Care Orders for the five youngest children of a very large family were granted by a District Court in a provincial city. The older children were now all adults.
The barrister for the Child and Family Agency told the court that the social work department had been involved with the family, who were Travellers, since the 1990s. Supervision orders had expired in 2012. There were serious allegations of neglect and lack of cooperation on the part of the parents. One of the older children, now in her 20s, made a significant disclosure of sexual abuse some years ago against her father. The Gardai took a statement, a file had been sent to the DPP recommending prosecution and two Gardai were in court.
She said the children were in care together under Interim Care Orders with foster carers of a similar background.
A Garda told the court that the complainant had made numerous allegations of sexual abuse to her probation officer, who contacted a social worker. She then made a statement to the Gardai, detailing a number of people she had disclosed to, including a priest. The Gardai subsequently arrested the father and a file was prepared for the DPP, recommending prosecution. That had come back with questions, which were being dealt with.
The CFA barrister asked the Garda, who had been a specialist child interviewer since 2008, what was her professional assessment of the credibility of the allegations.
The father’s barrister objected, saying that these were child care proceedings, not criminal proceedings, and this was hearsay. She did not have these statements.
The solicitor for the guardian ad litem (GAL) said the case law stated that the CFA must investigate such allegations. There was no jury in the case, and the judge could decide what weight to give to such evidence. The court was being asked to make an assessment of risk. It would be unfair to the children if the court did not have access to all information.
The judge asked why the information had not been shared with the parents’ barrister, and the CFA barrister said that the CFA did not have it, they did not ask for the Garda statements.
Judge: “It is your duty to ask for them if you are pursuing this line of inquiry.”
The CFA barrister said they might have to consult with the DPP as it might interfere with the criminal investigation. She said she did not propose to pursue this line of inquiry.
The father’s barrister said she proposed that the evidence be confined to what the Garda knew, other than what she was told by other people. She could give evidence that there had been an investigation and had made a recommendation to the DPP. She could not stray beyond that.
The solicitor asked the Garda if the allegations made by the adult child related to children, and she said they did.
The father’s barrister said the CFA had sought an emergency care order relating to a specific allegation, not earlier complaints. The CFA was not relying of these and they had not been submitted to the court which heard the ECO.
A Garda Inspector who was leading the investigation said that the file had gone to the DPP in July 2015 and had come back for further clarifications. A recommendation had been made that the father be prosecuted for sexual assault and rape. He hoped there would be a decision in the next two or three months.
The CFA barrister said it was not asking the court to accept the allegations, but to be aware of them and give the weight to them it thought fit.
A psychologist instructed by the CFA had carried out a risk assessment of the father. She had interviewed him nine times over five months.
She said he had a significant intellectual disability and struggled to engage in the process, finding it difficult to understand what she was asking. She discussed the allegations and his personal history. It became clear he did not really appreciate why he was being asked questions. It was not just the allegations of sexual abuse, there were allegations of significant neglect as well. She attempted to talk generally about how to deal with children, how to discipline them.
Nothing remarkable emerged in relation to his personal history. He had had very little schooling and irregular employment, very typical of a man from a Traveller background.
He met his wife when he was 17 and they had a number of children. They were both from large families and wanted a lot of children. He presented quite an idealised picture of his relationship with his wife. They had very traditional roles, she was responsible for the care of the children.
When describing the children he seemed more able to do so with the younger children. He still seemed to have difficulty in understanding children’s needs at different stages of development. Adolescent girls gave him most trouble. He found it difficult to reflect on his parenting practices and was defensive.
He had no insight into what impact the cognitive disabilities of some of his children might have on their life skills. His own cognitive assessment placed him at the 0.3 percentile, meaning 99.7 per cent of the population scored better in cognitive ability. He was unable to participate in psychometric testing because of his inability to understand many of the questions. He became overwhelmed very quickly.
He struggled to contain his frustration, leading to anger and to difficulties as a parent.
He was very conservative and traditional in his attitudes and found it difficult to step into another person’s shoes. His sense of worth came from being integrated into his community.
The father’s barrister pointed out that the psychologist had been given the allegations as the basis for her assessment. These had been made by an adult person and were not covered by the hearsay rule (relating to evidence of children’s allegations).
The CFA barrister asked the psychologist if she had explored these issues with the father, and she said he denied any neglect and all the sex abuse allegations. He said the older child [who had made the allegations] was angry because of a relationship she had entered into. He said she had been a difficult adolescent.
Referring to her method, the psychologist said that complaints were accepted as true and put to the subject. If they were denied and there were no other facts, he would come out as low risk. But this could be modified by social and environmental factors and the manageability of the risk.
She agreed with the father’s barrister that the father had had a lot of tragedy in his life. He had lost his mother at a young age, and two of his children had died. The barrister asked her to accept that as a Traveller man there were certain expectation that might not exist in the settled community, he would have spent a lot of time in male company, with his sons, while his daughters would have been assimilated into other families.
The judge asked where the family lived, and the barrister said in a house on a halting site. “It seems to me, 18 children on a halting site, it’s absolutely disgraceful the local authority allowed that,” the judge said.
“Yes, we have poverty, neglect etc,” the psychologist agreed.
Referring to the older daughter’s allegations, the barrister pointed out the father had objected to a marriage she entered into and to her hanging around with anti-social elements. She had spent time in prison and a treatment centre. “Does that go some way towards explaining his defensiveness towards her allegation?”
“Yes, it could,” the psychologist replied.
The barrister said there were many issues outside the father’s control, including his lack of empathy, his cognitive disability, which were not associated with child sexual abuse. The psychologist said that in fact cognitive disability was linked to child sexual abuse.
“If the allegations were untrue, would he be low risk?” the barrister asked.
“If the criminal prosecution concluded and he was found not guilty, the risk would be low to moderate,” the psychologist replied.
The mother’s barrister asked her why she had said the mother was not a protective factor, and the psychologist said the mother had rejected the allegations outright. Asked if she allowed for the possibility that the woman believed her husband, the psychologist said it was appropriate for the mother to at least consider the possibility that her children had been abused.
She agreed with the solicitor for the GAL that risk assessment started with the allegation, information around that was collated and then the assessment made. The rights of the child had to be paramount. She was not making a finding of fact, but testing a presumption.
The father’s barrister said that tittle-tattle was not evidence. “I have no way of testing this allegation because the people making it are not giving evidence.”
A psychologist from a specialist family therapy and support centre said she had prepared a parenting capacity assessment on the parents in 2001. She watched the parents with the children in their home environment. They were living in a house at the time. Asked where they all slept, she said the older children were married and out of the house, apart from the older girl who later made allegations against her father. There was a big gap in age between her and the other children in the house. She was quiet and withdrawn and very busy in the house.
Both parents had limited understanding of the children’s needs. Both were inclined to block out the external world. The children’s education was very behind and they were not going to school. All the children had learning disabilities. Most had speech and language difficulties. Both parents had limited intellectual functioning and limited ability to understand language.
The children had difficulties in understanding their own emotions. Both parents were fearful of admitting their problems so they could not address the need to change. Asked about the impact of living on a halting site, she said many very successful families were raised on halting sites.
In conclusion, the psychologist said that both the mother and father had the mental capacity to take on very simple parenting tasks but not to deal with children’s more complex needs. Neither had the capacity to meet the children’s diverse and complex psychological, emotional and intellectual needs. The children needed consistent and reliable parenting from parents who can manage their emotions.
Judge: “If the children were from a different background, would you recommend they be taken into care?”
Psychologist: “Yes, we recommend children from all backgrounds be taken into care. In relation to these children, there is no guarantee their needs will be met in care. Hopefully [they will].”
The CFA barrister said that it was always the policy of the CFA to keep children in their family. There was ongoing involvement in this family from 2011. It was the withdrawal of cooperation with that, coupled with the allegations, which led to this application.
The father’s barrister asked the psychologist if all families could provide optimal outcomes for children, and she replied that there was no internationally accepted standard as to what counted as a nurturing environment. She agreed that the parents loved their children, but were overwhelmed by the depths of the children’s needs.
Following social worker evidence of neglect and physical abuse, the court granted the full Care Orders sought.
The parents did not give evidence.