The children behind the statistics

Graphic by Ian Knox

Graphic by Ian Knox

Significant injury. Suffering harm. Manipulation. Lost all hope. Sexual exploitation. Absolutely devastated. Fracture. Bruising. Distraught. Distressed. Damaging. Emotional burden. Weary.

THESE were some of the words and phrases used to describe children at the centre of cases before Northern Ireland’s family courts.

They were said by parents, legal professionals, medical experts and social workers during four days that Detail Data was granted access to the Family Courts by the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Declan Morgan.

The children affected – none of whom were in court during the proceedings – ranged in age from six months to 15-years-old.

Their backgrounds were as varied as the reasons their lives were being scrutinised by the judicial system.

We sat in on cases involving babies. One had been taken into State care after sustaining a significant injury, while another’s father was accused of historic sex abuse. Another baby was facing being taken into care after his mother had breached a supervision order.

Teenagers’ futures were also being decided. One girl had allegedly been groomed by her stepfather and, in a separate case, child pornography was found on a computer in the schoolgirl’s home.

Battles for contact and residency orders included a toddler’s grandmother using the courts to gain access to her grandson. Two girls from another family were the subjects of a custody row between their separated father and mother.

The children came from all walks of life and varying social, ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

Their parents were professional, unemployed, students and university graduates.

Many of the cases were funded from the public purse via legal aid while others had to pay for their legal team and a few people represented themselves in court.

Their disturbed home lives included relationship breakdowns, domestic violence and addiction to drugs, alcohol and pornography.

Some lived with their parents, their father or their mother; others resided with other family members and foster families – placed in the care of strangers by the State as a safeguard.

But one theme was common - they were all victims: Victims of alleged physical harm, chronic neglect, emotional abuse, sexual exploitation or parental animosity, which left the courts with the task of deciding on who would care for them and who could have contact with them.

These are the children behind the Children Order statistics – and today we are telling the heart-breaking stories that are rarely told.

THE CHILDREN ORDER

When those caring for children fail to do so or simply can’t reach an agreement on their welfare, a family judge has a responsibility under The Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 to protect their best interests.

Detail Data was granted access to Northern Ireland’s family courts – at different tiers and venues - as part of our research into children’s orders. We spent time in three court venues.

The settings and facilities varied –at Laganside in Belfast city centre the family court sittings are held in modern, bright and well-lit rooms whereas in Newtownards they’re dated, cramped and dark.

At one point as the family judge based in Laganside – who does not wear a gown or wig - was working through his extensive case list there were 27 professionals in the room including solicitors, barristers, Guardian ad Litem (an independent officer of the Court who is appointed to safeguard the interests of children who are the subject of court proceedings) and social workers.

Over four days we attended Family Proceedings Court, Family Care Centre and High Court, and saw firsthand the sheer volume of work involved and the complexity of the system.

In that short space of time the issues we witnessed included:

  • Despite a ‘no delay principle’ some cases were put back by days and weeks because of conflicting timetables of up to five legal representatives involved in one case.
  • Delays in reports to be produced by social services.
  • Young children having to attend supervised contact with their mother or father after school because social services don’t provide weekend supervision. One judge, although acknowledging the issues of resources, expressed concern about the impact of such timings on a child including being tired after a full day at school and the lack of children’s facilities open compared to a weekend.
  • The high cost of expert witnesses – running into thousands of pounds for one witness in one case. Some cases had multiple expert witnesses including from outside Northern Ireland.
  • Repeated breaches of court orders.
  • Disputed parentage.
  • Delays caused by ongoing criminal investigations.
  • A shortage of foster-carers from a range of cultural backgrounds.
  • Separated parents returning to court dozens of times over issues including school pick-ups, holidays and birthdays.

And that is before adding in the emotional toll, particularly on the children involved in these cases.

There is also impact on parents and other family members as emerged in the cases covered by Detail Data. In one case focusing on contact arrangements we heard how a father was in hospital having attempted suicide, in two separate cases grandmothers had to relocate from Eastern Europe to care for their grandchildren who had been placed in care following concerns about their safety and a “frustrated” father hadn’t seen his children in a year while a mother involved in another case collapsed in a court hallway.

Also in several cases the cost to the public purse was raised. In one contact case, where both parties were in receipt of legal aid, and an adjournment was being sought the judge stated “the court can’t keep adjourning this case at public expense”. He ordered that the case proceeded unless both parties agreed “meaningful contact arrangements starting today”.

The following cases are among those we attended during our time in Belfast and Newtownards family courts. They were presided over by His Honour Judge McFarland, Master Wells and District Judge (Magistrates’ Courts) Magill.

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CHILD ONE & CHILD TWO

Following a marriage breakdown – the former husband and wife (both in receipt of legal aid for their solicitors and barristers) had been in court 29 times in 18 months.

The two children had been under the care of three different social workers – at the request of the parents - medical professionals and a referral to Child and Adult Mental Health Services (CAMHS) made by the mother was pending.

We heard how these parents, both professionals, could not communicate with each other – even on the phone or by email - such was the deterioration in their relationship.

While experts were giving evidence in the case they sat at opposite sides at the back of the small courtroom.

Numerous court orders had been made, some breached, in the case including non-molestation, residence, contact and prohibitive steps. Such was the complexity and the hostility between them that the case was transferred up from the Family Proceedings Court to the Family Care Centre.

Experts spoke of the emotional burden being placed on the children – one had started bedwetting - by their parents including their father telling the children what to say to social workers, the parents fighting about the days they see the children, the father having told the children it was their mother’s fault he had spent a night in jail (after breaching a non-molestation order), the mother making derogatory comments about the father in front of the children and cutting him out of family photos.

A children’s officer remarked how one of the children was “distressed about mummy and daddy fighting about the days” and stated “they were worried that they would not get to see either parent, they did not mind what days they got to see either parent”.

She added: “It’s up to the parents to not let the animosity increase. The parents should not be letting it affect the children.

“I think it would be good for the proceedings to be out of court and for the whole family to move on.”

As the father gave evidence he spoke of the “extreme upset” his children were suffering while the mother said the children were “utterly devastated”.

At the conclusion of the case, the judge described the situation as “deeply depressing”. He said they needed to put aside any “hatred, disgust and dislike” and that they have “to co-operate in bringing up these children”.

The judge said it was “most worrying that the father has no real concept of the potential damage that could be done” to the children because of his “manipulation”.

Residency was awarded to the mother and the father’s contact was reduced from three nights to two nights with every public and bank holiday as well as special days divided between them.

Judge McFarland told the couple that he would be “very disappointed, annoyed and angry if this matter comes back before me”.

On that occasion the case ran over two days and lasted 4.5 hours.

There were 15 other cases on the judge’s list on one of those days and a second family court was also sitting.

CHILD THREE

A teenage girl had been placed by the State in foster care after 8,000 indecent images and videos involving children were found on the computer of her mother’s boyfriend.

Legal representatives for the child’s mother, her father, the Guardian ad Litem (which acts as the voice of the child in public law cases), the Health and Social Care Trust who had initiated the proceedings were all in court. The child’s grandmother was also seeking to join the proceedings as she wanted to take over care of her grand-daughter.

As English was not the mother’s first language she had to rely on an interpreter to communicate to her what was being said in court.

The judge heard from the Guardian that the girl was “very bright, motivated and ambitious” but was struggling at her foster placement where she had been placed four weeks earlier “as a matter of urgency” after the discovery of the pornographic material.

The court was told: “She seemed weary, tired and somewhat disconsolate. She is intelligent and articulate and is arguably suffering harm.”

The case, which lasted 17 minutes, was adjourned for four weeks to allow the Trust to carry out a viability assessment on the grandmother as a carer.

CHILD FOUR

A six-month-old baby was taken into care after sustaining a “non-accidental injury”.

He had already been removed from his parents and placed with foster carers when the case came before the court.

His parents, who also had to rely on an interpreter to convey what was going on in the proceedings, sat side-by-side at the back of the court.

The court was told his parents, who were seeing him daily, were “very distressed about the child remaining in foster care”.

They were seeking for the baby’s grandmother to care for him but social services expressed concerns about her health and said that the assessment of the grandmother would take four weeks.

She had already relocated from her home thousands of miles away to care for her grandchild.

“The delay of almost a further month is causing grave distress. What we are drawing to the attention of the court is the significant delay by the Trust,” said the parents’ legal representative.

The Guardian representing the child’s perspective described the delay as “unacceptable”.

The judge expressed his “concern that this just going to drift on” if he granted the Trust an interim care order.

He adjourned the case, which was legal aided, over the weekend to “allow the trust to consider their position”.

At the second hearing the following week, the Trust said it was not in a position to approve a placement with the grandmother. The barrister added that the child “was a very young baby who is pre-mobile and has suffered a significant injury”.

The Judge said the plan to release the baby into the care of his grandmother (his parents would have to move out of the family home and continue to have contact with their child supervised by social workers) was “not without risk but at the end of the day we have to manage risk”.

He continued that there had been a lot of “unwarranted criticism” of social workers from media, which “leads to defensive types of procedures....this is a case where someone has to take responsibility.

“I agree with the Guardian that this risk can be managed”.

His parents succeeded in having the baby moved from a foster placement to the care of his grandparent. The judge renewed the interim care order for one day to facilitate the transfer from the foster family to the grandmother and made a supervision order. The case was to be reviewed in four weeks but the date slipped by four days as it and two subsequent days didn’t suit the legal representatives who were acting for the parents, the trust and the guardian. The hearing lasted 20 minutes.

CHILD FIVE & CHILD SIX

This particularly complex case resulted in five children being removed from their parents. The siblings had been split up and were living with two different sets of relatives (kinship care) and foster carers.

The court was told that there was a significant history of social services involvement with the parents who were “not engaging with the Trust and were not attending contact” with their children.

Plans for two of the children to reside permanently with relatives fell through, leaving the Trust with no option than to consider adoption. Then at the last minute a relative came forward to say they would like to be considered to care for the children long-term, setting the case back by three months while the Trust assessed their suitably.

A legal representative said “kinship was plan A, adoption plan B”.

It then emerged another relative who had ruled herself out had also come forward.

The Guardian said she was concerned about “drift and delay” as one of the children was young.

Agreeing with the Guardian, the judge approved an interim care order for four weeks and ordered the Trust to file an update report with the court within six weeks.

He added that he wanted the case resolved within five months. The hearing lasted 11 minutes.

CHILD SEVEN

In this case a toddler was at the centre of a contact battle involving his mother and grandmother.

The grandmother had turned to the courts after she was denied access to her grandson who lived with her son’s ex-partner. The relationship between the child’s parents was not amicable.

The case had been transferred up from a lower court because of the “implacable hostility” of the mother who had not adhered to a court order allowing the grandmother one hour with her grandson every week.

On the day the first contact was due to take place the grandmother had not seen her grandson in eight months – however, the contact did not take place after the mother demanded the child back during the contact meeting.

There was also an incident on another occasion when contact was due to happen, which resulted in the police being called following an alleged altercation at the door and a struggle for the child.

The court was told, despite the warning of the risk of being sent to jail, the mother continued to breach the court order.

Asking her legal representative “if she’s indisposed for a short period who is capable of looking after the child” the judged warned “the court’s patience is limited”. He added that she “will be in very serious trouble should this contact not take place over the next two weeks”.

The case was adjourned for two weeks for review.

CHILD EIGHT

We witnessed how another complex case couldn’t proceed after a pregnant mother collapsed with a seizure minutes before going into court where the Trust was seeking an interim care order for her child. She was taken to hospital by ambulance.

During an initial hearing – prior to the incident - the judge was told that the child lived with its mother, father and grandparents but the father was the primary carer as the mother was not permitted to be left on her own with the child.

However, the Trust alleged that the child had been left in the sole care of its mother and as a result was seeking an interim care order, which both parents were opposing.

It was further stated that there were concerns “whether or not the father is actually the father”. He had failed to attend a paternity test and was not engaging with a parenting assessment, the court was told.

The judge warned that if he did not attend for DNA testing the inference would have to be that he was not the father. If he was not the father he could not have parental responsibility for the child.

The legal representative for the Guardian Ad Litem also raised concerns about the mother’s competence.

As a result of the medical emergency, much to the concern of the Trust, the case had to be adjourned for four days – the earliest date they could get a new court date – leaving the child in the care of its parents in the interim.

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