Private Members Motion: One Parent Families

I welcome the Tánaiste. It is with pride that I second the motion. The result of inadequate income for many one-parent families is food poverty, fuel poverty, over-indebtedness, difficulty with education-related costs, cutting out extra-curricular activities and children’s hobbies, living in poor quality housing, risk of homelessness, and homelessness. The latest SILC data for 2013 revealed that in lone parent households, the at-risk-of-poverty rate was 31.7%, the deprivation rate was 63.2% and the consistent poverty rate was 23%.

The particular and distinct vulnerability of this group is further shown by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul which has confirmed that one-parent families constitute one of the major groups to which it provides services. The financial assistance the Society of St. Vincent de Paul provides is connected with their low and inadequate incomes, particularly those in receipt of one-parent family payment. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul has advised that despite incredibly careful budgeting, there simply is not enough money in the house, and they find they need a payment to buy food or meet the costs of school, energy and housing.

Parents who work part-time find that their pay is low and unlikely to rise significantly as they often have low educational levels because of the situation they are in. Child care is an issue in terms of cost of child care and the salaries for those working in child care because all too often jobs that are considered to be women’s work get lower rates of pay.

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul also supports both two and one-parent homeless families that are in emergency hotel accommodation, in the majority of cases because of the major shortage in social housing or having been pushed out of the unregulated monopolistic private rental sector where market rate far exceeds rent supplement caps and where the housing assistance payment is only available from selected housing authorities. That is an issue that differs around the country.

Society of St. Vincent de Paul volunteers report that their members are finding that the move from one-parent family payment to the jobseeker’s transition allowance is causing them considerable uncertainty and fear, particularly among those who have received the letter from the Department. This is something I found repeatedly as I talked to groups in preparation for this debate.

The proposed changes regarding the one-parent family payment have also caused considerable stress, upset and confusion with Doras Buí, a community-development organisation centre that provides high quality supports and services to one-parent families living in the Coolock area of Dublin. That organisation outlined some of its concerns. Obviously a major cause of concern is the provision of adequate, quality and affordable child care in that area. It claims that the provision of the after-school subvention scheme is not adequate. First, not all private child care providers have taken up this scheme and many parents are unable to find a provider to collect their child from their school. It is great to say that one has the scheme in one place and the child somewhere else, but how is the child supposed to get to the scheme? Second, the subsidised scheme only lasts for 52 weeks. What are parents to do after the first year of the scheme finishes? The Department has advised parents to contact their child care committee after this time.

Many parents have expressed concerns regarding their current working arrangements and qualifying conditions for jobseeker’s allowance. Some are working ten to 15 hours per week, broken down to two to three hours per day for five days, in order to fit around child care arrangements. While working these hours, they do not qualify for jobseeker’s allowance because they work for more than three days per week. Many parents and their employers are not in a position to increase working hours to at least 19 hours, which would allow parents to be eligible for FIS and the back to work dividend. Another example has been clearly illustrated by the Dunnes Stores workers who work 15 hours per week. We see the precarious position they have been put in. A person may be called in to work thinking they might have five hours, and organise child care on that basis, only to go in to find out they have one hour of work.

Due to the current housing crisis and the lack of social housing, many lone parents are in receipt of rent supplement. Under the conditions of rent allowance a recipient cannot work more than 30 hours per week, so we are moving up the scale. If they do, they lose their rent supplement, so parents are left with a choice between working full time and keeping their home.

While there are child care education and training support programmes available for parents who are studying a FETAC level 5 course to help towards the cost of further education, there is no such funding for parents who want to go to degree level. This is limiting their education choices, which in turn limits their ability to gain full-time well paid employment.

I will end by mentioning a lone parent involved in Doras Buí who asked me to share her story with the House. Her name is Leanne and she is a single mother of one. She says:

The new changes in the One Parent Family Payment will really affect me in a bad way. My son turns 7 years old on the 14th of July, so this will affect me immediately. My son has been diagnosed with ADHD and Oppositional Defiant Disorder and takes daily medication. I attend monthly and sometimes weekly appointments in the Mater CAMHS hospital. I am currently working part time and I face a drop of 70/80 euro a week, basically between 280/320 a month. This is a huge stress on a lone parent like me, trying to better myself for my son by getting out and working part time and this strain is unbelievable. I attend counselling over these stresses. I cannot work full time as I don’t have a minder for my child and with these changes I won’t be able to afford one any time soon.

This really illustrates how a number of factors that I have tried to demonstrate come together and compound this downward spiral at a time when we should be supporting and lifting up lone parents and giving them the opportunities we say we wish to give them. I cannot see the evidence of investment in child care and after-school care. There has been investment, but there are no guidelines, no clear structures and no regulations, so the reality is that when people try to access services, be they housing or employment, all these obstacles are in the way. We really need to tackle this issue to lift lone parents and their children out of poverty.

Children and Family Relationships Bill 2015: Second Stage

I welcome the Minister and her officials to the House. I thank her for the consultation in advance of the debate and the opportunity for pre-legislative hearings on the general scheme of the Bill in committee. My colleague, Senator Katherine Zappone, was very active in the committee on that issue.

As a person who has advocated for children’s rights for many years and has the privilege of being a voice in the legislative process, this feels like a really important day, and I believe it is. The Children and Family Relationships Bill will bring about essential and long overdue reform, modernisation and legal clarity to many aspects of family law, particularly to diverse parenting situations and diverse family forms. When I say overdue, that is not a criticism of the Government. I commend the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, her predecessor, Deputy Alan Shatter, and the officials in the Department of Justice and Equality on their courage and expertise in drafting the Bill and bringing it before the Houses. It is an indictment rather of many previous Governments that it has taken us all until now in 2015 to introduce what will be the greatest reform of child and family law for a generation and finally to put children at the heart of family law. It is the first major reform of guardianship laws since the 1960s. I read an article by Colette Browne in the Irish Independentin February in which she noted that 3% of births in the 1960s were to an unmarried mother. I looked at figures in preparation for today’s debate solely in regard to these areas as married families can break down and issues can happen. Figures which I received from the Children’s Rights Alliance show that 308,000 children are living with 186,000 lone parents, 104,000 children are living with 60,000 unmarried cohabiting couples, 43,000 children are living with 29,000 lone fathers, and there are 230 same-sex couples with children. I want us all to have a perspective on the figures and to understand that these are many of the children we are talking about in debating the legislation.

As indicated by the figures, an increasing number of children live in diverse parenting situations and diverse family forms other than the traditional model of a household headed by married parents. I could use all my time to outline the areas I think will significantly contribute to children’s lives and their positive outcomes. For me the Bill is very much based on children’s rights. It is based on the best interests of the child being the paramount consideration and ensures issues such as continuity of care, right to identity, and the voice of the child are all becoming normalised and part of the legislative process. That is welcome.

I will use my time to indicate the areas where I think we could go further. For example, the Bill does not include definitions of guardianship, custody and access which would be essential to reduce the level of family conflict that may take place when relationships break down and to avoid the existing confusion among the public, professionals and the Judiciary. I understand the options about guardianships and the different levels of guardianship, but will it be difficult for the public to understand which levels of guardianship one person has vis-à-vis another? In future Bills, perhaps we should be look at the Law Reform Commission report of 2010 which examined the legal aspects of family relationships. It suggested new terms such as parental responsibility, day-to-day care and contact rather than the word “access”. These are much more child-friendly terms and state the roles the adult would play in the child’s life. However, I recognise and support the Bill as a monumental step in the right direction and the foundation from which child and family law can continue to be developed and bolstered to meet the needs of our ever-evolving society.

Given the breadth of the Bill, it is disappointing that the debate around it has been limited to a few narrow strands, albeit challenging and emotive issues by nouveauchildren’s rights proponents, whose premise I do not always agree is children’s rights centred. I am especially saddened by the talk of a hierarchy of family structures or some sort of Olympics of family structures meeting gold a medal standard where we now have silver and bronze who do not even get to compete. I am conscious that there are children who will listen to parts of the debate. I am not suggesting that they would be tuning in to the Seanad, although they come and visit us regularly, but I am concerned that in some way we are putting affirmation on one sort of family form or another. There are many different reasons for different family forms. We do not need to look too far beyond our families to understand the different types and diverse types of families in which children are living.
On Committee Stage I will be looking at section 63 which deals with the best interests of the child, particularly in relation to the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964. It provides a new and detailed definition in Irish law of the best interests of the child. The factors and circumstances enumerated thereunder are not exhaustive, and therefore the court will be capable of looking beyond them in making a determination concerning the child. The Bill will allow the courts to consider the physical, emotional, psychological, educational and social needs of the child, including his or her need for stability, having regard to age and stage of development. That is welcome.

As has been mentioned, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, special rapporteur on child protection, suggests that in tandem with this welcome legislative development, structural reform also needs to take place, namely, we need to establish a distinct and separate system of family courts. I am aware that is a commitment in the programme for Government to provide a fair and effective forum to vindicate the rights of children and families.

The Child Care Act 1991 is silent on the qualifications, roles and duties of guardians ad litem. A properly funded guardian ad litemagency in Ireland is long overdue. We have a blueprint for this in the Children Acts Advisory Board report of 2009 which gives a voice to children’s wishes, feelings and interests. I hope that as we progress the Bill, we can ensure the voice of the child is certain and guaranteed.

An issue that has been raised with me by Barnardos is the court welfare service. This service would provide a crucial link between the family and the Judiciary, offering services such as mediation, undertaking assessments of the child’s welfare and best interests, ascertaining their view through a child view expert, guardians ad litemand conducting family risk assessments. It would ensure judges received up-to-date holistic information on each case to help them in making their decision. The service would also provide, where appropriate, support such as child contact centres to assist the children in highly contentious and acrimonious splits.Perhaps we should look at other systems in operation, such as the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service in the UK.

I will move on to the issue of the right to identity, which my colleague Senator Power has raised. When I see all our colleagues raising the issue of right to identity, I wish many of them had been here when we were debating the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill, but we will wait and see. I am concerned that people are misrepresenting and misconstruing the principle underlying a child’s right to identity to fit their own agenda. They are talking about the child’s right to identity from the mother’s and father’s perspectives, rather than from the child’s perspective. This Bill approaches the issue from the child’s perspective, based on children’s rights. We had a good debate in the Seanad on the Civil Registration (Amendment) Bill, during which I tabled an amendment on the child’s right to identity. Hopefully, as we evolve in our thinking, we can assert this right to identity more and more. The focus of these groups is often selective, to further an ideological end, rather than a genuine concern for the vindication of the child’s right to his or her identity. This is the crux of our continuous failure on the issue of a child’s right to identity. Historically and culturally, we have constructed a hierarchy of rights, a veil of secrecy, to deny children the right to their identity. What the Minister is putting forward in this Bill and in the Bill on assisted human reproduction is to be welcomed. There are groups that wish we would go further or that we would allow for anonymous donation. The Minister has struck the right balance. I have sympathy with the position of Senator Power in that I would like to see the right to identity here. We have a history of not acknowledging it, but this is a welcome start. The transition period the Minister has proposed is fair and pragmatic. I would prefer that a child have a right to his or her identity, but I am willing to accept what the Minister is putting forward as a strong change, with a focus on children’s rights and ensuring they have their right to identity.

I also want to raise the issue of unmarried fathers. I am worried that we still have a long way to go on this issue. We often feed into the negative stereotypes of unmarried fathers as feckless, irresponsible flakes. It is all too easy for us to do this. Worse still, the justification for not granting automatic guardianship rights to fathers appears to have been conflated with concerns about domestic and sexual violence. These heinous crimes can happen in any type of family, not just unmarried ones. It is wrong, prejudicial and discriminatory to link it exclusively to unmarried parents. The law should presume that the majority of unmarried parents are responsible and reasonable. Where they are not, this should be addressed through relevant legislation. The solution is not to penalise the majority. Colette Browne, in her article on the Children and Family Relationships Bill, says that it compounds our unfair treatment of unmarried parents. She says that currently unmarried fathers have zero legal rights over their children, which means that:
[…] if your partner is away and your child falls ill, you cannot authorise medical treatment. It means that if your relationship breaks up and your partner decides to move abroad with your child, you are powerless to stop her. It also means that you have no automatic right to custody or access to your child. By law, the mother is entitled to sole custody of the child if the father has not been made a guardian. Imagine a worst-case scenario in which your partner dies and you are left alone to care for your child.
How can we make it more natural and how can we ensure that guardianship rights are there?

I have much more to say, but one of the issues I want to raise relates to statutory declarations. All of us have lost precious documents. For example, I lost my driving licence years ago. We are talking about a piece of paper. If one loses it, it is gone and one’s rights are extinguished. I welcome the Minister’s suggestion of piloting a repository. I wonder if we need to do more than that. I acknowledge what she is saying – that she does not want to make it compulsory and add another hurdle – but we have to find a way in which those statutory declarations can be lodged.

I want to be absolutely clear, so that there is no misunderstanding, in saying that I wholeheartedly welcome this Bill. I support it and I will do everything I can do ensure it is brought into law. Its potential is manifold, but at its heart it is about children’s rights. I thank the Minister for bringing the Bill to the House.

The Lancet

In July 2021, Jillian co-authored an article in the world-renowned medical journal “The Lancet”