December 26, 2004

Street protests over Irish child custody ruling

A PROTEST campaign has been launched over the decision of an Irish court to award custody of a young child to his father, with whom he has not lived for most of his life.

The child, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, has lived with his mother since she and her boyfriend broke up in acrimonious circumstances almost five years ago.

In a recent decision, a judge granted full custody to the father after hearing evidence, detailed in a psychiatrist’s report, that the child was unduly influenced into disliking his father.

The case is understood to be one of an increasing number of custody battles in Ireland in which the controversial Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) has been raised. The term was coined in the 1970s by Richard Gardner, an American psychiatrist, and refers to the “brainwashing” of a child by a parent.

Supporters of the mother in the case have been involved in street protests, one of the first instances of direct action against the operation of Ireland’s family law courts.

A 100-strong group of supporters also met and agreed to petition the relevant authorities about the case. Almost 300 letters have been sent to health board and social service officials and to Mary Harney, the minister for health, and Michael McDowell, the minister for justice. Bertie Ahern, the taoiseach, and Mary Banotti, a former MEP and mediator who intervened in the Dylan Benwell abduction saga, have also been briefed by campaigners.

At the moment, family law hearings are heard in private, mainly with a view to protecting the identity of children involved in child custody, abduction, incest, domestic violence and divorce cases. The degree of secrecy that surrounds such cases is about to be eased, however, to allow data to be gathered on family issues.

In future, details of the cases will be made available to the media and public, but without identifying the people involved.

Apart from revealing trends in separation, divorce and custody rulings, the relaxation of the “in camera” rule will show for the first time how district courts treat cases of alleged domestic violence.

The new laws will bring family courts into line with other areas of law, allowing judgments, evidence, witness statements and expert testimonies to be subject to public scrutiny.

The proposed relaxation of the secrecy ban has been welcomed by family support groups. Liam O’Gogain, the chairman of Parental Equality, said that, in the current environment, “there is no protection of privacy for families in these situations. Family law courts sit in local towns where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Their private lives become the subject of a chinese whispers. It is a fallacy that children and families are being protected.

“The only people protected by the privacy rule are the paid professionals, including judges, solicitors, social workers and psychiatrists.”

Groups representing fathers who feel they have been discriminated against in family courts have been particularly supportive of the change in procedure. In recent years, they have become increasingly militant in a bid to highlight what they say are often arbitrary decisions to separate them from their children. In the UK, members of the group Fathers 4 Justice have been involved in a number of high-profile protests to gain publicity for their cause, including scaling Buckingham Palace in a Batman suit.

Counsellors also believe that making information on family cases available would help to highlight how destructive custody battles can be.

“It is distressing how vindictive some parents can be,” said Bernie Purcell, a counsellor who treats troubled teenagers at the Roebuck centre in Dublin. The “viciousness and havoc” that warring parents wreak on their offspring during separation and custody battles often leaves children with emotional scars for life, she said. “The parents might feel hurt and bruised by the long-term effects of an acrimonious break up, but children have to cope with psychological dilemmas that they can’t possibly cope with. Tragically, many children end up in psychiatric care as a result.”