CFA urged to progress access for children in care until 18

A judge in a provincial city said the CFA should work towards arranging more access between six children and their mother, where the children had been in care for four years following their neglect and suspected sexual abuse. When she made the Care Orders until they were 18 for the children in 2011 the judge said she would review the case regularly, and it had now come before her for review.

The solicitor for the Child and Family Agency said that one of the main issues into the future would be access. “The court process is not helpful. The children are in care until they are 18. There is no appeal. The children need to settle. They are getting on well. The CFA has to be allowed to do its work.”

The father’s barrister said that it was highly unusual that the father had not had access to the children since 2011. “The blocking issue seems to be the discrepancy between his account [relating to the sexual abuse allegations] and that of two of the children. He acknowledges physical abuse. He had undergone anger management and couples therapy.”

The social worker said that the eldest child, A, now 15, had come into care in May 2010 and had been in two foster placements. She was getting on well in school and had a very positive relationship with her foster parents. She was very guarded in relation to her past experiences and seemed to be coping by putting aside what had happened. She was not engaging in psychotherapy though it was available to her.

She had a strong sense of family and had regular contact with her maternal uncle and his wife. She had had three contact visits with her mother since the last court date. She found it difficult to regulate her emotions at the meeting and was very excited. She said she did not want to see her father at this time.

The second child, B, differed from her sister in that she often discussed her experiences. She had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She required a lot of emotional support, and this could be difficult for a foster family. Her last placement had broken down because of difficulties around school and homework. At the moment she was not able to function in a conventional family environment and was in a residential unit. The ultimate goal would be to integrate her into foster care.

She was quite ambivalent about contact with her mother, and she had various questions for her, especially around the mother choosing the father over her children. She struggled with her own identity and her lack of information about her father’s background. He came from another jurisdiction. She was quite fearful of him, and spoke about him coming to get her when she was 18 and no longer in the care of the CFA. She was very negative about him.

She had met her mother and put her questions to her, which was beneficial for her.

The third child, C, had an intellectual disability and ADHD. He was receiving speech and language therapy and art therapy. Because of his intellectual disability his understanding of what had happened was limited. He was very close to his foster parents and getting on well in school and in his extra-curricular activities. He did not discuss his parents and identified with his foster family.

The fourth child, D, was in the same placement as C and was very guarded. His body language changed when his parents were mentioned. If C was to see his mother, D’s needs would have to be balanced against that.

The two youngest children, E and F, were very young when they were taken into care. E was in school and was doing well. Her understanding was that she had two mummies and two daddies. Both she and her younger sister were having access with their mother.

A delicate matter that would have to be resolved at some stage was that the father of the other children might not be E’s father. This could be important in the future for her identity and understanding of certain things that happened at home.

The social worker said that the discrepancy between the father’s version of what had happened in the home and that of the children was not the reason why he was not having access with the children. The decision was based on the needs of the children. A psychological assessment of the father had assessed him as posing a moderate to high level of risk of sexual abuse of the children. The CFA was not closed to access, but it would occur when it was appropriate for the children.

Judge: “I’m getting mixed messages here. You said that the discrepancy between the various versions of what happened was not the reason [for not allowing access], but you are saying there is a risk to the children and a need for therapy.”

Social worker: “We had been hoping that with therapy there would be acknowledgement, because otherwise they will not be able to build relationships.”

The father’s barrister asked her how the social work department reacted to A saying she wanted to see her father. “We said there was work she needed to do and that her parents needed to do in order to have such a meeting.”

Barrister: “Is it possible the children now think that even if they request access they may not get it?”

Social worker: “It’s possible.”

Asked if it was the social work department’s concern that access to the parents would put the placement at risk, the social worker said that the children were in long-term care and the priority was to ensure stability in their foster placement. She said that after the possibility of meeting his father was mentioned to D, there were two misdemeanours in school in quick succession, after there had been no problems in school for six months.

The barrister said that the father had acknowledged that his parenting skills did not meet the children’s needs. “What else does he need to do?”

The social worker said that B was still very fearful of him, including fearing that the CFA would not be able to protect her when she turned 18. Asked about access between the other children and their father, the social worker said they were very guarded about what happened at home. The younger girls were very afraid of men when they came into care.

The mother’s barrister asked if it was the case that the only objection to access between the middle boys, C and D, and their parents was that it might endanger their placement. The social worker agreed.

Barrister: “You are aware that it is only in exceptional circumstances that children should not have access. What are the exceptional circumstances where C cannot have access with his mother? Because of his intellectual disability he may need ongoing support. Are you sure that the foster parents will be able to provide that when he turns 18?”

The social worker said that this was something that could be provided for in after-care. “In some cases children are out the door when they are 18 and that’s that,” the barrister said. “The parents don’t require a court order or any funding to care for him. According to your scenario the mother may be there for him but he may have no relationship with her because he hasn’t seen her.

“The CFA is under a continuing duty to consider reunification, notwithstanding that there are long-term Care Orders in place. That is exponentially reduced the longer there is no regular contact with the parents.

“All these children have different needs in relation to their parents. Yet they have not been treated differently. How was it in the interests of F not to have contact with her mother for two years? Access was stopped with her mum after a year in care.”

Social worker: “We need to promote the long-term welfare of the children and their attachment to their foster-carers.”

Barrister: “For the record, you are saying that once full Care Orders were granted reunification was not a priority and instead it was establishing permanency.”

Social worker: “The acknowledgement of what happened at home had not happened so reunification was not a realistic prospect.”

The barrister said that C and D were about to make their Confirmations, and their mother wanted to be involved in the day. She asked if this could be arranged and managed. The social worker said that they would be led by the boys on this.

A clinical psychologist gave evidence about the second child, B, who had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She was a text-book example of the impact of emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse and neglect. She idealised and fantasised about certain aspects of her mother, and then had to deal with her mother not protecting her from her father. She had a strong protective sense towards the other children so that they did not go through what she went through. The fact that her placement broke down was indicative of her attachment issues. She needed to have an attachment figure available to her in the future, and she had already identified one of the key workers in the residential unit as a maternal figure.

She has started to develop her emotional skills and access with her mother will have a huge impact on her recovery, how she will deal with relationships in the future and how she will parent her own children. In the future foster carers would have to be very carefully selected and assessed for matching with her needs.

Her older sister, A, had not been seen because she was not talking about her experiences. One strategy for children in such a situation was avoidance because they could not integrate the pain. There was a risk then of repeating the parents’ behaviour.

The guardian ad litem said that, apart from B, the children were making good progress in their placements. A wanted to see her mother, but wanted to be sure of when, she wanted to compartmentalise it in her life. She was not ready to see her father.

B was a very, very complex girl. After the meeting with her mother she said she now understood that the mother feared that the CFA would not give the children back to her, so she opted to stay with the father. She wanted to know about her father. Where was he from? She knew he was of mixed parentage and came from another jurisdiction.

It was important for all the children to have an ally in the extended family, people would could accept them and their story and validate them.

C was making steady progress, but would need supports beyond 18. The GAL said she did not envisage him being looked after in the future either by his parents or foster-parents. He would need supported housing.

Both he and his brother, D, had very careful routines and any disruption of it could cause behavioural difficulties and was difficult to manage. She would like to get to a point where meetings with the parents could be integrated into the routines.

E was getting on well in school and at home. In relation to her parentage, the father said he was not willing to have a paternity test, and it was understandable he wanted to preserve the intact family. While the mother was in a relationship with someone else at the time, she was also in a relationship with the father. He was there as a parent while the children were living at home. But a child is entitled to know who they are.

F had been in care since she was 11 months old. She was happy and settled.

Different children have different needs. Some of the children may never reconcile with their father. Some may forgive and try to forget. It depended on their age and the nature of their experiences.

She said when F came into care she had an adverse reaction to men, she would scream and be in a frozen state when her foster father came near her. In relation to A, she had said she wanted to see her father and then changed her mind. A lot of her relationship with her father was inappropriate. Many of her memories of that would be unconscious. It was not that anything might happen during supervised access, but it could trigger unconscious memories.

Asked if she was saying the father should never see the children again, the GAL replied: “The father is a very vulnerable person who experienced a very traumatic childhood himself. This is not a regular situation. It is not a custody dispute. It is important to break the cycle. I am not saying never, but that contact should be reintroduced at the children’s pace.”

The mother told the court she accepted A and B had to move out. She said she would like to see the boys. She sometimes bumped into them in the street, and they were always excited to see her. Their Confirmation was coming up, which was a big day. She would like to be there to give them a hug and a kiss. She already saw them at Mass sometimes.

In relation to the youngest children, she said an hour four times a year was not enough to build any kind of relationship. She would like something more consistent, perhaps once a month.

Asked if she understood why things had to be taken quite slowly, she said: “As well as wanting your children to get help you want to be in their life and not just be a picture.”

She said that through the therapy she had undergone she understood that she could have done things a lot better. “I did things the way I was brought up. There were punishments. I have gained insight into how it was for them.”

The judge said that when the Care Orders were made there were orders about therapy and access. “Therapeutic work was to be done with a view to providing access. The court has an obligation to ensure that its orders are carried out.

“[The children] are going to become adults. They are going to have to contend with their relationship with their parents. It is a false situation that they are in care full-time, aware of their parents, but there is virtually no access.

“The focus must be on the development of access with the mother, not seeing the father at the moment. He is to continue therapy.”

In relation to the boys’ Confirmation, she said that she did not think it would do much harm for the mother to go up to the boys casually following the ceremony and wish them well.

She said she was not making a formal order in relation to access, it was to be at the discretion of the CFA, but she was directing it to progress matters, and she would keep it monitored. The case was put in for mention in September.