By Conal McGarrity
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Are We Listening? The Experience of Children and Young People in Court Settings

The Northern Ireland Guardian Ad Litem’s recent conference on this subject addressed how children and young people feel about their experiences in the court system. There was an overwhelming view that truly listening to the child is crucial in all child centred decision making.

Eminent speakers addressed such issues to an audience of legal and care professionals.  Lemn Sissay MBE, writer and poet spoke about his experiences in foster care while Sir John Gillen highlighted the need for children to have a greater say. In his review of Civil and Family Justice in Northern Ireland  back in September 2017) The Right Honourable Lord Justice Gillen reported on how the child and vulnerable witnesses need to be listened to by the Courts in an ‘informed manner’. He concluded in 2017 that our collective understanding of how best to hear the views of children and young people in the court setting ‘is developing and is still, to an extent, in its infancy’.

Those children in care have made it clear by stating ‘I should always be at the centre of everything during the care proceedings.  Another clear message was heard by all professionals by one person in care stating ‘It is always best for the Judge to hear the powerful feelings included within my words’. Sir John Gillen highlighted that each family Judge should even have a photograph of those children involved in case so that a personal aspect could be given to the case, and each Judge should be open to meeting with children.

Mr Peter Reynolds of NIGALA said that ‘the process of decision-making for children, whose ‘welfare’ for one reason or another is the consideration of the courts is often perceived to be ‘done’ by adults without the child ‘knowing and having been consulted’. By taking into account the ‘lived experience’ of families, children and young people who enter the court arena and who rightly expect to have their aspirations met, through engagement we can begin to ask the question, how well we as practitioners ‘listen’ and how effective is our system of social care and justice in meeting these aspirations’.

He underlined that the changing face of health and social care in Northern Ireland requires us to work more ‘collaboratively’ and ‘collectively’ across the system and beyond the boundaries which have traditionally defined our respective services.

Care Experienced Conference 10 Top Messages

At a recent conference in England entitled the ‘Care experienced Conference’ 10 top messages appeared from children in care. It is sound advice for legal and care professionals to take these on board when dealing with children in our family cases. They say:

  1. We need more love in the care system, including displays of positive physical affection.

  2. We want to be seen as individuals, worthy of respect much more than we are.

  3. Relationship are critically important to us.

  4. Instability and loss of continuity in our lives is made worse through not fault of ours but due to pressures on the care system.

  5. Mental health and well being are our biggest worries.

  6. Impact of the care experience does not end at 18, or 21 or even 25.

  7. Our sense of who we are is important.

  8. Having our say is essential.

  9. We have legal rights and entitlements and we are not always told what they are.

  10. Nobody knows more about what it meant to be in care than we do.

The State is Failing Too Many Children in its Care

Sir James Munby Past President of the Family Division of the High Court in England, wrote that the state is failing too many children in its care and these failings are the subject of increasing concern on the part of both judges and media. He highlighted four issues:

1. The serious lack of adequate provision, residential and non-residential, for the increasing numbers of children with mental health difficulties.

2. Increasing difficulties in finding suitable secure accommodation and other therapeutic resources for some of our most troubled children.

3. The unfair treatment of kinship carers.

4. The scarcity of suitable housing accommodation available for young people in care or as they transition out of the care system into adulthood.

“These serious failings, by a country which is still one of the richest in the world. He said the system was failing to accommodate the voices of children “well enough” – including in cases where they wished “to see the court, give evidence or meet the judge”., are the subject of increasing concern by the judges and increasing criticism in the media.”

A full review of the care system has just taken place in Scotland and has called for a radical overhaul of Scotland’s care system. It has revealed a system that is fractured, bureaucratic and which doesn’t adequately value the voices and experiences of those in it.

To Conclude

In conclusion, wise words emanate from this report in Scotland. Their recommendations should be noted here in Northern Ireland. Are we listening here?  The balance of power must be upended so that

We should parent, not process, children, so that there is no difference between the lives of children in care and their peers.

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