Development of Guardian ad Litem Services must reflect and incorporate the Rights of Children

04 Apr 2017 in Press Releases, Advocacy, Featured

Barnardos has called on the Government to ensure that every child involved in care proceedings has access to a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) as a matter of right.

A Barnardos Conference: Getting the Balance Right: Proportionality, timeliness and decision making in childcare proceedings to mark 20 years of GAL services in Ireland took place on April 4th.

Barnardos CEO Fergus Finlay said “The Government is proposing welcome legislation to put this service on a proper footing. The legislation, which will be reforming in its intent and scope, is based on the premise that in future it will be the “norm” for every child involved in care proceedings before the Courts to have access to a Guardian ad Litem where they need it. At present, about half of all children involved in such life-transforming situations, who are often extremely vulnerable, at risk, and alone, have that access, and it is given at the discretion of the judge in the case. We believe the Government must go further, and enshrine it in the new law as a right.”

Freda McKittrick, Head of the Barnardos Guardian ad Litem Service, will highlight that reform, though welcome and necessary, must not stop with Guardians ad Litem. She will call on the Government to convene a group of all the stakeholders in this area to devise new structures and arrangements that would lead to less adversarial and conflictual approaches in the making of decisions about the future welfare of children at risk, and new settings that would be much less intimidating to children and families.

The conference will also recognise that the 1991 Child Care Act is 25 years old. In that quarter of a century, despite many positive developments, it has remained a constant struggle to ensure that the child’s voice is heard in effective ways that are meaningful.

Guardians ad Litem play a key role in this. The GAL system has grown up on an ad hoc basis, and legal reforms underpinning the needs for appropriate skills and qualifications, while pointing the way to a value-for-money approach to the provision of the service, are welcome. The key must be the enhancement of the right of the child to be heard, taken seriously, and respected in the context of decisions that will change their lives.

Ms McKittrick added “judicial decisions have a profound impact on the lives of children and families. This conference enables different professionals to discuss the importance of timeliness in decision making for child care cases and the balance to be struck between proportionate responses and interventions to the family and child at risk. It will also be a learning event to enhance our understanding of the legal framework on the one hand and on the other to engage with evidence from the practice and research about the impact of court decisions on the lives of children and their families.”

As the largest provider of GAL services in Ireland, working with 830 children last year, Barnardos has long called for the need for a properly regulated and managed system for providing Guardian ad Litem services to the courts.

Find out more

Following Barnardos GAL's 20th anniversary conference on April 4th we asked our speakers several key questions about the Guardian ad Litem service in Ireland: 

Michael's Story

Michael, age 10 came to Ireland with his mother from Nigeria when he was two years old.  His mother had serious mental health difficulties. When he was eight his mother died by suicide while Michael was in the house with her on his own. Michael was immediately taken into care on an Emergency Care Order. 

After a year and a half Michael was made the subject of a Care Order up to the age of 18. There were concerns as Michael did not settle in care and had moved to three different foster homes by the time he was 10 years old. The court requested a Guardian ad Litem to assess Michael’s needs and what was in his best interests. At this time a Nigerian family who knew Michael’s mother had come forward asking if they could be considered to foster Michael. This family had kept in touch with Michael since he came into care by visiting him and sending him cards and gifts for his birthday and Christmas. However, they did not seem to engage well with the social work department – calls were not returned and they did not attend appointments.

The Barnardos Guardian ad Litem (GAL) met Michael a number of times to build a rapport and trust with him. She was able to learn from him that he knew and liked the Nigerian family and that they had been able to talk to him about his mother and his past. He wished to live with this family.

Because of this, the GAL met with the family and watched Michael in their company. She also met the people who knew Michael best – his social worker, foster carers and the professionals who worked with him. She introduced the foster carers and the Nigerian family and it meant a lot to Michael to see them get along well and allowed him to talk to his carers about the other family. She explained the role of the social work department, the fostering department and their working practices to the family, and they followed up on their contact with them.

The GAL liaised with the fostering department in relation to the relative assessment of the Nigerian family which was positive. Michael began to spend more time with the family, including overnights. Ultimately, the Nigerian family were approved as foster carers for Michael.

The court reviewed Michael’s situation and it was agreed that it was in Michael’s best interests to live with the Nigerian family. Michael moved to this family on a fulltime basis and is thriving in their care.