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EPIC’s Opening Statement was delivered by Brenda Kneafsey, Advocacy Officer
EPIC is a national organisation working with children in state care, young people in aftercare services and young adults with experience of the care system. We work with children and young people in residential care, special care, foster care, and relative care, as well as those accommodated by the State in homeless services under Section V of the Child Care Act, and in Oberstown Children’s Detention Campus. We also work with young adults in aftercare services (until the age of 21 or 23) and those with care experience up to the age of 26.
Through our national advocacy service, EPIC provides support to pregnant young people in care and young people who have left care and who are now parents themselves, and whose children or unborn children have been referred to Tusla. We thank the Committee for inviting us here today to share our experience of working with care-leaver parents, and hope that our insights will inform your thinking on how best this group can be supported.
EPIC recognises that care–experienced young people can start their families earlier than their peers. We are also familiar with the intergenerational issues that can result in the children of care leavers coming into care themselves, including inequality, poverty, lack of access to services, poor housing, addiction, and homelessness.
Care–leaver parents often face additional vulnerabilities resulting from their own care experience, including limited or no family support, and poor social and community networks, often living outside their own local areas. In addition, parents who have been in care can lack self-esteem and self-confidence, and often struggle to build trusting relationships as a result of their experience in the care system. This, alongside the stigma and prejudice which care-experienced people continue to face in society, can result in care–leaver parents struggling to seek support with parenting, and they are often dependent on professionals when living independently.
EPIC believes there is a need for a dedicated, independent support service for parents whose children are coming into care or are in care, and we welcome the development of the new pilot service being led by Barnardos and initiated by Tusla which you will hear about today.
Through our national advocacy service, EPIC works with care-leaver parents who have agreed to voluntary care agreements with Tusla, as well as those who are in the Courts in relation to supervision orders, interim care orders or full care orders. Some of these young people can be quite vulnerable due to learning difficulties, mental health issues, and experience of addiction or domestic violence.
Referrals for advocacy support for care–leaver parents often come from these young people themselves, but also from their peers, Tusla social work and aftercare teams, former foster carers, residential services and solicitors, all of whom recognise that care leaver parents need specific and dedicated support.
The points at which advocates become involved with care leaver parents in respect of their children varies greatly, from Pre-Birth Case Conferences and Protection Case Conferences, to the court processes of supervision orders, emergency care orders, interim care orders and full care order hearings. We can also become involved when parents are engaging with social workers about the care planning and child in care reviews for their children.
Throughout our engagement with parents, we often support them to work with the range of state agencies involved with these families, which can include Social Protection, the HSE, Housing, Legal Aid and Tusla. The number of agencies involved reflects the range of systems and processes these parents must navigate, often with limited or no support.
The experience of having a child taken into care is a very traumatic, and we know that care experienced parents never want their children to be placed in care, even though this may be in the child’s best interests. We find interactions between care-leaver parents and social workers can be additionally heightened as these parents can be traumatised from their own experience of care. The parents can also feel judged by family and friends or their partner’s families. Care-leaver parents can sometimes struggle with the parental assessment options offered. While there are a variety of assessments used in Ireland, there are limited assessment options which keep parents and children together in supported situations. However, we have recently seen some examples of innovative practice where a vulnerable care leaver and their new-born were placed together in a foster–type placement.
Court processes are another daunting experience. For parents to have advocacy support in court, all parties involved in the case must agree as cases are held in-camera and judges make the final decision as to whether an advocate can be present. This can be intimidating for the care-leaver parent who may fear being in court without their Advocate’s support.
Parents experiences in the court space varies across the country due to the absence of dedicated family courts with a specialised judiciary, and we welcome Minister McEntee’s recent announcement of the long-awaited Family Justice Strategy and its vision for reform of the family justice system. The court sitting can also be difficult for care-leaver parents who have to be present at court until their case is called, and who must endure the lack of privacy in court buildings, including the lack of appropriate spaces for parents to read court reports and to speak to their solicitors. EPIC look forward to the establishment of the new family court complex at Hammond Lane which should rectify some of these issues.
In the court room, care-leaver parents can sometimes struggle to understand the interactions between the solicitors, those giving evidence and the directions of the judges in the case. EPIC has seen many examples of good practice whereby judges who recognise the vulnerability of the parents have made efforts to ensure they understand what is happening and are given opportunities to have their views heard, and practices that respect the dignity of the parent should be adopted by all professionals involved in the case.
Against this backdrop, EPIC believes there is a need for specific support on the following key areas:
- Ensuring parental understanding of the child protection and welfare system in Ireland, the associated processes and how to engage meaningfully with these.
- Guaranteeing parental understanding of the court system as it relates to child and family law, particularly in relation to the different types of Care Orders.
- Assisting parents to navigate the Court environment – building awareness of the different stakeholders’ engagement and the format of how cases are conducted.
- Understanding the information Tusla hold about parents and their families.
In conclusion, EPIC believes that the State has a particular duty to care-leaver parents by virtue of the fact these parents were themselves once children in care, and the state was acting in loco parentis for them. EPIC would like to see better recognition of care leaver parents, and to have this cohort prioritised for necessary supports and services. Collaboration between DCEDIY, and the Departments of Justice, Social Protection, Housing and Local Government, and Health are necessary if we are to break the inter-generational cycle which leads to young people leaving care and then having their own children taken into care. Early intervention and prevention work spearheaded by Tusla and the HSE is critical to lessen the cycle of care within these families.
We welcome the Barnardos Pilot Project on Support for Parents of Children in Care and we urge this Committee to monitor the progress of this project closely. We believe the findings should enable a clear assessment of the parental experience when children come into care, the range of approaches used across the country, and highlight good practice to promote consistency in approach and response to the needs of these parents. We must at all times remember that the rights and dignity of the parent must be observed when children come into care.
Thank you, and we look forward to the discussion.