Full Care Orders for seven children for one year were granted by the District Court in a rural town, with a number of conditions. A full Care Order until he was 18 was granted for an eighth child of the family, the eldest, who was almost 17 at the time of the making of the order. The orders for the seven other children will be reviewed in January 2015 and that for the eldest child in July 2014 in order to check on the progress of the court’s conditions, which included assessments of the children as recommended by their guardians ad litem (GALs).
The judge also ordered that an advocacy service be provided to the parents, that they engage “fully and completely” with psychological and cognitive functioning assessments, and that the father also engage in a risk assessment. If necessary the mother should also engage in such an assessment, he ruled.
These orders were granted following lengthy and complex care proceedings. The HSE (after January 2014 it was the Child and Family Agency) had sought full Care Orders until they were 18 for all the children. They gave evidence that the children were extremely dirty, unkempt and underweight when they were taken into care. The eldest had serious behavioural problems and was now in a special residential unit. He targeted staff there, especially pregnant female staff, and there had been disclosures from other children that this boy had sexually abused them. This was denied by the boy and his parents.
Care Orders were sought for the other children because of concerns about physical abuse of all of them, the level of supervision of the children, poor school attendance and their general living conditions.
Guardians ad litem, who had been appointed by the court to liaise with and represent the interests of all the children, opposed the making of orders until the children were 18, recommending instead orders for six months or a year for most of them, in order to allow full assessments of both the needs of the children and the abilities of their parents. During the case the GALs were highly critical of the way in which the HSE had dealt with the case, particularly their failure to conduct full assessments of the children and cognitive assessments of the parents.
The children had been living on a halting site near a rural town, and the court heard evidence of very poor conditions on the site, with blocked toilets, dirty and unsafe caravans and fighting between some of the families.
All the children had been in care under Interim Care Orders since the summer of 2013.
First Social Worker’s evidence
The social worker gave evidence that the children were very dirty, smelly and unkempt when they were taken into care following the making of allegations by the children in another family. One child, aged 14, was only five stone two pounds, greatly below the weight she should have been. A baby was raw with nappy rash and did not have up-to-date vaccinations. All the children had head-lice.
A middle child in this family did not seem to know how to use a bathroom. She refused to get out of the clothes she came into care in, and when she got new clothes she put them on over her own clothes. After six months in care she still had huge issues around showering and she also refused to wear a swimming costume for swimming, she wore a T-shirt and shorts.
This child was receiving grinds in two subjects. The grinds teacher said she was “bright and quick to learn” though she had been diagnosed earlier with developmental delay and cognitive disability.
The oldest child in the family, a boy aged 16 when taken into care, weighed just over seven stone when he went into care and two months later had gained two stone, though he was still a slight boy. He had a condition, similar to rickets, which the doctor said was caused by nutritional deficiency. He had behavioural difficulties with no boundaries and was very aggressive.
He was in a residential unit where he targeted staff, especially pregnant female staff. There had been disclosures from other children that this boy had sexually abused them, so he was in a placement for children who had been abused or were abusers. He and his parents denied these allegations.
The judge said he could not deal just with “allegations”, he needed to know what they were. He said there was compelling evidence that the physical condition of one child who had made allegations had been caused by the acts alleged.
The social worker said the parents did not seem to really see the problems. Their focus was on the physical condition of their accommodation, they felt if they got a house there would be no problem. A cognitive assessment of the parents had been proposed but was not followed up. The social work department felt this could establish if the parents just did not understand what was being asked of them or if they were resistant to it.
In relation to their oldest child, A, a risk assessment was going on at the moment.
Asked when it started, the social worker said in June 2013, but then the doctor moved. Another doctor was in place for a few weeks.
She said that the HSE was seeking full Care Orders for all the children because the father had been accused of physical abuse of the children, there was concern about the level of supervision of the children and their school attendance, there was lack of routine for the baby, some of the children were seriously underweight and had gained weight since going into care, and there was no-where for them to live, though housing was not the main issue, parenting was. The father had refused to engage in an assessment because it involved an admission of sexual abuse. Asked if there could be reunification of the family without a risk assessment of the father, she said No, there were question marks about how A came to exhibit the behaviour he did.
The lawyer for the parents said the parents were prepared to engage in assessments, but not from the HSE sex abusers’ unit.
He asked the social worker if she accepted the family lived on a halting site. “Should they be held to the same terms as settled children, in the same physical condition?” “There would be variations, but there would be a baseline in relation to basic care, physical and emotional safety and security. These parents fall below it,” the social worker replied.
The parents’ barrister asked the social worker why allegations were not put to the father and she said they thought they could not put them to him without jeopardising the Garda investigation. Asked would it not be beneficial to have a parenting assessment before seeking a full Care Order she said it would be beneficial, but not vital, given the conditions in which the children were living and the statement from child C in this family that she wished to remain in care. An assessment would take a minimum of a year, with cooperation from the parents, and could be done with a Care Order in place. A cognitive assessment of the parents was needed first.
“This precisely sums up the guardian’s difficulty with this application,” the GAL solicitor said. “We say this [a parenting capacity assessment] should be a basic requirement. These applications are not ready to proceed at this stage. If the parents don’t have an adequate understanding of how to keep the children safe then the threshold is not reached for a full Care Order.”
The judge asked who had made the decision to seek a full Care Order, and the social worker replied it was the team leader, but that it was also her own position.
The parents’ barrister quoted from the social work report, which said “despite the fact that the parents knew A posed a continuing threat of sexual assault, they allowed him sufficient freedom to continue to abuse.” “How did you come up with that?” he asked.
The social worker said he had exposed himself in school and sexually taunted another child. The lawyer said there was a big difference between an incident of exposure and knowing he posed a sexual threat. “I should perhaps have said ‘allegedly’ [sexually abused]”, the social worker said. Asked if any of these children had made allegations of being sexually abused, she said: “No.”
Asked what the HSE had done about parenting assessment or investigating sexual and physical abuse allegations since the children came into care, the social worker said: “The other children are in the process of being investigated. I can’t say any more.”
The case was adjourned for three weeks.
Evidence from residential unit
When the case resumed evidence was heard from the head of the residential institution where the eldest child of the family, A, was living. This is a unit specialising in children who have been sexually abused or were abusers, and he had been the subject of allegations.
The unit head said A was very frightened when he arrived in the home. He was extremely thin and wearing ill-fitting clothes. He refused food and did not know how to use the toilet or shower. He had never slept in a room alone before. He was examined by a doctor, of whom he was very afraid. He was very underweight, weighing just over seven stone, though he was almost 17. He had knock-knees due to nutritional deficiency, a similar condition to rickets. He did not seem to understand the concept of separate meals. He would fill up his plate, then be unable to eat the food.
His behaviour was very erratic. Sometimes he was very compliant, other times he was very confrontational, with bizarre behaviour – blowing into people’s faces, clapping his hands in their faces, trying to antagonise them. He would not talk about his life at home, and when asked mundane questions like what food he liked to eat or what he did at Christmas he replied that was his business, family business. A cognitive assessment and occupational therapy were planned.
Anything new caused him great anxiety, so the assessments were going very slowly. The current psychologist was still working on relationship building. Asked by the parents’ barrister whether the assessments could have happened sooner, the unit head said: “They become available when they become available.”
Asked if his reluctance to talk about his home and his difficulties with his environment could be explained by his belonging to the Traveller community, the unit head said: “We have another resident from a Traveller background. We are used to it. We cooperate with Pavee Point [Traveller organisation] on cultural issues.”
Asked why two staff were with this boy at all times, the unit head said when he was alone with a staff member he made inappropriate sexual suggestions and had attempted an assault. “I would be very concerned about his ability to live independently,” she said. “He has a lot of very, very complex needs. He will need an after-care plan. He says he misses his parents, but when asked if he wants to go home he says he wants to stay living in the centre.”
Second social worker’s evidence
The social worker who had been involved in removing the children from the site, and was responsible for three boys in the family (other than A), said they had been dishevelled and dirty when removed, with an odour. They were settling into their residential unit placement quite well. One of them had demonstrated some sexualised behaviour, but had desisted when spoken to by care staff. He said none of the boys had said they were abused by anybody so far.
Asked by the parents’ barrister if he accepted these children were from a Traveller background, with a strong Traveller identity, he said he did. Asked why he referred the father to addiction services for alcohol addiction, he said he had got information from the Gardai that he went out drinking in the local town and slapped his wife.
Referring to an earlier incident he had been made aware of in the school where A had exposed himself, he said the boy said he was ashamed and said he would not do anything like that again and the case was closed.
The barrister asked him if the fact the children spent a lot of time outdoors was explained by the fact that they were Travellers who lived in a small trailer. The social worker said they appeared not to be well supervised.
The barrister asked him if the parents had told him they had been the victims of bullying on the site for 30 years. He said they had stated they were victimised by another family.
The barrister said the HSE had been seeking a 12-month Care Order the previous September, but was now seeking a full Care Order until the children were 18. What had changed?
“More referrals have come in and there have been allegations of physical and sexual abuse,” the social worker replied.
After some discussion between lawyers for the guardians ad litem, the CFA and the parents, it was agreed that an independent private assessment provider, outside this HSE area, would provide assessments of the parents and the CFA would pay for it. The parents were unwilling to attend the local HSE assessment service, which was for people who had sexually abused.
Third social worker’s evidence
When the hearing resumed after a further adjournment for some weeks the social worker for the girls of the family said she was quite shocked when the older girl said she was 14, as she was very small. The two older girls were in foster care and according to the foster carers they had difficulty with routines around meal-times and had great difficulty in taking off their underwear, they wanted to wear their underwear in the shower and they guarded the toilet door for each other.
There were allegations from other children that the oldest child in this family, A, who was now in a specialist residential unit, had sexually abused two other children. There were also allegations that the father had sexually abused a child and a young person, and that he was physically abusive to the children, hitting them with the handle of a shovel. There were allegations that the father had come home drunk and hit a bottle over his daughter’s head.
She said there were access arrangements in place where the parents saw the children every week. The parents sat in the same position during the access visit in the HSE centre and the children came to them. There was no spontaneous interaction between the parents and the children.
The younger girl in the family, who was six, seemed to be alert even when asleep, and if her foster carer tried to lift her up to bed she screamed: “Get away from me.”
Over the summer two cousins had made disclosures that a man on the site had physically and sexually abused this girl and her sister, that he had touched her private parts, pulled down his trousers and put his penis into her mouth and peed in her mouth. She was choking, according to these children. This child said the man had put a noose around the girl’s neck and that of another girl. One boy said three girls were abused by this man.
The girl was very closed when asked about home. If the question was raised that she was in care because she may have been hurt she said: “Why are you bringing that up? The past is the past.”
The social worker said they were concerned about the parents’ insight into the social service’s concerns. The parents totally rejected the allegation that the girls had been sexually abused on the site. They said: “The girls are good girls,” when the social services were not saying anything about the girls’ behaviour. Their response to the neglect and the conditions of the trailer was that the conditions were “untidy”.
In relation to the oldest boy, A, they refused to accept that he posed any risk or did anything wrong. They said that the people making the allegations were sick. They said the whole family was subjected to on-going abuse and bullying from another family on the site.
“If these girls are to have any chance to get on with their lives they will have to feel safe and secure,” the social worker said. “Until they feel safe they will not disclose what happened in the past. I don’t think the parents can offer a safe, nurturing environment. The parents are totally closed to accepting there is any risk. These children need a long-term Care Order. I would not recommend it lightly.”
A long-term Care Order did not mean the parents could not apply to court at a later date seeking to have the order rescinded, she said.
The social worker said she felt there was sufficient information on the father’s drinking, which included two convictions for drink-driving, to suggest he attend addiction services. He did attend, but was late at the first appointment.
She said the parents felt the other family on the site was harassing them, inventing allegations in order to have the children taken from them. She agreed with the barrister that the children had not made allegations of physical abuse against their parents, and that they wanted to go home.
“Was a parenting capacity assessment carried out without a cognitive assessment?” the barrister asked.
“Yes,” she replied.
She was referred to the opinion of a colleague who had stated he thought a cognitive assessment should have been carried out first. “That’s his opinion,” she said. She acknowledged that a cognitive assessment would help in working with the parents. “The delay in the cognitive assessment being carried out is beyond my control.”
“Has a risk assessment been carried out in relation to [the mother and father]?” the barrister said.
“Have there been any psychological examinations of the children?”
“I don’t think it necessary at this stage.”
Barrister: “You are looking for full Care Orders in this case. What plan do you have for these children?”
Social worker: “As the need arises they will get what they need. They need to settle.”
The judge interjected: “There are allegations of physical and sexual abuse and the children’s basic needs are not being addressed. Is any assessment of their needs being done?”
The social worker said she was not at liberty to discuss it.
Judge: “Even considering what is in your report before the court, surely there is a need for an assessment of what impact this had on them and what therapy they might require?”
Social worker: “Perhaps further down the line.”
Judge: “What has to trigger it?”
Social worker: “We feel there may be more disclosures.”
The social worker told the solicitor for the GALs that she used a model for assessing children which considers a child’s development needs, environmental factors and parenting capacity. She acknowledged that her report had focused only the third strand, parenting capacity.
Asked what was involved in family and environmental factors, she agreed they included housing, employment and family functioning.
Asked about her experience of working with people with an intellectual disability, she said she would take into account any factor that would impact on parenting ability. She did not accept that the behaviour she criticised during access could be explained by cognitive difficulties on the part of the parents.
When it was put to her there was no long-term care plan for the children, she said one could not have one until there was a long-term Care Order. Asked if it was not possible to explain to the children that they were in care for a while, while the social services got more information, the social worker said it was possible, but not desirable. She accepted that the social service department did not understand the full extent of the risk, but she said she stood over the recommendation for full Care Orders until the children were 18. “It’s my belief that the children have grown up in a culture of physical and sexual abuse involving a wider circle,” she said.
The judge asked her how many children were in care in her area, and she said between 15 and 20. She acknowledged that this case, and two other recent cases, had brought about more than a doubling of the work-load of the social work department, but that the number of social workers had only gone up from five (not all full-time) to seven.
The judge asked about the progress of an after-care plan for A. “It seems to me valuable time has been lost trying to decide if [A] is the responsibility of this area of the HSE or another. [A] needs treatment. That has to be dealt with forthwith, without wasting any more time. He was taken into care by one entity. He finds himself in care in another part of the country. He’s within 12 months of turning 18.”
The father then gave evidence. Referring to the state of the caravan when the gardai and the social workers arrived, he said the night before his brother’s caravan had burned down, and the brother’s family stayed in his caravan, so it was overcrowded. Normally it only contained him, his wife and eight children.
He acknowledged it was untidy and dirty that morning, but said it was normally clean. He also accepted that the toilet was in a bad state, but said there were washing facilities on the site. Referring to the children missing school, he said sometimes they missed the school bus.
Asked about the children being underweight he said: “We were always very good to the children. They would have bacon, sausages, eggs and beans for breakfast.”
He said the serious allegations about A were “absolutely false”, blaming other families for them. Allegations made by a young adult that he [the father] had sexually abused her were also “absolutely false”, he said. She had made false allegations against four other people and there had been no prosecutions.
In relation to alcohol, he said he did go to the pub sometimes, but not on a daily basis.
The evidence the court had heard of serious neglect and abuse was “all lies”, he said. Asked about evidence that he had destroyed his mobile home, he said: “We were very lonely after the children went. We decided to scrap down the mobile home and look for a house.”
He said there had been no problems before the gardai and social workers arrived. The HSE barrister read from a Garda report stating that there were live wires in the mobile home, rotting food, filthy clothes and bed-clothing. He said he agreed the wiring was unsafe. Asked about one of his children having to repeat a year because he had missed so many days in school, he said: “I’m not really sure.” Asked about evidence that A’s behaviour was sexually aggressive, he said: “I don’t know.”
Asked about the allegation that an adult had put his penis into the mouth of the father’s young daughter and peed into it and did things to her, he said; “If anyone did anything to any of our children they’d tell us. Nothing happened to our children. We never hit our children, we love our children and look after them to the best of our ability.”
The judge said he wanted the father to present his case as best he could, but his answers were that the parents loved their children and he didn’t know about specific questions. The father’s barrister said this was why a cognitive assessment should have happened.
Referring to the Garda statement about the conditions on the site, the judge asked the father: “Do you know what faeces are?”
“Dirt,” replied the father, after a pause.
“It’s human shit. The basin and toilet were clogged with shit. How did that happen? Do you accept there was shit in the basin?” asked the judge.
“Probably,” replied the father.
“Do you see the problem that arises for this court if that is the case?” asked the judge. The father did not reply.
Asked about the children having no regular mealtimes, the father said: “The way we were brought up, if we wanted something to eat we got it ourselves.”
Replying to a question from the solicitor for the GALs he said there was violence and fights with other families, they had had windows of the car broken, they were threatened with an iron bar and there were fires. “It was very frightening for the children,” he said.
The mother told the court she understood what was going on. She said the reports of dirt in the caravan were “all lies”. “I don’t know how the toilet got the way it was. The children used the toilet in my mother’s. I never saw the toilet blocked. It was up to the council to clean it.”
She said when she got the children back she hoped to get a house in the nearby provincial town, “away from everybody”. However, she and her husband needed to know what the situation was with the children before they could get on a housing list. “If we get the children back, I’d like help. I’d be prepared to work with the social workers if the children were returned,” she said.
Referring to the children’s non-attendance at school, she said some days they had flu. “They did not miss that much,” she said. She said she did not see anything in A’s behaviour to cause concern.
“There was hate in the family,” she said. Her family did not approve of her marriage and there was trouble. However, she said there was no violence in her home. She acknowledged that sometimes it was difficult to look after eight children.
Asked about her husband’s decision to destroy the caravan, she said: “After the children were taken I was just crying all the time. If we got the children back we weren’t going back onto the site.” She wanted to live in a house in the town with the children.
One of the GALs told the court that, according to the social work files on the family, there had been a reference in 1999 that the two older children were failing to thrive. Then the case was closed. It was reopened in 2000 with a new baby, where there were concerns about the couple’s parenting skills, nutrition and hygiene. There was a referral to a family support worker, which was withdrawn. “There appears to have been a pattern of low level intervention by the HSE over 13 years,” she said.
She said a cognitive assessment was very important to establish a base-line and to establish what supports the parents needed and how to communicate with them. “Without that we don’t know how to assess how the parents can parent their children, or whether they will reach a level where they can adequately parent their children.”
She said the model used by the HSE for assessing children’s needs, which originated in the UK, specified it must be used holistically. “From the social work department there is no reflection or analysis of the impact of [parents] living in poverty as members of an ethnic minority, who may suffer from cognitive disability and more importantly, how they can be helped to be the best parents they can be. In relation to stimulation and education there is no reference to cultural mores and context. Much in this [social work] report is culturally loaded.”
Turning to the situation of A, she said he struggled to maintain a social situation and to be in public places. He had a great sense of humour but when he felt anxious he flipped into very bizarre behaviour, for example, belching into people’s faces, trying to lick them. In his educational placement female students felt especially uncomfortable with him. Intellectually he fell between mild and moderate intellectual disability. This was significant for his after-care plan, as the services were much better for those with moderate rather than mild learning disabilities.
She said she was very concerned that the recommendations of his doctor, which were described as “urgent” had not been acted upon. “We need to know if he poses a risk to other children. That has implications for where he can live and with whom.”
He was remarkably guarded about what happened before he came into care. He said living on the site was “not good”, but he would like to live with his parents and brothers and sisters again. Yet sometimes he did not attend access with his parents, and was very anxious around it.
Asked by the HSE barrister if A’s behaviour indicated exposure to sexual abuse, she said some of it did, but other elements of his behaviour, like barking like a dog, licking people etc, did not necessarily indicate abuse. That was why there was a need for a psychological assessment.
She said C, the third child, was a very pleasant girl. She said she loved her family and worried about her parents’ feelings being hurt. She said she had friends on the site and a lot of the children were hurt. She was thriving in foster care. Her foster parents were very involved in youth work and had a number of former foster children who came back regularly and she was interested in seeing how that was working. She needed an educational assessment and might need extra tuition. The allegations from other people that she had been sexually abused needed to be explored.
The GAL took issue with the social worker’s interpretation of the behaviour of the parents during access. There were six adults present, including four professionals, and seven children ranging in age from one year to 15. Both parents are soft-spoken and the children are very active, she said. In the 60 minutes’ access each parent managed to pay attention to each child, and it all happened in a calm, relaxed manner. Referring to the remark that the parents had not moved from their chairs, she said this was not an essential component of parenting. In life in a small trailer with a lot of people there would be no room to play on the floor.
It was necessary to identify areas of the parents’ strengths which they needed to build on. The report stated that “attachment between the children and parents is insecure and disorganised”, which was very serious. “I am not sure how that diagnosis was arrived at. If accurate, it has implications for [the children’s] mental health. It appears to me the youngest child has formed secure attachment to the foster parents. If so, that can be transferred to the mother.”
Having heard the father’s evidence to the court, she said she would be very concerned that he did not understand the process, what was involved, and what the concerns were. “I can’t rule out that the parents can rectify the deficits in their parenting, especially for the youngest children. I am not recommending the children go home at this point in time.”
She said she recommended Care Orders for a year for the younger children.
She told the parents’ barrister that she was very familiar with the model used by the HSE for parenting capacity assessment, as she was part of the team in the UK that had piloted it. It was not being used here in accordance with the practice guidelines. “It is hugely undermined as a result,” she said.
“The court has to make a proportionate order. We have a legal obligation to make the least intrusive intervention possible,” she said.
A second GAL, who represented some of the other boys in the family, said there had been a recommendation of a cognitive assessment of the parents six months earlier, but this had not happened. It would have been helpful if it took place before the parental assessment. The children needed psychological assessments and the two younger boys seemed to need some therapeutic support.
Asked by the HSE barrister if she agreed that all the basics – health, nutrition, education and hygiene – were significantly sub-standard when the children were taken into care, she replied: “Yes.”
Making Care Orders for one year with conditions for the seven younger children, including assessments for both the parents and the children, and until he was 18 for A, the judge said he would give written judgments at a later date.