Childcare court reports will fill ‘void’, says judge

Court reporting project to reveal workings of childcare proceedings for first time

A pioneering new reporting project will go a long way to filling a “void of information” on how the courts deal with sensitive childcare cases, the president of the District Court has said.

Speaking at the launch of the Child Care Law Reporting Project, which will give the public an insight for the first time into proceedings where children are taken into State care, Judge Rosemary Horgan said the initiative would help dispel public misapprehensions about the area.

She said public childcare law was in need of greater transparency. “Given the gravity of such cases, a greater degree of information outlining the role, practices and procedures adopted by the courts in such instances is vital,” Judge Horgan said.

“This will enable the public to have a greater understanding of the vast range of issues presented in these cases and the methods which the courts use to make their decisions.”

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Under the initiative, directed by former Irish Times journalist Carol Coulter, reports will be published online outlining the facts of a representative selection of childcare cases heard across the State.


In camera rule
Reports on such cases have not previously been available, due to the in camera rule that prohibit journalists and other members of the public from attending childcare proceedings.

The first batch of reports, which were published online yesterday, reveal the reasons why the Health Service Executive seeks orders taking children into interim or long-term care, the responses of the families concerned and the input of the judges hearing the cases. The reports do not identify the children or their families.

Among the 30 cases published are one in which a baby was reported as having been placed in a wheelie bin by her mother who suffered from mental illness; one in which a 16-year-old girl asked to come into care; and one in which four children returned to their mother, a recovering alcoholic, after a period in care.

The judge said the site would go a long way to “filling a void of information” so that everybody concerned with child welfare, including those who come before the courts, legislators and the general public “can address these issues with the knowledge of the realities of the various situations, rather than on the basis of conjecture”.


'Veil of secrecy'
Setting out the aims of the project, Dr Coulter said she hoped it would help lift the "veil of secrecy" that had surrounded State care for vulnerable children for too long.

While public discussion of child welfare was often driven by failures and catastrophes, the reports would give a snapshot of routine cases as they went through the courts.

Dr Coulter said the project would probably reveal different practices in courts around the country.

Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald, who signed off on the regulation allowing for the project to be carried out, said it would shed light into a complex area and help inform public policy.

“It’s a turning point in terms of an openness and a transparency about what is happening in our courts in relation to childcare and family law,” she said.

The reporting initiative is co-funded by Atlantic Philanthropies, the One Foundation and the Department of Children.

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic is the Editor of The Irish Times