Support Services for Family Law Courts: One Family

We are moving on to the presentation to the committee from One Family on the issue of child contact centres and ancillary family support services for private family law courts. I welcome Ms Karen Kiernan, CEO, and Ms Geraldine Kelly of One Family. I thank them for appearing before the committee.

I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I advise witnesses that any submissions or opening statements they have provided to the committee will be published on the committee website after this meeting. Ms Kiernan will make a short presentation here today, which will be followed by questions from the members of the committee.

Ms Karen Kiernan

I thank the Chairman. We are pleased to be here to address this important Committee on Children and Youth Affairs on what we see as the hidden issue of children in private family law, the lack of services and lack of cohesion around the care and supports for these children. For 44 years One Family has worked with people who are parenting alone, sharing parenting or separating. We were originally established as Cherish in 1972 and that may be a more familiar name to some of the members. Ireland is becoming more diverse all the time. More families are separating and more children live in blended, step-parent families. The European trend is that this will continue. Marriage rates are stable but separation and divorce has been increasing slightly, so that as a society we see our services and laws are still in the process of catching up. Certainly more investment is needed so the services and infrastructure needed around family law can be put in to support children as they go through what can be quite difficult transitions in their families. Separation is a long process in Ireland and the requirement for divorce is a separation of four years out of five. The separation process goes on for a very long time and this can be very difficult for parents and children. When people are sharing the parenting of their children it is a lifetime relationship and it is very important that people are able to establish the systems, practices and plans that help them to share parenting. One Family sees people who can do this very well. They focus on their children, they communicate well, they make good decisions they have predictability for their children. We also see some parents who are violent and abusive, are incapable of being child centred, they feel threatened and are threatening, and they can use the court system and their children as weapons. Most people are somewhere in between two stark opposites. We want to get people right on the good, functioning side for their children or a lot of harm could be done. Separation per se is not bad for children, but how it is done and managed can be bad for children.

I will now turn to the services, systems and policies that are available. There are the statutory services such as the Family Mediation Service. This service has long waiting lists and it is only available in some parts of the State. The Legal Aid Board is also under funded with many waiting lists. There are also the domestic abuse organisations and ourselves, One Family. There is, however, no cohesive system built to help these children and families. The new Children and Family Relationships Act 2015 is a great step forward in recognising the types of families in which children live and also in allowing courts to direct parents to undertake counselling or parenting programmes. Those parents must do this at their own expense. Equally, where a court needs an assessment - a parenting capacity assessment or a section 47 assessment where they see what is going on in the family and if there are chid safety issues - parents must pay for these assessments themselves. If they do not have the means to do so then the court does not have the full information available to it. There is no funding for counselling, timely mediation, parental assessments, parenting programmes or child assessments. There is no funding for parents to deal with emotional impact of their separation. many of the problems encountered by One Family are where parents are not being as child centred as possible and it is because the parent is in pain and they also need the time, space and support. Separation is actually like a bereavement in many ways but without the sympathy. The parents need to make a lot of decisions very quickly and they need to make big financial decisions. They need to make decisions about their children and they are often thrown into a legal system that is inherently adverserial, none of which is good for children. One Family would advocate for an alternative system. Services such as counselling, mediation and parenting programmes really help people to do all of this well. These services are inexpensive compared to anything to do with courts or the law. They keep people out of the courts and help them make good decisions that they can stick to rather than a court made decision. A judge could have ten or 15 minutes on a case but if parents can take the time to work it out themselves it is something that they can live with for longer and it is good for their children. There is, however, no coherent system or funding to support this kind of work.

With regard to child contact centres, we are very pleased to be able to speak about these with the committee. These centres are safe and supported places where children can spend time with the parent they do not live with. These centres can be found throughout Europe and the United States. There are pretty much no centres like this in Ireland. One Family has researched this issue and we ran a pilot centre with Barnardos, funded by the State for a few years, and it was very successful and used by the courts. We received very high conflict families who had multiple child protection or welfare issues. We were able to provide services for parents and safe places for parents - often the dad but not exclusively - to have time to spend with their children so that the relationship was not lost altogether. We were looking for the best interests of the child. Those programmes were very well evaluated and were supported politically and by the courts and Judiciary, but were closed due to lack of funding. Courts in Ireland now do not have anywhere to refer vulnerable families and children at risk in private family law cases. They do not have access to assessments and reports that we were able to do and sometimes parents, often fathers, then may not get to see their children because decisions are made perhaps without full information. Or, sometimes a person is ordered to supervise their child but they have a barring order against the other parent. They have to break the barring order to provide supervised access. None of these situations are satisfactory. Sometimes children can be court ordered into contact or access with a parent who is incapable of abusive, none of which we want to happen. From an economics point of view, when those centres were running people were in and out of the courts less and it saved court and legal aid board time, which was good.

I will now turn to the recommendations. I believe Ireland is catching up. Divorce is still relatively new in Ireland and we have not got the kind of infrastructure systems that are in other countries. We have a history in Ireland of seeing things in the family as private and within the domain of a private family rather than needing to provide supports around that. We want people to be able to separate well and to share parenting of their children well. We recommend that attention is paid to what services are needed from a child's perspective and when the reform of the law and the Family Law Courts happens that investment is made around what children need. The legal infrastructure is one thing but if money is not put in to these services it can be very difficult. There are benefits to reducing the use of courts for conflict and all those issues and children have better relationships with their parents. Ultimately, we need a system such as the UK's CAFCASS system. It is a child and family service; they are in courts, they do assessments, they risk assess families, they provide parenting programmes and it is a very comprehensive welfare system, specifically around families and children. Ireland has nothing like that and there are always gaps here, so children are sometimes getting lost in those gaps. Ireland also needs a number of child contact centres. I have some research reports around the value of the centres and what they cost. These reports are available online and I have put the link in our presentation to the members of the committee. If we were to consider one centre per Tusla area, which would be 17 child contact centres, it would cost around €3.5 million per year. This would cover the entire State and give very good services for vulnerable families. I thank the members for their attention.

I have read this over. It is a very well presented and easily read document where One Family has laid out the salient points. Cherish, 44 years ago, was fairly brave. Was it under the auspices of the church at the time? I am not sure if it was an independent set-up-----

Ms Karen Kiernan


It was a fairly brave step to push through those barriers I would imagine because 44 years ago divorce was still rare and society was conservative.

Ms Karen Kiernan

It was a group of unmarried mothers.

It would have been strange for it not to have been under the church at the time but we have moved along. It was a very brave step by the women at the time to take on that conservatism. I imagine those accessing support services for children experience financial poverty and family breakup. The greatest moral scandal of our time is homelessness. When parents split up, one parent may not be able to access rented accommodation due to poverty and the shortage of housing. Have the witnesses come across children who must interact with a homeless parent? We do not have child contact centres, but the witnesses have tried their best to facilitate children to see parents who are homeless and do not have the financial wherewithal to provide for the children or themselves.

I thank the witnesses for their presentation. Will the witnesses elaborate on the CAFCASS system and what is involved? Does it resemble legal aid or is it more advocacy and support? Much of One Family's work is focused on trying to keep people out of court and work through situations as best they can. Are there still shortfalls in how civil legal aid is provided to families in this situation?

It is worth remarking that the cut to the one-parent family payment and the changes in eligibility were among the most appalling measures taken by the previous Government. Will the witnesses comment on this? Single-parent families generally tend to be some of the most disadvantaged and marginalised economically and socially in many ways. Do the witnesses see this cut and change in eligibility having an impact?

Unless I am mistaken we have child contact centres, because I was in one in Togher in Cork. It is run by a family centre. I cannot quite remember the name of the facility. From my understanding it is the same thing. It is a beautiful, well appointed and very comfortable facility. The manner in which contact is observed is discreet and well done. I very much see its value and it is well worth supporting. We often discuss the best interests of the child, and rightly so. The family is an element of this, not in any way that trumps the best interests of the child but helping parents to be the best parents they can be in the difficult situations they are in and assisting them is in the best interests of the child. Do the witnesses see a role for family resource centres and other such facilities in managing and facilitating contact, such as takes place in child contact centres?

I thank the witnesses for their presentation. The organisation does fantastic work. I know the difficulties families go through in these situations. In my previous life I was a lawyer and I did a lot of family law work. I have seen at first hand what children go through when they go through the courts system. Very often, unfortunately, parents tend to forget the impact their conflict, separation and subsequent divorce has on a child. Once a child hits the age of two he or she has some understanding that there is a conflict. He or she will soak it up and there is an impact, which is very lasting.

I will not mention names but we have a particular judge on the circuit who is very good at pointing out to parents the most important people in the situation are always the children. She is very clear in asking parents to think long and hard about the impact their conflict is having on their children, and is very clear at making the point that the impact would be lasting if they did not get their act together, for want of a better phrase. We need a little bit more of this during the separation process to educate parents that the children will take this with them and carry it forward for many years if they do not behave in an appropriate manner. Looking in from the outside, it is very easy to be logical and leave emotions at the door, but it is a very emotional process, and almost a grieving process, that people go through. They grieve for their relationship. I am interested in hearing the thoughts of the witnesses on the four years required to separate. Is it too long? In my view it is far too long. When people take the decision to separate and subsequently seek a divorce, they can probably make the decision in a very well informed manner in a much shorter time period. We have one of the longest periods in the modern world to process a divorce. It is damaging to children involved in the situation.

What are the witnesses thoughts on how we facilitate children going through the courts process and the voice of the child? We have improved a little in terms of being able to ask children what they want. Previously we waited until they were quite a bit older, and perhaps we did not have an appreciation of the age at which a child has the capacity to have input into separation and divorce.

The approach to Christmas is one of the most difficult periods for a family. I have been in a court setting where parents argued over how many hours on Christmas Day each would get with the children, when they would pick them up on Christmas Eve and what night the children would stay with the mother and father. The children are aware of this. It is a difficult situation. Often this argument is borne out in a court setting, which seems so inappropriate. One would think if we could get both parties to sit down at a table in a mediation setting to try to work it out we would have a much better outcome. How can we improve on this? How can we keep it out of the courts? What services do we need to see in place?

The reasons I saw parents continuously returning to court were access and maintenance. I worked with people, predominantly women, who were having huge difficulties in getting the maintenance already ordered by the courts and had to return to court on a regular basis to try to enforce the order and get the money due to the children for their welfare and to look after them. No mechanism seems to be in place to enforce maintenance orders. The only port of call is to return to the courts. This clearly creates increased animosity between the two partners and continues the conflict well into the future. If a better mechanism was in place which did not require an individual to continuously return to court to enforce a court order it would have a real impact on limiting the amount of interaction between parents and the court system, which would be beneficial to the children.

I apologise in advance as I must leave at 10.55 a.m. I thank the witnesses for their presentation. I can remember when Cherish was founded, and I remember a few very brave women in the mid-west region. There is no question they would have been frowned on by any church at the time. It took a lot of courage on the part of the people who founded the organisation. In one sense, we have come along way since then.

Deputy Chambers spoke about the case for mediation. I understand there is mediation as an alternative to court proceedings, but obviously it is not adequate or adequately funded. Will the witnesses clarify this? The witnesses gave us a cost for safe contact centres. Do the witnesses have an overall costing for what clearly should be done in the interests of children regarding access to counselling, mediation and safe contact centres?

Deputy Chambers also made a point on parents having to return to court. People have come to me because they have an order for maintenance but they are not receiving it and they are wondering what they can do. Is there a system whereby it could be attached to earnings or social welfare payments? Is this possible?

I ask Ms Kiernan to respond to those questions and we will come back to Deputies Neville and Rabbitte.

Ms Karen Kiernan

I thank members for their questions and for the kind comments about our founders, which they would really appreciate - they are all still alive and well.

I will respond by theme. There were some good questions about the financial impact and poverty. Certainly nobody comes out of a separation or divorce better off; there are always more costs. The process can be costly and people are obviously trying to move into and create two homes for their children. As was correctly pointed out, this cannot always happen owing to a lack of money and a lack of places for people to live. We are well aware of many parents who are separated but who need to live in the same house, which causes massive stress for them and their children. As a result of how things have been in recent years from an economic point of view, people have found it very difficult to move out. They may be caught in negative equity. Equally, now there is nowhere to move to. It causes significant pressure on families.

If a father leaves the home, he may not be able to afford a place where his children can stay in order to maintain that kind of high-quality relationship. Occasionally, there are issues with the Department of Social Protection not quite understanding shared parenting and the impact it might have on social welfare. We are trying to engage with the Department on some of those issues. Someone may not get support to have a home big enough for their children because their children may not live with them all the time. As a society, we need to understand what shared parenting is and whether it is something we want to value. There could be a need for policy and legal changes as a result of that. It causes practical difficulties.

The vast majority of families going into homelessness are one-parent families. This could be because someone is leaving an abusive situation or because the relationship has ended - or the person may always have been on their own. If only one income is coming into a home, it is really difficult, in light of accommodation and child-care costs, to manage. One-parent families are always poorer than two-parent families, which have someone else to help with child care or with an income. Statistically, one-parent families are the poorest. The vast majority of poor children are from one-parent families. Child poverty rates have increased massively in recent years. I sit on the advisory council for Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, the national children and young people strategy. It has a target to lift 97,000 children out of poverty. We have had to increase that figure. There is a plan in place in the Department of Social Protection - it is a whole-of-Government approach - to tackle child poverty, which would be very welcome.

The budget 2012 cuts to the one-parent family payment were horrendous. The subsequent years were extraordinarily difficult for people parenting on their own who relied on social welfare. Many of the things introduced had to be reversed because they were not going to work. People ended up leaving jobs, which was counterproductive. While some of the things have been reversed, not enough has been done and, in the intervening period, more children have become poor. It was very disappointing and difficult for people and there are those who are still trying to deal with that. We saw a massive impact all the time.

I will ask Ms Kelly to respond on a couple of points. Deputy Jan O'Sullivan had a query on mediation. The family mediation service is statutorily funded, but there is a significant waiting list. To avoid that, people can pay privately, but if they cannot afford to do that, they are waiting. Sometimes quick intervention is required and that is an issue. The Deputy also had a question about the overall costing for all services. That is beyond me because it depends on how big one wants to go.

The CAFCASS system in the UK has been greatly cut in recent years; it was a better and more robust system. It is no longer world-class as it may have been in the past. However, it means where there are family law cases, there is often a CAFCASS officer in the court. If there is a need for an assessment of some kind, if concern is expressed over someone's ability to parent and have contact or access visits, or if there is concern over child safety or welfare, it can intervene and carry out risk assessments and parenting assessments and provide information relating to these to the court.

The child-contact centres are run separately from CAFCASS but there is a working relationship between them. The courts in the UK have the parenting information programme, PIP, which is a very short programme. We believe it is too short to be valuable. I am not sure who provides the programme. It could be done directly by CAFCASS or more likely contracted out to NGOs. The child-contact centres cost just over £200,000 per centre per year to run. They do all the assessments necessary and provide all the contact necessary.

A brief report is available online and I have a copy here. It gives information about how many families could be dealt with throughout the year. Not everybody needs the level of a child-contact centre; it is really for the highest-conflict families and not for people who just need some support - we were not getting many of those families. Judges were using those centres very well for the very intractable cases in order to progress them and keep people out of court.

I ask Ms Kelly to deal with the question about homelessness and children accessing their parents. There was another question about the family resource centres, particularly that in Togher.

Ms Geraldine Kelly

We do a considerable amount of work with families that are homeless because of separation and other reasons. When we worked through the child-contact centres, one of them was run through an FRC in Quarryvale in Dublin 22. We believe the FRCs are very well placed as locations for the child-contact centres because people want them at the weekends and in the evening time when the general work of the FRCs is not happening. Except for very young children, most people do not want the contact centre in the morning time. When we used the Quarryvale facility, it worked very well. There was plenty of space; it was a child-friendly environment and was very accessible. Some FRCs already have the staff who could be trained to work very well in a contact centre. Some of them do not. The staffing varies greatly.

We have spoken to managers of a number of FRCs who are already exploring the idea of their staff training up and offering some level of child-contact centres, including in Monaghan and Donegal. It is a huge issue for families that are homeless because the fathers do not have anywhere to go. Having a child-contact centre is very important because otherwise they are in shopping centres, sitting in McDonald's. Even for a parent who is with their child every day of the week, it is a very difficult experience to be in McDonald's for longer than 20 minutes. So having contact in McDonald's for two hours will not work out very well.

Deputy Lisa Chambers spoke about the Christmas contact and mediation. We support the shortening of the period of separation before divorce to two years because we see a heightened conflict. Many people are quite amicable when they first separate, but by the end of the four years the conflict is heightened and it gets worse as time goes on. Shortening that timeframe would suit many more people better.

We often support people with shuttle mediation - because they are in such high conflict having two people in the room at the same time is very difficult. Having different variations of mediation can work really well, but it needs to be very intense mediation every week. More resources are required for mediation. At present, the waiting lists run to four months. When we get the call for mediation, four months is too long because people are already in crisis at that stage. If we say to people, "Agree Christmas now", it will be Easter before they get a mediation appointment, which is too long.

The aim is to keep parents out of court for contact and maintenance issues. They are the two main reasons they are in and out of court all the time. Judges cannot support them with those issues; they are really issues for mediation. We also offer a lot of parent mentoring which really supports people. When we ran the contact centres all of the parents engaged in parent mentoring and counselling which really helped them to explore the impact of the conflict on their children. It challenged them to look at their own couple conflict, try to get past it and to move on with the business of shared parenting. That really helped people to move forward, leave the couple relationship behind and focus on their children.

I ask Ms Kelly when she responds to the next group of questions to clarify an issue. Separation in families does not always just happen between the parents. Sometimes children are separated from their parents because, for example, one parent is abusive and the other parent sticks by him or her. Does One Family have a role to play in circumstances where children are separated from their families or is that an issue entirely for Tusla?

Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire referred to a centre in Togher. Tusla uses a centre there for children who are in the care of the State. Is that the same centre that One Family uses? Is there a cross over there? Is One Family working independently of or in co-operation with Tusla?

I thank the witnesses for their presentation. I wish to raise the issue of separation cases which have gone through the court system and where the parties are in and out of court on a fairly regular basis. One parent goes to court to ask that passports be handed over because there is a fear that the child might be taken out of the country. What support is provided if that fear comes to pass and the child is taken out of the jurisdiction by a parent? What is done for the parent who is left behind? That can be a very costly event. Reference was made earlier to costs in terms of getting all of the required documentation together in order to try to get a child back. Every page that needs a notary stamp on it costs €40. In those circumstances, a safe contact centre might have worked well in terms of preventing such an event from happening in the first place. How many safe contact centres are there in Ireland at the moment?

Ms Karen Kiernan

There are no safe contact centres here.

Are we using family resource centres as a point of contact? What is the level of engagement with the family resource centres, of which there are 109 in the country? Are we linking in with them?

The witnesses said earlier that a sum of €3.3 million would fill the gap. I ask them to expand on that point.

Ms Karen Kiernan

I apologise but I missed some of the earlier questions, particularly from Deputy Lisa Chambers. I will do my best to cover all of the issues raised. I will try to clarify the difference between child protection access and what we were doing. Our work centres on access in private family law cases where the child or children were living with and in the care of one of their parents but were entitled to have access visits with the other parent. Sometimes there were child protection issues with that parent and sometimes there were no actual issues but there were concerns. It is a very grey area. We would like to see Tusla do more work with private family law cases to try to fill in some of those gaps.

Members asked about situations where the child has been removed, is in care and Tusla is obliged to provide contact between the child and his or her siblings or parents. Sometimes Tusla would ask organisations like One Family or the family resource centres to get involved in that process because Tusla is under resourced, in terms of both space and staff. That is Tusla's obligation. When we ran the contact centres we offered physical space to social workers and also offered our services in terms of enabling contact, but they did not take us up on that. We are very unclear as to why that was the case. We used Quarryvale Family Resource Centre, as Ms Kelly said and we also used a bespoke contact centre in Ballymun which was built for public child cases involving children in care. That centre has separate rooms for each family and the contact is supervised through a window.

There can be cross over. If the system was built well, we could share resources more to enable children in both public and private family law cases to have access because a lot of the processes are the same. The children who are not getting enough attention at the moment are those in private family law cases because their families are expected to do it themselves but they cannot always do so. We are aware that centres in Carrigaline, County Cork and in Arklow, County Wicklow facilitate some private family law contact, as well as contact in child care cases.

Over the years, a lot of this work was done on a voluntary basis in Ireland through the churches. That was certainly the tradition in the UK where a lot of churches ran contact centres in church halls. They were extremely low cost and were run by volunteers, usually with a part-time co-ordinator. The difference between the UK and Ireland, however, is that the former has the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, CAFCASS, which means that children arriving at the contact centres had already been risk assessed, they had their folders and the volunteers knew exactly what they were dealing with. It should be noted that those services were not necessarily moving on the parents. They were solely facilitating contact. In our case, we would also want to intervene with the parents to try to move them on and out of the centre, ideally. That is not always possible but that is what we would be aiming for. Figures indicate that the cost of these centres in the UK is very low but there is good reason for that.

The voice of the child is an issue of concern to us. While there is now a requirement to take into account the voice of the child, the courts have not yet figured out how to hear the voice of the child in any systematic way or how to do so in an age appropriate way. Some judges may hear children in chambers while others may not. There is a lot of work to be done in that area and it will require additional resources. Based on our experience, we would argue that it requires specially trained people to work with children over a period of time to actually figure out what they may need. One Family provides play therapy for children and we did so in the contact centres too, which can be a very effective way of supporting children through a process like separation or any kind of difficulty or trauma.

Members mentioned repeated court visits, particularly around issues like access and maintenance. That is the bane of peoples' lives. We would have got people to reach fairly good agreements around access and shared parenting and then if something happened on the money side, all of those agreements went out the window. It is a constant process of working with people, keeping them focused. Maintenance is a very difficult issue. How maintenance payments are assessed for social welfare purposes is particularly difficult. If, for example, a father stops paying maintenance, the mother may need to go back to court to prove that. It can be a very long process and during that time she can be out of pocket. An attachment of earnings is possible but if the father changes jobs, the mother may have to return to court again. It can be both lengthy and costly. The courts would like more cases to be settled out of court, particularly maintenance cases because the courts are under a lot of pressure.

In the UK, they have the Child Support Agency but my understanding is that it did not do what it was supposed to do. It is very difficult to access money from the liable relative. In countries like Sweden, the state takes the responsibility. The state provides what is needed and guarantees an income to the child. If the liable relative does not pay, the state follows that up. That works very well for children, particularly in terms of combating child poverty. That is the gold standard system in terms of the desired outcome, which is money going to children.

We recently conducted a national survey of people who share parenting. We got over 1,000 responses and we are going to publish the findings of that survey at a seminar with a number of respondents from the legal world and from Tusla on 30 January. I invite all members of this committee to attend that seminar. As I said, we got over 1,000 responses and thousands of comments from parents which we have read thoroughly. Maintenance is a massive issue and a massive trigger.

There are gender issues around separation. Sometimes men can feel that the court, the system or the mediation is against them. Sometimes women say it is definitely against them and that they are treated differently as single parents. There is a great deal of pain and confusion there and, at a distance, the rest of us are looking at all that and finding that it is difficult to make policy because people's experiences are so different. What we are trying to do is understand how people share parenting and what would help them to do it better. We are learning a great deal from that as well. Access and maintenance are a huge part of that but there is no easy answer that we can see.

There was a query on passports and abduction and Deputy Chambers clearly knows a bit about a particular case. We do not have expertise at the level of legal support around abductions. We do a lot of family parenting support and have a helpline. It may be that Deputy Chambers knows more around legal support in respect of abduction. Certainly, we can support people emotionally and signpost them. It is something that is becoming more common. There are concerns around Brexit and whether it will cause more difficulties within the island of Ireland never mind for those living in Britain. It is an area of concern which needs to be looked at. The Minister, Deputy Zappone, has already looked at issues around Brexit and this has come up. Professor Geoffrey Shannon is looking at doing some work around that because we need to know. It is a hugely distressing area. We have worked with people around those cases. It is not our area of expertise. Does Ms Kelly have anything to add to that?

Ms Geraldine Kelly

When we work with families, some people always worry about the passport at the start; who has the passport, where is it going to be and is somebody going to take the child without telling the other parent? It is often the case that through the mediation support, working with parents and helping them to communicate and share parenting, that worry starts to die down as they start to trust each other and there is less concern about who has the passport. I have not met a family where someone has abducted a child but I have met a lot of families where it was initially a huge concern. Through a great deal of work over a number of months and a couple of years, their concern has decreased to the stage where they are quite happy to pass the passport freely from one parent to the other or they leave it with a solicitor. I do not know how much they pay the solicitor to mind it for them. It comes back to supporting people to get past the conflict so that they trust each other to take children out of the country and bring them back again. There are obviously always huge issues and thankfully we have the Hague convention relationship with lots of countries as a support and to ensure that things are safe.

I thank the witnesses and the members for their co-operation and engagement during the session. We wish One Family continued success with its endeavours and will be delighted to assist in any way we can. The launch is on 30 January.

The joint committee went into private session at 11.05 a.m. and adjourned at 11.35 a.m. until 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 25 January 2017.