Judge Rosemary Horgan highlights foster care problems

District Court president expresses concern at breakdown of placements

The president of the District Court has expressed concern about the frequency with which foster care placements break down.

Judge Rosemary Horgan said while it sounded good that 93 per cent of the 6,420 children who are in care are in foster homes, "that in itself can be misleading".

She told a conference on education and the law at St Angela’s College, Sligo, on Saturday that sometimes children who had a difficult start in life had many placements.

“It’s not the fault of the foster parents or indeed it’s not the child’s fault if a placement breaks down,” the judge added.


She said there was no pre-matching of children with families.

“A lot of the time it’s a case of, is there a family available?” Pointing out that some children have up to 11 placements, she asked, “Is it any wonder they end up in our juvenile justice courts?”

The judge said that some of these children have attachment problems and some, having had many social workers, end up having no confidence in social workers.

Lack of confidence

Even those with “extraordinarily good” social workers tended to develop huge disrespect and lack of confidence in social work departments, the judge added. “It is nobody’s fault but it needs to be looked at.”

The District Court president told delegates, many of them educators and lawyers, that 21st-century schools were grappling with the same problems as 21st-century courts.

She said some children who were caught up in child protection cases ended up in the juvenile courts perhaps because they had not “won the parental lottery”. Some parents had chaotic lives, through addiction or homelessness, and as a result their children were not attending school.

The judge said research had established that many children and adolescents who come in contact with the courts present with high rates of traumatic stress caused by their life experience. “We may perceive them as inherently disrespectful, defiant or anti-social but their behaviour would be better understood in the context of a traumatic stress disorder.”

Multiple interviews

The judge expressed concern about the multiple interviews children are subjected to in child abuse investigations. “One joint interview should be sufficient.”

She said inappropriate language, having to testify more than once, face to face contact with the accused and delays and adjournments all added to the stress.

The judge also told the conference of the importance of interpreters in providing access to justice. She said courts should give interpreters enough time to listen and translate.While it might be irritating for other parties, “an interpreter has only one pair of ears”. They needed to be given time to listen to what is being said, to translate it for the client and then convey the reply to the judge, she pointed out.

And she stressed the importance of “cultural competency” for judges and all those working in the courts. In some cultures, for example, it was respectful to not engage in eye contact, while that might be perceived as “shifty” by others, she said.

Marese McDonagh

Marese McDonagh

Marese McDonagh, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports from the northwest of Ireland