Inevitably, child care proceedings in the latter half of 2020 were dominated by Covid-19, both in how the proceedings were conducted and in the impact of the virus on vulnerable families and children in care.
Several of the cases published here demonstrate the additional stress parents, social workers and foster carers, and of course children, were under as a result of the restrictions imposed to contain the virus. Access between parents and children was sometimes reduced or face-to-face access disallowed, foster carers expressed concern about access in cases where they, or a member of their household, were at risk from Covid-19 and assessments of both children and parents, essential to aid decision-making by the court, sometimes had to be cancelled or curtailed. The impact of children not being able to attend school is likely to have increased the isolation of vulnerable children and the risk of serious neglect going unnoticed. The disruption to the work of the courts, despite the best efforts of the Courts Service and the judiciary, led to adjournments and the ensuing delays in making decisions will impact on children throughout their lives.
The impact of the virus was also seen in less direct ways, as parents experiencing problems of addiction or impaired mental health, resulting in their children going into care, found it more difficult to access the services that could help them overcome their problems and seek reunification with their children.
As in previous volumes of reports, this volume sees a disproportionate number of cases where domestic violence is a factor and cases involving Traveller families and those from ethnic minorities. It also sees a number of cases where parents facing child care proceedings in Northern Ireland or England fled to this jurisdiction in order to avoid them, and the courts had to decide on the appropriate jurisdiction for hearing the case. It remains to be seen what impact Brexit will have on such cases in the future, as the legal architecture for transferring cases between EU jurisdictions no longer applies.