Reports on child protection cases will shed light on State care system

The Child Care Law Reporting Project, which goes live today, will contribute to debate

Carol Coulter and Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald at the launch of the Child Care Law Reporting Project in December. Photograph: Eric Luke

More than 5,000 children are in the care of the State, mostly on foot of orders made in the courts. Yet the public has, up to now, had no way of knowing what the circumstances were that led the Health Service Executive to seek such orders.

Even the professionals, legal practitioners and judges dealing with the cases have had no way of knowing how the 1991 Child Care Act, under which these orders are sought, operates in different parts of the country and whether its operation is consistent.

This is because such proceedings are heard in camera and cannot be reported. This has been interpreted by the HSE to restrict the release of any information relating to children in care. That interpretation led it to conclude that the then minister of state for children, Barry Andrews, and the Geoffrey Shannon and Norah Gibbons inquiry established to investigate the deaths of children in care, could not have access to the files of the children in question because of the in camera rule, and special legislation had to be enacted to permit the release of the files.

The Shannon/Gibbons report, published in June last year, recommended that the in camera rule be changed so that proceedings could be reported on without identifying the children. "By allowing a veil of secrecy to cover the work of the court in these types of issues, public confidence in the system is damaged and it prevents the recognition of good work and, in equal measures, the recognition of areas in need of reform," the report said.


In fact the legal framework for doing so already existed, in the 2007 Child Care (Amendment) Act, which provided for reporting of childcare proceedings, subject to protecting the anonymity of the families concerned, and under regulations to be made by the minister for children. These regulations were not made, however, until November 2012, when they were made and signed by Frances Fitzgerald. The regulations name a number of bodies that can attend and report on childcare proceedings, including the major academic institutions, the ESRI and Free Legal Advice Centres (Flac). It does not include the media, which are to be permitted to attend childcare and private family law cases (normally involving disputes between couples) under new legislation being prepared by Minister for Justice Alan Shatter.

The 2012 regulations permitted the setting up of the Child Care Law Reporting Project, under the umbrella of Flac, to attend and report on childcare cases and conduct additional research. The reports will be carried on the project’s dedicated website,, which goes live today with its first tranche of 30 reports. These reports include a case where a baby was reported to have been placed in a wheelie bin by her mother who suffered from mental illness, a case where a 16-year-old girl asked to come into care, and a case where four children returned to their mother, a recovering alcoholic, after a period in care.

The publication of such reports will give the public some insight into the reasons why children end up in care, and will allow for informed debate on the thresholds for the taking of children into State care. It will also demonstrate the use of alternatives, such as supervision orders, which allow the social services visit families uninvited where there are serious concerns about the children’s welfare.

Reports on past State failures in relation to vulnerable children, and the debate on the children's amendment, remain fresh in the public mind. Legislation setting up the new Child and Family Support Agency, which takes child welfare out of the remit of the HSE and into a dedicated agency under the direction of Gordon Jeyes, will soon be published.

The public must be involved in discussing the kind of child welfare and protection policies and structures we need. The Child Care Law Reporting Project will contribute to that discussion.

Carol Coulter is director of the Child Care Law Reporting Project. She is former legal affairs editor of The Irish Times .