Globally mobile families have given rise to complex cross-border child protection cases. A panel of International Family Justice experts outlined the main issues in a growing area of consular work in the UK.
The role of consuls in cross-border child protection
In highly charged cases where migrant children are taken into care or adopted by English families, communication is key, the former Head of the Office of International Family Justice the Rt Hon Sir Mathew Thorpe said in his overview of international family justice issues.
Consuls have a pivotal role to play and can help foster a better understanding of the judicial system in England and Wales – particularly contentious legal powers to order the ‘forced’ adoption of vulnerable children, including foreign children.
English local authorities are now encouraged, under the Vienna Conventions, to notify consuls at the earliest stage of care proceedings involving a foreign child. Consuls may attend court and may even apply for party status in serious cases.
A growing body of law and practice now makes it clear that ethnicity, culture and faith need to be taken into consideration in cases of cross-border adoption or care orders.
So at a practical level, consuls maybe able to offer a useful point of contact for information gathering. They may even be able to assist in finding foster carers from their communities or relatives in the home country.
Sir Mathew reminded consuls that EU legislation (Brussels II Revised – BIIR) and the Hague Convention 1996, allows for cases to be transferred to the home country and it is a tool that English judges have used quite extensively.
The UK Central Authority
The International Child Abduction and Contact Unit (ICACU) is the UK Central Authority in the UK. It handles cooperation requests between the UK and other jurisdictions that are subject to BIIR or the Hague Conventions of 1980 and 1996.
Its role is to collect and exchange information on children subject to care proceedings and to facilitate communication between courts.
Local and central authorities
Ruth Griffiths is a legal adviser for Peterborough City Council which recently signed a landmark Memorandum of Understanding with the Slovak Central Authorities to facilitate cases involving care proceedings of migrant Slovak children.
She outlined the basic points of the MOU, which include strengthening cooperation, assisting understanding of each other’s procedures and agreeing on practical arrangements (such as travel logistics for the children), points of contact and timescales. The two organisations correspond directly and confidentially through a secure cloud-based system.
This agreement can be adapted to other local authorities where there are high concentrations of migrant communities, said Griffiths.
She advised consuls to compile a list of local family lawyers in those areas as they would be best placed to offer assistance to parents as they know the local social workers and authorities.
Zafer Yilkan heads up the Public Law Service at the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS). This is a non-executive public body sponsored by the Ministry of Justice to protect the interests of children in court proceedings. It is independent of the local authorities, social services and the courts.
CAFCASS allocates court-appointed guardians to children and their role is to liase with the family to produce a report with recommendations at every stage of the proceedings.
Identity and culture are a central consideration in child protection cases but the primary focus for social workers remains finding an outcome that is the best interests of the child, Karen Goodman of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) told consuls.
Child care norms differ from country to country so communication with migrant families is essential. Parents need to understand what is considered acceptable in the UK for keeping children safe – for instance, the age at which a child can be left on its own or walk to school unaccompanied or what sort of corporal punishment is legal.
BASW offers training sessions to national groups to explain UK child law.
Connecting social services globally
Social worker Angela Wilson introduced consuls to CFAB, the UK branch of International Social Services (ISS), a charity that connects social services across borders.
For consuls, CFAB offers an advice line and case management services.
ISS has an extensive network of 120 countries and their assistance is particularly valuable in countries where there may not be a Central Authority.
CFAB works with local partners in a country or region. As each system differs, partners may be central authorities (in Hague or BIIR countries), NGOs or government organisations.
In addition, CFAB does training and advocacy and can offer bespoke training on how the social work system in the UK functions. CFAB’s case management services can include:
- Advice on care proceedings
- Issuing child protection alerts in other countries if there are welfare concerns of a family moving overseas
- Welfare visits
- Social service and police record checks in other countries
- Overseas ‘viability’ assessments of family members if children are taken in by relatives – an area very relevant to consuls
- Post-placement services
Child abduction support
Alison Shalaby explained the role of Reunite International Child Abduction Centre, an NGO that works closely with the FCO on cases of parental child abduction.
The charity provides information and support to parents whose children have been abducted and taken overseas; those who may have abducted their children; and those who fear abduction.
Increasingly the caseload at Reunite is dominated by families where both parents are foreign nationals. This makes providing assistance very complex and the cooperation and support of consulates in the UK is vital.
Frequently abductors – most often mothers – are unaware that they are committing a criminal offence when they remove a child from the UK without the father’s consent.
Shalaby appealed to consulates to provide clear information to their communities living in the UK about cross-border child permissions.
Reunite also offers mediation services and of the 200 cases that they have handled, 75% of parents have reached an agreement.
International Family Law Issues
David Hodson outlined the areas in International Family Law where cooperation with consulates could be improved: cross-border permissions; international adoption; international surrogacy, public law (care proceedings); service of court documents abroad; court orders regarding passports; recognition of foreign marriages and divorces; child abduction and protective steps taken to prevent this; reciprocal enforcement of financial orders; immigration and nationality issues.
Hodson advised consuls to compile a list of legal professionals who are dual qualified both for the UK and their country.
Office of the Head of International Family Justice
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