The Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting restrictions have had a particularly heavy impact on vulnerable and marginalised children, none more so than those who require the protection of the State through the child care courts. The impact of the crisis on vulnerable children and their families emerges as a major issue in the latest volume of reports published by the Child Care Law Reporting Project. The reports describe how the courts are attempting to hear cases despite the restrictions, but inevitably proceedings are adjourned and hearings are reduced, which is likely to lead to a backlog. This emphasises once again the urgency of establishing a family division in the courts, which the new Government has committed to do.
One of the issues highlighted in these reports is that of access, where face-to-face contact between children in care and their parents was often discontinued and access could only take place remotely. Access is often a vital link to their birth families for children in care, and very young children, or those with disabilities, can find it difficult to deal with remote contact.
The reports also highlight a problem for vulnerable parents, where those struggling with addiction or mental health problems have been placed under further strain which impeded their recovery and hampered efforts at reunification with their children. The pandemic has also posed problems for assessments and services which could not be delivered face to face. While these could be delivered via video link, not all therapies, nor indeed all clients, are suited to this and it inevitably impacts on the availability of services and contributes to delays in hearing cases. As we reopen society the particular needs of vulnerable children must be prioritised.
The State has committed to a number of international agreements which stress that priority must be given to the needs of children at times of crisis. These latest reports from the child protection courts highlight the need for special attention to be paid to this most vulnerable group of children who require the protection of the State.