Guarding the rights of children in court
We sit in the basement of a Georgian building on Ely Place, Dublin, the law practice where child protection solicitor Catherine Ghent works.
We are either side of a long wooden table; behind Ghent’s back are mounds of boxes containing case files. She apologises for not bringing me to her office upstairs – it is too full of boxes, she says.
Hardly surprising – Ghent (36), who joined Gallagher Shatter over a year ago, generally has at least four cases a day in the courts.
Her legal instinct, she says, goes back to growing up in Tyrone in a Catholic family; she was very aware of discrimination. “I grew up in a house with a very strong emphasis on civil rights, grew up with a view that a community having suffered it [discrimination] had a duty to ensure it never happens to anyone again.”
Her parents were “very anti the violence” and she was aware of human rights lawyers Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson and “the necessity that things be protected through the courts”. She went to Trinity College Dublin to study law and thought it would be “all about civil rights” but found it “more about contract and land law”. She nearly switched to music until she discovered criminology and human rights law.
She started her apprenticeship with criminal law firm John Quinn Co, which at the time had the biggest practice in the children’s court.
“The first time I read a social work report I literally could not believe what I was reading. I found it really upsetting. I couldn’t believe that a 13-year-old child would be the subject of the abuse I was reading about and I just thought we had to do something to help.”
She spent a lot of time representing children in criminal law cases. At the children’s court she formed the view that so many there hadn’t been given adequate protection to grow and develop in the same way as other children.
“You hear their history and you say why was this child left in those circumstances? Or else you hear they were removed from the home and had 16 placements by the age of 12.
“For anybody who has a functioning, supporting, loving family, to move 16 times would be extremely difficult, but when you have been rejected by everybody in your life, each placement move is a further rejection compounding all the other issues.”
She does not see background as an excuse for bad behaviour but “if you want to stop crime you have to understand where that came from”.
Now 97 per cent of her work involves representing guardians ad litem in court. The court appoints these guardians, in cases such as those taken by the HSE, to convey the voice of the child and independently assess what is in the child’s interest. Guardians appoint solicitors in court to advocate for them.
She seems to get the most complex of the cases, she says with a wry smile. She tries to make sure in the battles between parents and the HSE, and within the HSE in terms of resources and best practice, that children are listened to and their welfare is paramount.
She sees two types of parents in her work, she says – those who are vulnerable and really love their children but just can’t care for them, and those who do very bad things to their children. She admits it is hard to go home at night when a child she thinks should be in care is not. “It’s also sometimes difficult to deal with what has happened to children, the viciousness, the cruelty of it.”
Every so often, she comes across a case where there are children who are so resilient despite everything that has happened to them. “You see an absolute spark of potential and it is very difficult at times to see that potential gradually fade because of circumstances not of their own making. You have to have empathy; the day you’re unshockable is the day to leave child protection.”
She abhors the practice of sending some children, the subject of secure care orders, out of the jurisdiction for specialist care in England and Scotland. “We should be building those units here; we should not be exporting children.”
Society needs to take ownership of these children, she says.
“Just because you might have grown up in a nice area and you don’t meet people like that in your school and you don’t meet people like that in your job, in your social scene, doesn’t mean you don’t have any link to them.”
There needs to be greater accountability and better analysis of spending too, with “brave” investment in things which will not show immediate results, like early intervention, breakfast clubs, family support, early identification of speech and language difficulties.
She queries why the HSE has senior counsel in every case and why “adversarial positions are being taken”.
“If there was more openness, there would be greater appreciation of the need for collective thinking and collective responsibility and the potential to learn from the other person’s perspective. Children get lost when people step into defensive mode.”