Application to discharge Care Order refused

An application to discharge a Care Order for a six-year-old child, who had been in care since she was eight months old, was refused by a judge in a rural town.

In his judgment the judge said: “[A]’s best interests require that she remain where she is, with her current foster mother, and that she be assured that this will be permanent, and supported by her parents. The evidence is that were she to be moved, she would suffer serious, profound and possibly irreparable damage.”

The child’s father told the court he had served two years in prison, where he had done an anger-management course and a parenting course, and had come out a better person. He had also stopped drinking. He admitted the child had been taken into care because of domestic violence. He was drinking and would not engage with the social workers at the time.

The solicitor for the CFA asked him about an incident in the summer of disorderly behaviour at 3 am, when he had described his partner, who reported the incident, as his “former girlfriend”. The solicitor said the psychological report said he was domineering, with a sense of entitlement and a tendency to be intimidating. He said that was when he was drinking.

Asked about a report that he had tried to undermine the child’s placement in 2012, he said: “To try and get her back, you mean?” He said he had been trying to explain to the child about her cousins and her family. Asked about an incident where he turned up at the child’s school without any notice and was intimidating towards the social workers, he said: “At the start we were not getting on. We’re getting on better now.”

The solicitor for the child’s guardian ad litem said he did not disclose to the psychologist the incident where he had been drinking and his partner had called the Gardai. The psychologist had described him as “guarded”. The GAL was concerned that if the child was returned to her parents she would go back to being withdrawn. The father said he had done work, and change took time.

The child’s mother said that she was now in her early 20s. She had only been 17 when her daughter went into care. She had matured since, she had done two parenting courses and a training course.

She said she had lived with the father for four years. Her own family did not like him because he had got her pregnant at 16. Asked about the incident where she had called the Gardai, she said she would not have done it six years ago when she was first in the relationship, but she had grown up and would not tolerate such behaviour any more. “I accept he has an issue with alcohol and I support him in dealing with it.”

Asked what would happen if the father came home drunk one night, she said: “He wouldn’t be long going outside the door.” Referring to the incident where she had called the gardai, she said he immediately went for help afterwards. He did not control her, she had the support of family and friends. “I will do everything to get my daughter back,” she said.

She said she had access just once a month where she did not discuss the foster parents with her daughter. She said she accepted her daughter had bonded with her foster parents and was not expecting her to be returned tomorrow. It would be a long process, and she accepted professionals would have to be involved in that.

The GAL told the court there were two separate issues: the parents’ situation and the child’s needs. “The parents are to be complimented on their personal development. But there has to come a time when we have to make a decision for the child in her best interests. The parents don’t understand attachment. If she is removed from the safe and secure environment she has been in for the past seven years it could cause emotional problems in the future.

“It is too late for the girl. The parents have to come to terms with the decision that was made seven years ago. They can have a relationship with their daughter if they work in partnership with the CFA and not attempt to undermine the placement. There comes a point when people have to make a mature decision about the welfare of the child. It’s too late.”

The father’s solicitor asked about a phased reintegration. “The work hasn’t been done,” the GAL said. Asked what were the risks of the girl being reintegrated gradually with her parents, with supports, the GAL said: “I don’t think that is in the best interests of the child. It may be in the interests of the parents.” He said the child had 23 per cent attachment when she went into care, that was up to 88 per cent now.

He said the parents have not acknowledged their problems and the risks [of returning the child] were too great. What if an incident like that when the gardai were called occurred again, he asked.

The mother’s solicitor said that her client was a child herself when her daughter was taken into care. She asked the GAL if the mother had not acted responsibly in the incident when she called the gardai. “She did the right thing for her own safety, yes,” the GAL replied.

Asked about the transfer of attachment in a phased reintegration of the child into her birth family, the GAL said: “I’m not sure either parent understands attachment per se.” He said a professional had said: “This relationship is characterised by domestic violence.” “I can’t move beyond that,” he said.

Solicitor: “This is historic. It was seven years ago.”

GAL: “Findings were made. Until that is accepted I can’t move beyond that. Change has to be effected, through dialogue and therapy. That hasn’t happened.

“Your clients may think what happened was not domestic violence. The assessment of the experts was that the child was exposed to trauma, to the extent that her attachment was only 23 per cent. This indicates something did happen to her.

“I have worked on cases where there was alcohol abuse, domestic violence, etc, and there was eventual reunification, but the starting point was accepting what had happened and deciding to change.”

The solicitor pointed out that the mother had acted appropriately during the last incident, which was the first in three and a half years. “It’s a variable. I don’t work on variables,” the GAL said. He added that, had the child been present during that incident, she could have been “catapulted back” to recalling the violence that marked her early childhood. “That trauma will remain with her,” he said.

The case was adjourned and a written judgment was given later.

In his written judgment the judge outlined the evidence given in the case, including evidence of the child having been upset by conversations with her father about her foster family, the evidence of an attachment expert, and evidence from psychologists on some ongoing risk of violence from the father.

The judge said: “The Care Order was granted due to concerns for the health, safety, development or welfare of [A] arising from domestic violence perpetrated by [the father] on [the mother], the mother’s] inability to protect [A], and trauma suffered by [A] as a result of being exposed to domestic violence, and the volatile relationship between [the parents].”

He referred to the evidence of the GAL, that neither parent had accepted the court finding in 2009 regarding violence and alcohol abuse, and the seriousness of a violent incident in December 2007 which led to the Emergency Care Order being made for the child. They needed to accept this and seek the necessary therapy, he said.

“I accept that [the parents] have made huge efforts to deal with some, but not all, of the issues which lead to [A] being taken into care. They are to be commended for this, for their own sakes, but also because in so doing, they can only improve their relationship with, and their positive influence on [A] into the future.

“They are, and will remain, very important persons in [A’s] life, and [A] will need them to be a significant part of her life as she moves into the difficult phases of adolescence and development. However, the evidence of the psychologists, the social workers, [the attachment expert], and [the GAL] is overwhelming. [A’s] best interests require that she remain where she is, with her current foster mother, and that she be assured that this will be permanent, and supported by her parents. The evidence is that were she to be moved, she would suffer serious, profound and possibly irreparable damage.”

The judge also commented that the application was brought very prematurely, having been first lodged in 2011. A number of assessments then had to be completed and issues raised in them addressed by the parents. The first hearing date was in January 2014, and that had to be postponed.

“It is unfortunate that the parents felt that the only way they could establish what needed to be done by them was to lodge the application in order to initiate the various assessments which resulted in the ‘roadmap’ set out in [the psychologist’s] report, and these assessments would presumably not have been carried out were it not for the matter being before the Court. It is regrettable, and prejudicial to the interests of a child, that a mechanism for doing this cannot be found prior to an application being lodged. This could have avoided such a large number of court appearances, and a three year delay,” the judge said.

“I am not being critical of the parents or the HSE/CFA, but it appears to me that this aspect of the case should be examined in the hope that similar situations do not arise in the future.

“[The parents] can, I hope, take some comfort from the fact that they have fought so hard for [A], and done so much work up to this point. [A] will, I hope, realise in the future that she was not abandoned by her parents on being taken into care, and will appreciate what an effort has been made by them on her behalf.

“I must therefore, with regret, refuse the application.”

The full judgment is on