Families ‘struggling to navigate’ justice and education systems – helpline

Engaging with the systems became ‘all the more difficult’ during Covid-19 pandemic

One in four callers to the Children’s Rights Alliance’s  helpline last year had queries in relation to education. Photograph: iStock

One in four callers to the Children’s Rights Alliance’s helpline last year had queries in relation to education. Photograph: iStock

 

The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted serious concerns about the efficacy of both the family law and education systems in responding to the rights and needs of children and young people, the Children’s Rights Alliance has said.

One in four callers to the alliance’s helpline last year had queries in relation to education, the first time it overtook family law issues since the phone line was established in 2018.

The Children’s Rights Alliance published the annual report of its helpline and legal advice clinics for 2020 on Tuesday.

As the first lockdown began in March 2020, the helpline saw an increase in the number of queries about access visits between separated parents and their children. Parents were confused about the potential impact of the restrictions and lockdown, and whether access should remain the same, the report said.

The blanket ban placed on children entering shops at the early stages of the pandemic “had a disproportionate impact on people parenting alone and people whose partners were frontline workers”, it added.

Last year also saw an increase (11 per cent) from other NGO organisations and statutory bodies, “pointing to a gap in adequate legal resources for organisations working to protect and support children and young people”.

Parents and guardians made up the majority of callers to the helpline (65 per cent), while 5 per cent of callers were children or young people.

Reduced school days

Julie Ahern, legal and policy manager at the Children’s Rights Alliance, said one of the most concerning education issues emerging from calls to the helpline was the use of reduced school days or reduced timetables.

“We have heard from families with children as young as six who have been placed on a reduced school day, sometimes for most of the school year. In all of our cases in 2020, there was no plan in place about how to reintegrate the child back into a full school day and, in the vast majority of cases, children were only in school for an hour or two a day,” Ms Ahern said.

“Reduced timetables is one of the most serious human rights issues impacting children, as it restricts their constitutional rights to access education. The lasting impact it can have on a child’s life cannot be ignored as, ultimately, it reduces their opportunities to build relationships with their peers or fulfil their full potential.”

Tanya Ward, chief executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance, said “it is clear some families are struggling”.

“Struggling to navigate a complex justice system or an education system that is not meeting the needs of their child. Some families simply do not know where to go to find the right support or an advocate who will help them,” Ms Ward said.

“During the pandemic, engaging with these systems became all the more difficult. Accessing legal advice specifically on children’s rights and issues can be almost impossible for most families.

“Children and young people under 18 have no enforceable right to legal aid or legal advice. They cannot take cases on their own. The Government needs to step up and step in, to help fight for the rights of children and help them have their voices heard because right now, many feel like they are doing it alone.”

Ms Ward said as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and the nature of the queries they were receiving, the alliance expanded its helpline service and now offer it three days a week.