Child Care Law Reporting Project (CCLRP)
Observations on Concerns for Vulnerable Children Arising from the Covid-19 Pandemic
As the Child Care Law Reporting Project (CCLRP) does not consider itself to be an essential service, the Project’s reporters are not currently attending court sittings. Instead they are finalising reports and submitting observations on issues arising in the cases they have attended to date. We recognise and support the decision to adjourn or postpone all non-essential child care proceedings and close any non-essential services. These are extraordinary times and we do not underestimate the pressure that our elected representatives, civil and public servants are working under. We are available to support the national effort to address this pandemic in whatever way we can.
The following observations set out the initial views of the CCLRP in relation to concerns for vulnerable children arising from the Covid-19 pandemic. We hope these observations will be helpful in planning how best to support children and their families during this emergency, including if the restrictions continue for a period of weeks or months and when normal court sittings and services resume.
- Children in Care: Access
Many children in care have regular access with parents, siblings and extended family members, which may be supervised if there is a risk to the children at access due to parents’ own vulnerabilities or to a history of abuse. Access arrangements may be court directed. Access, and particularly supervised access, is likely to be hindered or considered impossible under the present Covid-19 restrictions, given the need to maintain social distance, if an individual/family is cocooning or self-isolating, and in circumstances where the availability of public transport is limited. Clarity would be helpful on two points, what factors determine if face-to-face access visit are considered “essential” and how is access affected by the 2km from home restriction. Access arrangements could be under further strain if either parent is living with or taking care of an older person eg a grandparent, or if the foster carer is a grandparent. If the grandparent is 70+ they will now be “cocooning” and children will not be visiting or not being visited, even for parental access.
If face-to-face access is cancelled, it is important that alternative forms of access are found, through phone calls, letters, Skype, Facetime, Zoom, or similar technology. Of particular concern would be babies and younger children under interim care orders (renewable monthly) where family reunification is planned. How is the bond with the parent to be maintained under the current restrictions?
If virtual contact could be encouraged to be maintained on the same day/hours as the access arrangement which is already in place, it may help with the continuity and security for the child who is old enough to use the technology. This will be more difficult with very young children and babies. In addition, families may need support to increase their connectivity (phone credit, stamps/writing material, access to technology and internet access).
- Children at Risk Living in the Community
Children are now effectively confined to their homes with parents who may be under extreme pressure, have lost their employment and/or means of earning an income, have an addiction, mental health difficulties and/or are prone to violence or abuse. We know that many children are finding the current crisis stressful and no doubt that stress is compounded for those living in challenging family situations.
Early Years’ Settings & Schools: With the closure of all schools and early years’ settings, children have lost a vital link that they had with their teachers on a day-to-day basis. If the child wishes to seek support such as ringing a teacher, social worker or Childline, the child may have nowhere to go to make that call without being overheard. The live-chat option on the Childline website can be tricky enough for children in abusive situations or children in care (where difficulties have arisen with foster-parents) as the child has to register and create a nickname and password. If other people are sharing the computer, the child may fear being found out. Children with lower literacy levels, who would probably use the phone to ring in normal times, would find this element more difficult. In addition, some children may not have access to the internet or to phone / phone credit.
Schools and early years’ settings have been providing a vital link between children and social services, as children may confide in teachers, or teachers may notice that a child is showing signs of abuse. Testimony and documentary reports from teachers and early years’ providers are often submitted as evidence in care child proceedings.
Some schools are attempting to provide for the pastoral side of their work with online assemblies at a specific time and links for pupils to contact staff. This may help bridge the gap and may lead to pupils confiding with their teachers about problems in the home as they had been used to doing face-to-face. How can children know that the same rules will apply as normal and that they can still confide about their problems with a trusted adult and that the adult will pass on their concern to somebody who could help them? Are there arrangements for teachers to do this under the new restrictions? The advertisement about “Talking makes us stronger” was helpful in relation to teaching children what to do about online abuse, and a similar advertisement might help children know they can contact their teachers safely.
Therapeutic Supports: As far as practicable, children who are receiving or in need of therapeutic support should continue to receive such support using alternative means of contact (phone and online etc). Among other things, therapeutic support can play a vital role in maintaining a child at home; preventing care placements breakdowns; and in identifying the child’s needs, which is often central to care child proceedings.
- Children Suffering from Food Poverty
The Children’s Rights Alliance has already stressed the importance of continuing the food support provided previously by school meals and we welcome the Government’s recent actions. This is vital, but it is not clear that there is a consistent approach around the country to the distribution of this food. Initially, it was left to individual principals to organise it, though this has apparently now been changed. Can the supports being rolled out for the over-70s and other vulnerable groups to receive food deliveries be combined with a system for distributing food to families at risk of food poverty? Voluntary bodies have already offered to help, and could be further harnessed to assist.
- Children Leaving Care
It is usual practice that when a child reaches 18 years, they ‘age out of care’ and transfer to adult services and those in residential care leave their placement. Some care leavers may be eligible to receive aftercare supports. Given the need for continuity and stability and the uncertain economic climate, where possible a freeze on leaving care should be put in place. This would mean that on turning 18 years or on reaching the end of the eligible aftercare period, there should be no change to a young person’s care placement, designated social worker, access to supports or aftercare arrangements during the pandemic. Once a young person reaches the age of majority, care orders are no longer valid but the child can opt to remain in their placement and receive supports. British Columbia has instigated such a freeze in relation to care leavers in response to Covid-19.
- Social Workers and Foster and Residential Care
Children First: The Covid-19 pandemic is likely to have a significant impact on the pattern, number and nature of child protection referrals. Dr Joe Mooney commented that with schools and community facilities closed the number of mandatory reports to child protection services is likely to drop during this pandemic (IrishSocialWork Blog 31/3/20). The effective operation of the Children First approach to child safeguarding whereby it is the community’s responsibility (teachers, early years providers and youth workers etc) to identify and report concerns about children at risk is likely to be significantly hindered during this pandemic as children are now indoors and “invisible” to these mandated professionals. When children are able to once again re-engage with educational and community services, it is likely that such professionals will see a deterioration in the presentation of some children and will make referrals to the child protection services. This could lead to a significant surge of referrals, for example when the schools re-open. Creative ways are needed to ensure children do not remain “invisible” for an extended period of time. This may mean partial opening of schools and other community-based services during the traditional summer holidays.
A joined-up approach between social workers, teachers and other community-based workers would be beneficial to ensure children deemed vulnerable or at risk receive daily/weekly contact from a professional, with the opportunity to build a rapport between the child and adult. Such children could include those on the Child Protection Notification System and those living in households where there are reasonable grounds for concern in relation to domestic violence. Other members of the community, including An Post staff, home delivery workers and volunteers may be coming into contact with vulnerable children and families. A public awareness message informing these people of the approach channels available to report a child welfare concern would be welcome.
Care Placements: During the pandemic, there may be increased demand for care placements including as a result of:
- The situation at home deteriorates (exacerbated by the intense stress and pressure associated with the pandemic, in particular domestic violence and isolation) and a child is admitted to care.
- An increase in placement breakdowns due to the pressures arising from complying with the stay-at-home orders, including children absconding from residential care.
- Parents caring for a child with special needs at home seek respite care.
- A parent/guardian or foster carer needs to cocoon, self-isolate, becomes ill or dies and the
child is admitted to care or need to change placement.
- A cluster of Covid-19 infections arises in an environment where self-isolation is difficult such as residential children’s home, Direct Provision, emergency homeless accommodation or Traveller halting site and a child needs to be admitted to care or change placements.
We welcome the Government’s efforts through the “Return to Practice” policy to recruit additional social workers and social care workers. A discussion with relevant stakeholders may be valuable to explore how best the foster and residential care systems can expand their capacity in a very short timeframe without breaching relevant national quality standards and laws. The community-based volunteer movements that have emerged in response to Covid-19 could be mobilised, however vetting and assessment of potential carers would pose a challenge.
- Court Service and Assessments
The courts are continuing to hear domestic violence applications and some child care applications, including emergency care orders, exceptional or urgent interim care orders and extensions of care orders and interim care orders. In addition, uncontested applications for extensions of interim care orders can be dealt with without requiring the parties’ attendance in court. Alternative measures have also been put in place by the High Court for the hearing of uncontested reviews of special (secure) care order. These measures are appropriate and necessary during this emergency phase.
However, once the courts resume normal service, there is likely to be significant pressure on the courts especially in private family law and child care, resulting in long lists on Family Law days and waiting lists to secure dates for care order hearings. The knock-on impact will last for months if not years. We know before the pandemic in some areas there was a delay of up to one year to secure a date for a child care order hearing. The CCLRP has documented the difficulties faced by the District Court prior to this pandemic and called for the establishment of a Family Court. The introduction and enactment of legislation to establish a Family Court should be prioritised by the new Government. In the interim, the District Court should be provided with additional supports, including additional moveable judges and administrative support, to ensure it can address the backlog of cases in a timely manner.
If the pandemic continues to disrupt the ability of the courts to hear child care cases and social workers’ ability to do home visits, it may be appropriate to amend the Child Care Act 1991. Issues that could be explored include the validity of a supervision order (s. 19) or a care order (s. 18) where a child is at home, if a home visit cannot be conducted effectively; the length of Interim Care Order (s. 17); and an alternative dispute resolution mechanism to address issues of access (usually heard under s.37) and issues affecting the welfare of a child in care (usually heard under s.47).
The Department of Children and Youth Affairs, the Child and Family Agency and the Court Service
have been engaging in public communications in response to the pandemic and this is most
welcome. However, as far as we are aware there is no publicly available information or guidance for
children in care, a parent/guardian of a child in care or foster/residential carers addressing issues of
access, absconding, leaving care, aftercare and available supports.