Children abused during parental visits arranged by courts, women’s group claims

No assessments carried out of children’s risk during visits, says Women’s Aid

Rachel Mullen, Margaret Martin and Ursula Regan of  Women’s Aid. Photograph: Eric Luke

Rachel Mullen, Margaret Martin and Ursula Regan of Women’s Aid. Photograph: Eric Luke

Thu, Jun 13, 2013, 01:00

Violence against children and women is continuing during access visits arranged by courts, according to a report by Women’s Aid.

The risk to children during these visits was not being assessed because there was no agency set up to do this, said Ursula Regan, family law solicitor and Women’s Aid chairwoman.

The problem was compounded by the “tsunami of work” being dealt with by the Dublin family law court.

Last year 68 callers to the Women’s Aid helpline said children were abused during visits and 320 women said they were abused themselves.

In some cases the visits were arranged by courts and in others they were informally arranged.

Overall the Women’s Aid annual report for last year shows more than 3,200 calls to the group reported cases of child abuse, including more than 2,800 cases of emotional abuse, 214 of physical abuse and 67 cases of sexual abuse.

Death threats
Children were physically abused during access visits and witnessed their mothers being abused.

Women also reported they had received threats that their children would be killed or not returned during visits.

In some cases children were upset or had nightmares after being exposed to films rated for adults.

“There is no agency or no body assessing how children feel about being accessed by the perpetrator of domestic violence,” Ms Regan said.

“These are children who will have witnessed domestic violence directly, seen their mother being beaten, seen their mother being raped, seen their mother being punched,” she added.

Some judges brought children into their chambers to assess their needs but others were reluctant to do this because of a lack of training, she said. Despite a constitutional amendment on children’s rights, there was no provision “for the voices of those children to be heard”.

“The reality is, all the State is doing is paying lip service – they pass a Children’s Act, they don’t invoke sections of it,” she said.

Judges can also order the HSE to carry out a risk assessment before granting access to fathers but that can take up to nine months. Damage was being caused to children where judges allowed access pending an assessment and where that assessment subsequently found visits should not be allowed, she added.

In cases where children were abused, Women’s Aid said it would encourage women to report the incident to gardaí. Failing that, it was obliged to report the abuse under its own policy guidelines.The set-up at the Dublin family court in Dolphin House was “appalling”, Ms Regan said. There were queues out on to the street and women had to sit in close proximity to violent partners.

The court received more than 4,000 applications in the first three months of this year – more than 1,500 were for custody, access and maintenance, over 500 were for protection or barring orders and 57 were for interim barring orders.

An expansion to the domestic violence legislation had prompted an increase in applications without any changes made to the infrastructure of the building, she added.

Women’s Aid freephone helpline: 1800-341900