What we have been doing to date is we have been treating children as if they are onlookers. They are in the midst of the turmoil and the trauma that is domestic violence, and that is a message I want to communicate.

“Our services are tailored towards adults rather than towards children, and what we need now to do is gear our services towards children, because if we don’t the consequences will be life-long.”

Dr Shannon, who was speaking at the launch of Women’s Aid annual report, said he did not think it was good enough that facilities to hear from children by video link were not available in all courts.

He also said those accessing the State’s family courts have to avail of the “Cinderella service” of the legal system.

“I’m always amazed; we have a Rolls Royce commercial court. We actually have a state of the art system in the courts of criminal justice for criminals. But what have we for vulnerable citizens? The vulnerable citizens and those who need to access our family courts end up having to avail of what I would characterise as the Cinderella service of the legal system.”

Abuse concerns

Dr Shannon said he strongly supported mandatory reporting of child abuse concerns, which was introduced in January 2018.

Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine said Tusla has received 14,089 mandated reports in the 13 months up to the end of January this year.

Ursula Regan, a family law practitioner, said conditions at Dolphin House, where Dublin District Family Court sits, were not “fit for purpose”.

She said Dolphin House by its nature was a “hostile environment”, and was not fit or welcoming for children who come in to be interviewed by judiciary.

She said the staff and judiciary at the facility do an “incredible job dealing with a system that is just creaking at its seams and is going to collapse”.

Ms Regan also said access to children by a domestic violence perpetrator was often used as a way to continue their abuse “either in a subtle or unsubtle way”.