Application adjourned for investigation into “very distressing” behaviours

Summary

An application for an Interim Care Order was adjourned in a case where a very young child displayed highly sexualised behaviour in her crèche. The court adjourned the case pending an investigation of the behaviour and a report to the court as to the reasons for it. The child had not made any disclosures of abuse and her carers, who were relatives, said they could not explain it either.

The child had been in the care of her grandparents since she was ten months old, and was attending a crèche. The crèche workers found the child very disruptive and sometimes aggressive. She pointed to her private parts and used bad language referring to sexual behaviour and genitalia, which was highly unusual for a child this age. She sometimes ran to the bathroom and touched and rubbed her genitalia.

The court heard the child demonstrated sexual behaviour and said: “film do that.” She also put the penis of an anatomically correct doll in her mouth and invited a male crèche worker to “look at my bum-bum”. The crèche manager said her staff found the behaviour very upsetting.

A psychotherapist who is also a trained social worker said that the behaviour of this child was beyond what would constitute normal sexual curiosity and was also beyond her developmental stage. Often when children act out in this way they are trying to communicate something they cannot put into words, she said. She said it should not be assumed, however, that there was any abuse to disclose. Sexualised behaviour can occur for multiple reasons and is not necessarily a result of sexual abuse, she said. The behaviour could also be self-soothing and a response to unmet emotional needs. It could also result from exposure to material of a sexual nature.

Lawyers for the child’s mother and grandmother opposed the Interim Care Order, arguing that any assessments could be carried out while the child was in the care of her extended family. Her mother and grandmother said the child did not exhibit any of the sexualised behaviour at home.

The judge adjourned the matter for an assessment to take place by a child psychologist, as he concluded that it was not possible to identify the source of the behaviour. The judge said that he would propose to make it a condition of any order that a safety plan be drawn up which would determine such things as who the child should or should not be in contact with and the child’s exposure to TV.

The hearing

Dublin District Court adjourned an application for an Interim Care Order in a case where a young child was displaying unexplained sexualised behaviour. There was no evidence of any wrongdoing by any of the care-givers nor were there any disclosures by the child. In those circumstances the court adjourned the matter so that a child psychologist could conduct an investigation and provide a report to the court as to the reason for the child’s sexualised behaviour.

The child had been living with her grandparents since she was ten months old due to the mother’s drug-taking and inability to care for her child. The father was not a party to the proceedings as he was uncontactable. He was in prison and had not been in contact with the child since she was an infant.

The solicitor for the Child and Family Agency told the court that there were serious concerns for the child based on the way she was interacting in her crèche which included highly sexualised behaviour accompanied by bad language referring to the behaviour. The court was told that the behaviour had been going on for a number of months and the crèche had kept a log of it and eventually contacted the social work department. The court also heard that at no point had the child made any disclosures about any type of abuse and that she had also been examined by a medical practitioner who found no evidence of physical abuse.

The CFA had been working with the family over the last six months trying to find the source of the child’s behaviour but had come up with nothing; it was for this reason that they now sought an Interim Care Order. The solicitor for the CFA said that the child was displaying “very distressing” sexualised behaviour and that if action is not taken the child’s health, development and welfare could be avoidably impaired in the future.

The CFA argued that due to the fact that the source of the problem could not be identified it was therefore impossible to identify who was a protective factor and who posed a threat to the child. The solicitor for the CFA told the court that they had engaged with the family in order to see if an explanation for the behaviour could be established but this had not occurred and accordingly the CFA felt it would be inappropriate to wait any longer.

The grandparents who were caring for the child conceded that she may have picked up bad language at home but could not otherwise give any explanation whatsoever for the sexualised behaviour. They agreed that the behaviour was disturbing and said that they, as much as anyone, wanted to get to the bottom of it and find an explanation for its occurrence.

The barrister for the grandmother told the court that the child’s older brother had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and a request had been made to have the younger girl assessed for that condition. The grandmother admitted that, even if the child was diagnosed with ADHD, this would not explain all of the child’s behaviour but might explain some of it. The barrister for the grandmother said that the family would agree to a Supervision Order but they would oppose an application for an Interim Care Order as they felt that removing the child from her family unit would not be in her best interests and would disrupt her.

The mother’s solicitor told the court that the mother was engaging in a methadone programme and hoped to resume caring for her children. Until that happens she was fully supportive of her parents caring for the child.

Teachers’ evidence

A teacher from the crèche told the court that the child’s behaviour was unusual and that there were incidents each day that necessitated one-on-one attention. She said that the child was quite disruptive and that she found it hard to settle and take part in group activities. The teacher said that at times the child could be quite aggressive but other times she played well; she said that there was a huge variance in her behaviour.

The teacher told the court that the child used swear words that were directed at the staff in the crèche and sometimes threw toys across the floor when asked to tidy up. The court was also told the child would point to her private parts and use bad language referring to sexual relations and genitalia. The teacher said that the child kicked and spat at the teacher and the court also heard of various incidences where she hit or spat at other children. The teacher said that the child ran to the bathroom on occasions and rubbed and touched her genitalia.

The teacher said that on one occasion the child spat into another child’s cup, hit the teacher in the face, kicked her in the chest and stood on her fingers, then stripped naked and began touching her genitalia and using sexualised language, sat on the floor and wet herself and threw her clothes into the toilet. The teacher then described other incidents, on other days, similar this incident where the child would put her hands down her trousers, into her private parts and then put her hand up to her face or into her mouth.

Another crèche worker described other similar incidents where the child pointed to her genitalia and shouted out sexualised words referring to her private parts and also described incidents of the child going into the bathroom and wetting herself and sitting down on the wet floor.

The teacher went on to say that one day the child lay down on the floor with her legs raised and rocked back and forward and said “film do that”. The court was told by the teacher that the child picked up a female doll and rubbed her genitalia and used sexualised language and had also picked up an anatomically correct male doll and put its penis in her mouth and again used sexualised language. The court was told on another day the child ate play dough and tissues.

The court heard that the child had also spoken to a male cook in the crèche and had opened her legs and said “look at my bum-bum”. Other incidents were described where the child had rubbed her private parts against a table while rocking back and forth. The teacher said that she did not have any other child in the crèche who would display behaviour as she had described.

When the grandmother’s barrister asked the teacher whether she had told the grandmother about the child wetting herself, she replied that she had not but that she had explained to the child not to do it. One of the other teachers in the crèche said that she did tell the grandmother about some of the incidents. The mother’s barrister asked one of the teachers in the crèche whether the child had made any disclosures about any member of her family and the teacher answered that she had not. The crèche manager spoke about an incident where the child and gone into the toilet with a little boy and had touched his penis.

The crèche manager said that, after the above incident, she rang the grandmother and the parents of the other child and reported the incident to the social work department. The same witness said that four parents had come in to the crèche to say that they would prefer if their children were not at the same table as the child.

The crèche manager said that it could happen that children, at the time they are being toilet trained, could play with their private parts but she qualified this by saying that it would not usually be accompanied by sexualised language referring to the gestures. When asked whether it was possible that the child picked up the behaviour/language from an X-rated film the crèche manager replied that she thought that was possible.

The judge said that, while not making little of the behaviour, that some of it could be simply described as bad behaviour; the throwing, spitting etc. He also said that there was the “toileting” type behaviour which involved the child wetting herself etc. The judge said that roughly 25 per cent of the behaviour could be described as having sexual connotations. The crèche manager said that the child’s behaviour was really traumatising her staff, who were finding it very disturbing and very upsetting.

The court heard that the grandmother had brought the child to a GP who had diagnosed her with vulva dermatitis. The court also heard that the social work department had contacted an assessment service for children who have possibly been sexually abused. The court was told that a meeting took place between the family and the social work department and that the child’s relatives were extremely concerned and shocked at the extent of the behaviour. The child was taken to A&E and was examined by a doctor who found no evidence of physical or sexual abuse.

The CFA solicitor told the court that it was their view that the child had been exposed to either sexual material or behaviour that she shouldn’t have been and that it was difficult to put a safety plan in place because of the numbers of adults involved in the child’s care and that the CFA were going to continue to work with the family to identify the source of the behaviour as they had not been able to identify anybody as a risk factor or safety factor and that the only feasible option in order to do this was to remove the child from her family.

Social work evidence

The social worker told the court that the opinion of the sexual abuse assessment unit was that the child was unlikely to disclose any abuse (if any had occurred) unless she was in a safe place. She went on to say that it was the view of the social work department that the child had been exposed to some kind of sexual abuse or sexual behaviour.

She said that the family had given no indication as to where the behaviour could have come from apart from the possibility that the child may have picked up some ideas from the television programme “Southpark”. When asked by the judge whether such behaviour would be seen on “Southpark” the social worker replied that her understanding was that the behaviour on that programme would not be as sexual.

The judge noted that bad language alone would not necessarily give rise to child protection concerns. The social worker replied that when the language is accompanied by action referring to what she is saying it is concerning.

The court heard that the grandmother had requested that the child be assessed for ADHD as her brother had been diagnosed with that condition and it had been put forward by the family as an explanation for at least some of the child’s behaviour. The social worker said that, although she was not an expert in ADHD, she thought that such a diagnosis could potentially explain some of the behaviour but that she thought it would not account for the sexualised behaviour.

The social worker went on to say that the department had spent the last number of months working with the family and there had been no change in the child’s behaviour which continues to be sexualised. The solicitor for the mother said that there were certain specified family members willing to care for the child to avoid the need for the child to be taken into care. The social worker confirmed that the family had made every effort to cooperate with the social work department and that the grandmother had been making attempts to put more structure into the child’s daily routine.

The grandmother’s barrister said that the family had bent over backwards to cooperate with the CFA and that they had offered to bring the child to a child psychologist and said that they had nothing to hide. The solicitor for the mother clarified that the family of the child had never seen her displaying the type of behaviour that it was alleged she displayed in the crèche. The solicitor for the mother, in response to the argument that the child should be taken to a place of safety, said that if she was moved to a stranger’s house she would hardly be more likely to disclose something to them when she had not done so to the people she knows, her family. The court was told that the grandmother had raised six children of her own and seven other children and that there had been no incidents like this.

The judge asked a social worker whether she had made suggestions to the family as to how to try to identify the source of the child’s behaviour. The social worker told the court that she had asked the grandmother to consider whether the child might have seen something on TV or seen somebody doing something (that might explain the behaviour) and she had also suggested that tighter supervision be kept over the child.

The judge then asked the social worker whether she had put it to the family that it was incredible that there was no explanation for the child’s behaviour from the family. The social worker replied that she had not said this to the family. The court was told that if the child was taken into care it was envisaged that a psychological assessment would be carried out of the child. The judge asked whether such an assessment should not be carried out regardless of whether or not the child was taken into care.

The judge then asked the social worker how reunification would be established if a risk was identified and the child was taken into care. The social worker replied that if the risk was identified it would be easier to work with the family and eliminate the risk and work towards reunification.

A social worker told the court that it was her opinion that the child was trying to disclose information through her behaviour. The concern was that the crèche staff were not responding to the child in a manner that would facilitate her giving more information and staff needed to support her and that is why they met professionals from the sexual abuse assessment unit.

The social worker went on to say that she did not believe that the sexualised behaviour that was being displayed by the child was as a result of a one-off encounter, for example, walking in on someone having sex. The judge asked the social worker whether attempts had been made to see if anything had changed in the child’s life in the time before the behaviour began to manifest itself. The social worker said that the only major change was that an aunt, to whom the child had been very close, had got married and moved away.

Psychotherapist’s evidence

A witness who was a trained social worker and systemic psychotherapist gave evidence that the behaviour of the child was beyond what would constitute normal sexual curiosity and was beyond her developmental age or stage. That witness said that where children act out in such a way and where it is pervasive often they are trying to communicate something that they cannot put in words.

In relation to the argument put forward by the CFA that the child should be removed to a place of safety to enable her to make a disclosure, this witness pointed out that it should not be assumed that there is something to disclose. She also pointed out that sexualised behaviour can occur for multiple reasons and is not necessarily a result of sexual abuse.

The solicitor for the mother asked the social worker/psychotherapist whether such behaviour could have been picked up from other children. The witness replied that this was possible but the behaviour was pervasive. The same witness said that it would be difficult to uncover the origins of the behaviour if the child was unwilling to engage in a conversation about the behaviour. She said that any assessment should look at the child’s overall needs and not just the child’s behaviour. When asked by the judge whether it was possible to conclude that the child’s sexualised behaviour was due to having been exposed to material of a sexual nature or sexual activity, she replied that it was possible. The social worker/psychotherapist said that such behaviour could also be self-soothing and a response to unmet emotional needs.

The barrister for the grandmother said that the family would cooperate with any assessment and that such an assessment should not have to mean that the child be taken into care.

Grandmother’s evidence

The child’s grandmother told the court that she had been caring for the child for five years and that she had been very shocked when she was told of how the child had behaved at crèche.

She told the court that the child had some developmental delays and did not eat well when she was younger. She said that the child’s mother comes to visit regularly. The grandmother also said that the child was very attached to her aunt and when the aunt got married and left the house she was very upset. The grandmother said that she had heard the child using bad language but had never seen her demonstrating sexualised behaviour.

When it was put to her that there was a suggestion that the child had been exposed to pornography or sexual material at home the grandmother replied that this would not have occurred, as there would not be “that kind of stuff at home”. When asked whether she would structure the child’s care so that a smaller number of carers would be taking care of the child, the grandmother replied in the affirmative and said that she would do anything.

The child’s aunt, who was very close to her, said that the social workers had told her not to discuss the alleged behaviour with the child. The aunt told the court that she had never seen the child displaying sexualised behaviour and she had no idea what the source of the behaviour might be. She also said that she is a very hyper child and that she is always looking for attention. The aunt said that she would be willing to do anything to keep the child safe and that she would move back to where the child lived to keep her safe.

Mother’s evidence

The child’s mother told the court that she was shocked to hear of her daughter’s behaviour and that the whole family wanted to get to the bottom of it. She said that she was stable on a methadone programme and that she has no concerns about her children and believes they are “100 per cent safe”.

The mother told the court that her ex-partner, the child’s father, was a convicted rapist. The mother said that if the court allowed the child to stay with her family she would be 100 per cent supportive and would do anything the court wanted. The mother said that if the child was to be removed from the house that it would break the child’s heart “never mind breaking all of our hearts”.

The judge adjourned the matter for an assessment to take place by a child psychologist, as he concluded that it was not possible to identify the source of the behaviour. The judge said that he would propose to make it a condition of any order that a safety plan be drawn up which would determine such things as who the child should or should not be in contact with and the child’s exposure to TV.