Families facing crises at loss of Togher facilities

Evening Echo reporter Jess Casey visits the Togher Family Centre ahead of the closure of its access supervision service for separated parents trying to rebuild relationships with their children. 
Families facing crises at loss of Togher facilities
Grove Cottage at the Togher Family Centre. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

THE recently renovated Grove Cottage at the Togher Family Centre is warm and spacious, with freshly painted walls and homey touches.

Separated families are referred here to work on developing relationships with their children in a safe environment where the child’s wellbeing is the most important factor.

But although most families accessing Grove Cottage have been sent there by a judge, it has recently made the difficult decision to stop running their child contact services for families referred through the courts.

From December 22, Grove Cottage will only be able to provide services for referrals coming to them directly from Tusla as these are the only cases they receive funding for.

This means that the centre will not be able to offer families Christmas sessions this year, a consequence weighing heavy on family support worker Jackie Costelloe’s conscience.

“My heart is broken,” Jackie tells the Evening Echo.

Jackie Costello, Family Support Worker, Togher Family Centre, Grove Cottage. Picture: Jim Coughlan.
Jackie Costello, Family Support Worker, Togher Family Centre, Grove Cottage. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

“There are parents ringing me up asking: ‘Jackie, will you please do it yourself? I’ll pay you anything if you would do it yourself.’”

“But we can’t go on the way we are,” she adds sadly.

While the Togher Family Centre is relatively well-funded by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, the Government does not provide specific funding to the centre to run its services for families who are referred through the courts.

Families travel to the centre in Togher from as far as west Cork, Limerick, Dublin, with some fathers even flying in from the UK.

Judges throughout Munster regularly issue court orders for families to attend, Jackie adds.

At the end of last September, the centre had accrued 671 contact hours with families.

This was almost as many as the 756 hours it carried during 2016.

As demand for the service has increased, the centre has been using its own resources to shoulder the costs of these referrals.

“We’ve been running this service for five years, with no assistance from any Government department,” Jackie explains.

“The only Government agency that is providing funding is Tusla, and that is for the work we do for them.

“We had to make a decision and I think unfortunately a lot of parents are experiencing huge pressure in even trying to pay their fees but we’ve other responsibilities to the centre.”

It costs €30 per hour to attend the centre and €40 for a support worker to attend court.

This is a far-reduced price compared to other service providers and the centre does not charge families upfront for a series of sessions.

“Our ethos here is that we’re a community organisation; we’re not-for-profit, we’re not here to make money out of people’s trauma.”

Tusla does provide some degree of funding, Jackie explains.

“But this would be for our work with children in care, supervised visits with their parents, reporting back to the court, reporting back to the social work department.

“The families that we are having difficulties raising funding for are the families who are referred through family law proceedings.”

These families often need their services the most, she explains.

“Family law cases can be very contentious because I suppose some parents are still at that very raw stage, where they have just separated, they’re still butting heads. They’ll come in and they’ll say ‘Of course, the child is at the centre of everything that we do and think’ but they’re not really, because that pain and that rawness is still there.”

This is where Grove Cottage steps in, to offer guidance and support for these families, in a supervised setting.

General View of Togher Family Centre, Grove Cottage. Picture: Jim Coughlan.
General View of Togher Family Centre, Grove Cottage. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

“It’s very difficult and what’s most difficult is, you have kids that love their dad, that love their mam but they’re stuck in the middle and that’s where issues arise then,” says Jackie.

“I think it’s a child’s fundamental right to have a relationship with their parent and I believe the government are standing in the way of that.

“Unfortunately, not all breakups will run smoothly. There is a huge portion of the population out there who need this form of support. I’ve parents coming here who need extra support. If they don’t have a place like this, they’re not going to get to see their child. Where are their rights, who is standing up for them?”

Halting this service will inevitably affect children the most, Jackie adds.

“The break-up of a family will affect their emotional and psychological wellbeing, it’s detrimental. It causes great stress to kids. There are some kids where I would have to refer them to play therapy, to try and work through all that emotional trauma, because it is a trauma.

“They know everything has changed forever. They’ve lost a parent, they’ve lost their family life as they used to know it and they’ve all separated.

“Coupled with all of that, you have the financial impact that family breakdown has on a family. Suddenly you have to run two homes, dad or mum or whoever doesn’t have the kids will have to pay maintenance. You’ve to come to a setting like this, you’ve to pay me now to see your children.”

After a relationship breaks down acrimoniously and if a parent won’t allow the other to see their child for multiple reasons, they will then pursue their disagreement through the courts, Jackie explains.

“The judge would probably make a ruling for a supervised number of sessions.

“What happens then is either their solicitors or the parents themselves would contact the centre. We would then interview both parents and the child or children separately.”

It’s a very detailed interview process, Jackie explains.

“We would go through the background as to why their relationship broke down. Addiction issues, mental health issues, if there has ever been allegations of sexual abuse, criminal convictions, a lot of dads, and mums too, coming to us who have been through the criminal justice system. We’re very relationship-based,” Jackie explains.

The centre deals with a lot of additional admin work, as well as face-to-face interactions with families, Jackie adds.

“You’re writing reports, you’re going to court and all of that is on top of the contact hours. We’re so busy, you can’t get an afternoon slot here because of kids who go to primary school, they’ll all want the afternoon and Saturdays are always full. On Saturday’s we run two rooms.”

The centre also has a full waiting list, she adds. They’ve calculated that an investment of €134,000 would allow them to open Grove Cottage six days a week, from 9am to 9pm.

Unfortunately, the centre has not been able to secure it.

And despite an obvious need for the services Grove Cottage provides, no government agency directly offers this service.

“It’s crazy, my heart is broken from it. I’ve families on the phone asking me what are they going to do. These are families that are falling between the cracks.

“We just literally had to say — ‘enough is enough, we’ve done our bit’,” Jackie says. “We’re supporting parents here and we’re doing an awful lot of work with them and no-one (in the government) is prepared to put their hands in their pockets. It’s the ordinary, working parents, and some parents who are not working who are in receipt of social welfare, these are the people, and the children of these people, are the ones who are going to miss out on this service because it is the only service that they can afford.

“There is a whole cohort out there who can’t afford it, and what’s going to happen to those children? What about their emotional and psychological well-being? What about their relationships with their parents going forward? What’s to become of those children and their families and what is the Government to do about it?”

Fathers praise the service and support on offer

Niall* has been attending supervised visits with his child in Grove Cottage since May.

“I was lucky to get into Togher, it was the only other option available to me that was affordable,” he told the Evening Echo.

“There are private places but they’re too expensive because I'm unemployed at the moment. I’ve seen some places that will charge as much as €100 a visit.” 

“But I’m worried now about my visits at Togher because I’ve to go back to court in January.” 

Niall* is not sure what other options he will have if the services close.

“If it does close, I don’t know how I’ll be able to afford another service. I’ll be stuck and I won’t be able to see my child, I’ll have no contact.”

Another father who previously used the service at Grove Cottage was John*.

“I didn’t see my kids for three years after my marriage broke down and it was suggested by a judge that I go visit Togher,” John* told the Echo.

“That it would be easier for us to have supervised visits there and it was the only way I could see my kids.” 

The Judge asked John* to attend 10 sessions at Grove Cottage.

“It was just fantastic, to see my kids regularly. Togher was reporting to the court so they knew what was going on and they suggested that I was ready to see my kids outside of the centre.” 

“I’d spend an hour and a half with them and afterwards Jackie would talk to me, give me advice about how I was with them, and what to do and what not to do.” 

“If it wasn’t for Togher, I don’t think I’d be involved in my kids’ lives today. Every weekend, my children mention Togher and all the toys and the time they spent there and Jackie too.” 

Tommy* also believes he wouldn’t see his children regularly if it wasn’t for Jackie Costelloe. 

“I used to go to Togher twice a week for an hour, an hour and a half. It’s a nice little bungalow and it was really good to spend time there,” he told the Evening Echo.

“Jackie was really helpful. I see my kids regularly now and if it wasn’t for Togher, I don’t know if that would be happening now. When I went there, everything just clicked into place. Everything is perfect now for me. Me and my ex-partner are able to work away together now.

"Before we couldn’t even stay in the same room. We wouldn’t be best friends but we can do what’s best for our kids, and that’s all from Jackie. I think the services are a huge help and they would benefit anyone in my situation.”

Grove Cottage helps violent parent rebuild relationship

BRID* and her former partner have been using Grove Cottage as he starts to rebuild a trusting relationship with their young child.

“My ex-partner has a long history of violence which my child would have experienced from the age of five weeks old,” Brid told the Evening Echo.

“Originally, my first experience was in the court, fighting over supervised access. The judge ordered we attend private sessions, which were €80 each.”

When private sessions didn’t work out between Brid and her former partner, they were referred by the court to Togher.

“The service there is just exceptional,” Brid added.

“They treat you with a huge amount of respect and dignity which is so important when there has been a long history of emotional and psychological abuse impacting on a family.”

Most importantly, Grove Cottage provides a safe environment for her child, Brid explained.

“I was slightly hesitant to leave my child there at the start, given our history and as a woman and a mother.

“But very quickly that changed when I realised it was a safe environment and my child wouldn’t be exposed to any threats,” she added.

“Your safety is always paramount to them and nothing can happen to your children there. A safe and happy environment is provided for them there.”

A drop-off system is also in place at the centre to ensure Brid wouldn’t have contact with her ex.

“If a parent genuinely wants to repair the damage done to their relationships, the facilities there are great and they give you loads of time one on one.

“As we stand, there’s no other service like this for parents in Cork now because Togher is closing.”

As Brid and her child’s father cannot afford to pay privately for supervised access, she is now afraid she will have to meet him face-to-face.

“I’ll now be put at risk because I’ll have to meet my ex-partner to hand over my child.

“It was a relief using Togher because I’d know my child would be safe.

“It’s an enormous loss to me. Who knows what will happen, it’s frightening.”

“There’s no way we can pay privately.”

*Names have been changed for anonymity. 

More in this section

Sponsored Content