Northern Ireland

Judge criticises lack of support for struggling parents

A High Court judge has criticised the lack of help available for struggling parents who are at risk of having their children taken into care.

Mr Justice Weir made the remarks in a ruling relating to a Belfast mother who was accused of intentionally injuring her son.

He said he was often struck by the lack of "good, practical help" for parents, particularly those who did not have wider family support.

He added that in comparison, the level of help and respite provided for foster carers "seems for some reason to be very much greater."

The Family Court case concerned a woman, referred to as SM, who had three children with a man referred to as EWS.

The court heard that EWS was a heavy drinker who frequently would not get out of bed until midday and drifted in and out of the children's lives.

The judge described him as a selfish person who had "seriously and inexcusably failed" as a parent.

The two eldest children, who are now five and four, were placed into foster care in May 2007.

In February 2008 SM gave birth to her third child and was able to care for it with the help of an intensive support package.

In 2009 she asked to have her other two children returned to her.

With the help of a residential family support centre she was able to care for them but when she moved back into the community in November 2009 things went down hill.

She described how she became "more and more drained" as the support promised by EWS did not materialise.

In December 2009 a doctor found "significant bruising" on her four-year-old son and as a result all the children were returned to foster care where they remain.

Initially the woman claimed the boy had fallen from a climbing frame but later said the injuries had been inflicted when she lost her temper and dragged him down the steps of a bunk bed.

Her account was considered by three forensic paediatricians acting on behalf of the Belfast Health Trust.

The doctors were sceptical of her account but could not definitively say what caused the injuries.

Mr Justice Weir ruled that the bunk bed explanation "more likely than that not" represented the true cause of the bruising.

He said SM had tried "very hard to succeed, virtually single-handedly, in the particularly difficult task of parenting these children."

He said that if if the children are returned to SM, as he hopes they will, she well need good, practical help.

He said people like her badly need more day to day support from people with parenting skills, probably more mature people who may have raised their own families and have learned from their own successes and mistakes.

The judge said such an approach would be more effective in the long term.

He added: "An investment in recruiting support of this type would be both effective and cost-effective in maintaining families within the community and avoiding the costly involvement of the care system.

"An outcome of permanent removal of children from their families is, too often, as much an indictment of a failed system as it is of inadequate parents."

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