Care Orders for four Roma children

A judge in a provincial town made a Care Order in respect of four children from a Roma family. The father was not represented during the proceedings. The family had a history of transience. There were also allegations of domestic violence, neglect, poor school attendance and criminality.

The social worker gave evidence as to how the children came to the attention of the social work department. She said that a missing person’s notification had been received and that the surname matched one of those notifications already present in the social work department’s files. The social worker visited the address on the file. When she arrived at the property, no-one answered the door. A number of children could be seen lying on a sofa in the house through the window.

The Gardai were contacted and entered the property. The house was described as uninhabitable with “no food, old Chinese take-away on the counter and no baby formula.” The children and mother were taken to the social work department. It was agreed that a follow up visit would be carried out with the family but by the time the social workers returned to the house the family had moved.

The social work department became aware of the family again and noted that an urgent assessment was needed. There were child protection concerns as fifteen referrals had been made in respect of the children. The referrals came from a variety of sources and concerned allegations of abuse, neglect, domestic violence, the presentation of the children and lack of supervision. There were further referrals regarding the behaviour of the children and inappropriate forms of physical discipline. An Emergency Care Order was subsequently granted in respect of seven children. There were five children at the property on the day the order was executed.

The eldest child, aged 17, was in charge of the children and there was no adult present. The social worker noted that the house was untidy and there was no food in the fridge. The eldest child was placed in a private placement but soon disappeared. Two of the children were placed in separate private foster placements and the remaining two children were placed together. The whereabouts of the two youngest children was undetermined and the mother refused to disclose their location.

The social worker described how the children were wearing inadequate clothing, suffering from dental problems, ringworm and lice when they came into care. It was difficult to establish which of the children had vaccinations. There were also allegations that the younger children had experienced inappropriate chastisement at the hands of the eldest child.

The male child, aged 12 years, was described as “affable, mild-mannered and funny” with a drive to learn and be better at school. On the day he came into care he was wearing shoes that were too small and in bad condition. The social worker said that the child was three academic years behind his peers. Since coming into care he “never missed a day of school, embraced all opportunities open to him and made phenomenal progress.”

The child had a sense of belonging in his placement and expressed a desire to remain with his foster carers forever. He said: “I have a mum, dad and two brothers here, I want to stay.” The social worker explained that the child wanted three things, “to have a passport, be a Catholic and be as smart as his friends.”

One of the female children, aged 11, was described as “energetic, bossy and clever.” She was behind in school and struggled at times with her peers. The social worker explained that the children didn’t know how to play together. There were concerns regarding disclosures of suicidal thoughts. The child was distressed and detached. She often expressed a desire to return to her birth mother. The social worker attributed her suicidal thoughts to the separation from her family and her inability to cope. School provided good structure for the child giving her a chance to excel.

The social worker said that she had a good relationship with her care-givers and overcame many obstacles. She had become much more integrated in her peer group and could now sustain relationships. The child often spoke of herself in the third person and suffered from disorganised attachment disorder. She was described as “compulsively self-compliant, self-reliant and she couldn’t accept care-giving.”

The third youngest child was described as a “lost child.” The social worker explained that she fought to be part of the group for sibling access and she “neither belonged to the younger group nor the older group.” She had often been placed in used clothes bins in order to feed the clothes out through the spout. The child also spoke about being locked in a van and was often chastised by the mother as she was not good at stealing.

The other female child was seven years old and described as dynamic. She too did not know how to play, demanded much of her carers and was prone to temper tantrums.

An application for access was brought on behalf of the mother. The social worker said that it was her view that there should be “no direct contact with the children and the mother in order to allow them to settle into their placements without interruption.” Access was difficult for the children. The mother was allowed to have supervised phone contact with them. The first phone calls were distressing for some of the children. As a result of this, phone contact was suspended.

There were several incidents at access which caused alarm. On one occasion the mother passed the male child a mobile phone. The social worker said that the child was “different following access as he stayed in bed and took less pride in himself.” He missed his family and blamed himself for being in care. The child was conflicted about not telling foster carers about the phone and talking to his own family.

The social worker tried to meet with the mother about her concerns. However, the mother refused as there was no interpreter present. The social worker explained that one of the younger children did not speak during the first two hours of access. The mother told the child that she would be taken home with her. Following access the child was scared and slept under her bed.

The mother wrote notes to the children in which she made religious references which caused much distress to the children. There was a strong emphasis placed on praying in the family and one of the children could not understand why God had not answered his prayers. The social worker explained that the phrase “pray to God” destabilised the children’s placement. Access was suspended following the placement of the phone in the child’s pocket.

The social worker said that she could no longer work with the mother as she “wasn’t being honest.” She explained that the mother had presented at every appointment with the social department but she had been “paying lip service.” The mother had been all over the country but her engagement with the social work department was described as “false and deceptive.” The number of moves was illustrative of her attempts to avoid the scrutiny of the social work department, the social worker said.

The mother had stated at one stage that she was no longer with her partner, however, he was found to be in a shed at one of the properties. The social worker said that there was a real fear the children could be taken from their placements due to the mother’s lack of candour with regards to the disappearance of some of the other children. It was alleged the mother facilitated their removal from the jurisdiction. There was evidence that the mother applied for a passport for one of the children and the eldest child had sent details of addresses of placements.

The mother was seen besetting schools in areas where the children were located. There was a request by the male child that he be placed with his sisters so that he would not be snatched. The social worker explained that “the fear of removal needs to be abated and the children need to know that they are safe and the mother must support the placement.” The social worker advised that access should be restricted to four to six times a year. She said: “The children have been subjected to chronic neglect and cumulative harm over a long period of time. It is the worst case of neglect I have ever worked on which has gone un-assessed.”

It was difficult to establish where the family had been for a 15-year period. The family moved frequently and sought accommodation in various refuges as the mother alleged her partner was abusive. The staff informed her of the various orders available to her and advised that the Gardai could offer support. One of the refuge managers observed, “once social workers became involved, the family left and moved to another refuge.”

A social worker gave evidence regarding the welfare of the children at a refuge and said that one of the children was seen to be playing with disinfectant spray and rubbing it on her hand. Another refuge manager stated when the family arrived the male child had a bald patch on his head. They had encouraged the mother to bring him to the doctor.  One of the female children had a large bump on her head and a referral was made for the child to go to hospital as the injury did not improve. There were further concerns that one of the children had a cigarette burn on his bottom. This was raised with the mother but she could not account for the injury.

There were a number of incidents at the refuges. On one occasion a passer-by witnessed a small child hanging out of an upstairs window at the refuge. The child was two years of age and his siblings were pulling him back. A further incident occurred where a security guard saw an unaccompanied child standing naked at the first floor window of the refuge. It transpired that the mother was aware that the child was at the window.  The staff of the refuge advised the mother that a child protection referral would be made. The mother told them that she had been stressed and was having trouble weaning the children. She also expressed concern about the children being taken from her.

There was evidence given of a van which the mother purchased while in the refuge. The refuge manager explained the children had keys to the van and had turned on the ignition. This was raised with the mother and she was advised that a report would be made to the social work department. On another occasion the children were fighting and the staff asked the mother to intervene. The staff ultimately had to separate the children. The refuge manager stated that the lack of supervision of the children was “not unique but the number of times was unique.”

There were many incidents of the children left alone in public places. A Garda gave evidence of an incident where a number of the children were walking alone in a provincial town. The HSE was contacted and the children were taken to hospital but were soon returned to the custody of the mother. One of the children was found sleeping on the street by a Garda. The Garda tried to ascertain who was responsible for the child and contacted the social work department to assist. A relative of the child arrived shortly afterwards but there was no explanation proffered as to why the child was alone on the street. On another occasion one of the children was found wandering alone in a supermarket. The Garda said that the mother “didn’t realise the child was missing” and she didn’t come looking for child until later that evening. There was also an alarming report of one of the children waving a knife at passers-by along the roadside.

There were allegations of the mother entering shops and directing the children to steal. One Garda described how he investigated an alleged theft at a local shop where a group of people took a number of items including an electric cigarette and soft drinks. On viewing the CCTV footage, the mother admitted that her children had stolen the items. On foot of this, referrals were made in respect of the children as they were “brought to a shop and left free to steal.”

The education and welfare officer gave evidence regarding the lack of school attendance.  The family was referred to the officer in relation to the mother failing to secure school places for her children. The officer met with the mother and endeavoured to place five of the children in school. The officer said that she checked in to ensure that the children attended school. The older children failed to attend secondary school, one child only attended two weeks in the year while the other child didn’t attend at all. The officer conducted a number of home visits in respect of the lack of school attendance.

The mother attributed the poor attendance to times when the children were unwell or when she was unwell or pregnant. No medical notes had been provided for the absences. The family soon relocated to another town and places were secured for the children at the local school but attendance was very sporadic. On two separate occasions home visits were carried out but the officer was unable to meet the mother. She was informed by a relative of the mother that the family had moved to another town. A legal notice was issued in respect of poor attendance.

The officer explained that “the impact of sporadic attendance was difficult for the children due to their age. The children were losing out and would have reached their abilities if they had been in school on a full time basis.” She said that the mother advised that she would ensure that the children attended school, however, this guarantee did not materialise. The officer explained that the “younger children would have worked to the best of their ability when in school and they integrated well. The older children struggled with the language and kept to themselves. They were suspended for behavioural reasons.” There were also concerns about school attendance between moves into care as out of a possible 55 school days the children had missed between 24 and 29 days.

The mother gave evidence through an interpreter. She said that she was not with her partner anymore and she did not know where he was. She said that he had a tendency towards violence when he drank and the family moved whenever he became violent. She admitted that she had returned to her partner on many occasions as “he always promised that he would change.” She acknowledged that the children loved their father and always wanted to go back to him. The mother stated that she did not move in order to evade the social work department but said she moved so that her partner would not find her.

Counsel for the mother stressed the point that the family was Roma and moving around was part of their culture. He said that they should not be criticised for this. The mother alleged that the social worker was forcing the male child to say things deliberately to hurt the mother. She said that the social worker came to her house and said that she would take the children.  The mother expressed her distress at the children being placed in care. She said she “had no life without them” and that her “heart was broken”.

The GAL gave evidence explaining how the social care assessment affected the children, especially the male child. This had been a period of emotional distress for the child as he “didn’t understand why the assessment had concluded or why the mother could not work with the social department.” In respect of the one of the female children, the GAL noted that she was able to cry on cue. He described how during a meeting she “bounced toward her foster carers in a bright and bubbly manner but when foster carer left, she burst into tears as she wanted to go home and return to her mother. The tears stopped when the foster carer came back in.” He stressed the point that this type of behaviour was indicative of the disorganised attachment disorder alluded to earlier.

It was also noted that the child had good skills with regards to pick-pocketing. She demonstrated this in the presence of the GAL when she removed a mobile phone from her foster carer’s pocket and kept it as a trophy. She said that she used to beg but knew that it was wrong. The GAL said that the children expressed the wish that they wanted to be safe.  One of the children told the GAL that she “felt sad because she wanted to stay with the foster carers as there was no hitting or fighting.” He concluded that the children were well integrated into their placements.

The GAL said that direct parental contact should be restricted. He said that the children feel that “they haven’t done what the mother wants them to do.” He indicated that it was important for indirect contact to be promoted where the mother could teach the children about their culture and identity.

In delivering judgment, the judge stated that there “can be no doubt that the mother loves her children and that they love her.” The judge was satisfied that the mother always had the children with her and endeavoured to protect them.  She noted that the mother gave total denials in that she attempted to show the court she attended every meeting with the social department but she had failed to co-operate. She had also failed to comply with the orders of the court. The court was satisfied that the threshold had been met in respect of section 18 of the Child Care Act, 1991.

The judge further said that the behaviour of the mother meant that a Supervision Order was not applicable in the circumstances. The judge stated that access had been suspended and she saw “no reason to move from that due to the abduction concerns” but stressed that both sibling access and access with extended family was to continue. She said that parental access was to be left at the discretion of the CFA.