A full Care Order until 18 was granted by the District Court in a provincial city for a young child [D] whose parents were drug-users. Three older children of the mother were already in care.
The social work team leader told the court that the Child and Family Agency had received a referral from the ante-natal unit when the mother was about five months pregnant, as she was not attending all her pre-natal appointments. A case conference decided an Emergency Care Order would be sought when the child was born. She was born six weeks premature, and there was concern about her suffering from opiate withdrawal, but the child was healthy. She came into care with the agreement of her parents.
The team leader said she had been the mother’s social worker when an older child was taken into care. The mother received a number of supports, and there was positive engagement with the social work department. However, when they discovered she was pregnant again she denied it.
The parents’ solicitor said that there was a concern the team leader’s relationship with the mother had been spoiled by what happened when the older child was taken into care.
“It was difficult,” acknowledged the team leader.
Solicitor: “She sees you as the enemy, the person who took her child. Then she is approached by that person who asks if she is pregnant. Is it not reasonable that she feared you would take this child? It is only human nature to deny she is pregnant.”
Team leader: “There seems to be a pattern of blaming her parents, the social work department, anyone except herself.”
Solicitor: “Your involvement in this case was inappropriate from the state.”
Team Leader: “No. We could have worked on her addiction.” She said she did not accept that her relationship with the mother was “poisonous”, it was always very professional.
Solicitor: “Look at [the parents’] presentation today. They are well-dressed, they were on time. They do not look like people in the throes of a heroin addiction.” He said there had been no opiates in the parents’ system for about five months. He said that when her two oldest children, now in their late teens, had been taken into care, the mother had been in a relationship that had resulted in her being drawn into criminality and heroin addiction.
She then looked after a third child until she was five, when this child was taken into care under a Care Order, contested by the mother.
The mother was now in a new relationship with the father of the child who was the subject of these proceedings, the solicitor said. He had no criminal convictions for a considerable length of time. They were clearly affectionate with their child, and she was affectionate towards them. The team leader agreed.
The social worker for this infant said the child was generally healthy and developing as she should be. This social worker had become involved in the case shortly after the baby’s birth. He identified some risk factors, including the long history of opiate misuse. He said that, in order to be reunited with her baby, the mother should have 12 months clean of opiates. There was also concern about the father’s substance misuse.
There was a child protection conference (CPC) in January 2015. Up until then the social work department had been trying to get a voluntary arrangement in order to avoid court proceedings, which could be adversarial. The CPC drew up a plan, which included a parenting course. The parents completed that. “We were really frank with them in relation to fully engaging with the substance misuse services,” the social worker said.
Part of the plan was supervised screening for substances. The father engaged about half the time. In September 2015 tests showed heroin use. The father was hostile and confrontational. There was a lack of engagement with parenting supports. There were clean screens for drug use, but the parents needed to engage with the professionals and not be confrontational. There was continuing concern about their engagement and the opiate screens, and the social work department felt the threshold had been reached for a full Care Order.
He outlined the risk factors as: the mother’s long history of substance misuse since the age of 13 or 14; the long-established pattern of drug use; continued substance misuse. The father had a prescription for benzodiazepines. The mother did not have a prescription, but tested positive for this drug. The father became very hostile and confrontational when his drug use was raised, he was very threatening towards the drug counsellors. The mother needed different forms of counselling in order to deal with the substance issue, but over the previous 11 months her engagement had been very sporadic.
Criminality had been an issue in the past, with both parents having spent some time in prison. The father also had mental health issues relating to his drug use, including depression. The parents lacked extended family support.
Overall the social work department felt the parents were resistant to change and that a Care Order application was justified.
There had been considerable access with the child, including unsupervised and overnight access. At the outset the social work department had tried a voluntary arrangement in order to work through the issues. However, after concerns re-surfaced in relation to the substance misuse access was supervised.
Asked why they would not continue with the voluntary arrangement, the social worker said it was not working because of the level of hostility and the difficulties in engagement with the parents. He would be worried a voluntary arrangement would break down. A shorter Care Order had been considered, but decided against because of the level of engagement.
The parents’ solicitor said: “Parents who are on the wrong side of having a child taken into care will have a hostile relationship with the CFA. Is that your experience?”
Social worker: “I can’t generalise. It is not always the case. Sometimes.”
The solicitor said that the last detection of heroin was in November and there had been only three positive screens since September. “Is it not the case that the mother is trying very, very hard to deal with substance misuse?”
Social worker: “Yes.”
Solicitor: “And the father?”
Social worker: “Yes.”
Solicitor: “A full Care Order is really the nuclear button. Why are you pushing it?”
Social worker: “Because they had every chance to address the issues.”
Solicitor: “In the interests of the child, and in circumstances where the parents clearly love their daughter and she seems to love them, can you not find a way for them to be together?”
Social worker: “I disagree.”
He agreed with the CFA solicitor who put it to him that it was open to the parents to come back to court and seek the discharge of the order.
A family support worker told the court that it was clear the parents found it difficult to trust the services. Because the child was not in their care they had to take every opportunity with her to practice their skills. There was a positive interaction between them and the child. They played together with toys, they were responsive to her signals, communicating with her.
Asked what were the risks if the child was in their care, she said their mistrust of the services impacted on them. She told the parents’ solicitor that they had not been hostile or aggressive with her. They were aware she was not working with the CFA, but with a children’s charity.
The mother told the court she had started using drugs when she was 14. She got involved in heroin through her ex-partner. She tried methadone treatment and had her third child, who was taken into care when she was five. Then she got pregnant again, and she was afraid the social workers would take the baby, so she denied she was pregnant. She said she did not get on with the team leader (who had been involved in the care proceedings for the third child). Then the other social worker came on board.
She said she had had 40 or 50 access sessions with the baby, and only missed three or four. “The bond is really strong. All we want is a chance.
“I’m really trying, trying really hard. I’m just asking not a full Care Order.”
Parents’ solicitor: “You are a drug addict. How can a child be trusted to your care?”
Mother (weeping): “I’ll have the strength.”
She said she accepted it was not possible for the child to be returned to her at the moment, but was asking for a Care Order just for a year. “I’ll put my life back on track, get counselling, overcome the addiction.
“I just have this feeling of love when I put my arms around [D]. I just want to be a mum.”
CFA solicitor: “What you are asking from the court is another chance. Do you not accept that the social worker was very clear from the outset what needed to be done? But you didn’t manage to achieve that.”
Mother: “I achieved a lot.”
CFA solicitor: “You did sign up to the care plan for addiction. But you did not follow through.”
Mother: “I did, but they took one of the workers off the course.”
CFA solicitor: “The chance you are looking for now is the chance you were given since her birth. The social worker said he had a good relationship with you, but it deteriorated when you could not comply with the plan.”
Mother: “I do recognise my difficulties with the CFA did cause problems in the relationships. I am prepared to change that.”
The father told the court that his parents had split up with he was five or six. “My mother had addiction issues, my father not so much.” He started using drugs when he was 13. “I grew up too fast.” He said he never saw heroin until he was in prison, “when I got out I went looking for it.”
“Me and [the mother] are together for four years and I have had no charges. Since I met her I haven’t been in trouble. My life is 60/70 per cent better than it was. Now I feel I have a chance for a fresh start.
“[In relation to heroin] Sometimes I can go for a period of months and then when things get bad I slip back. Some people go for a pint, I look for a toke.”
Referring to his relationship with the CFA he said: “At first I didn’t understand how the system worked. When [D] was taken away I took it really, really badly. I think it took it even worse than [the mother].”
Parents’ solicitor: “You took it so bad you couldn’t stay off drugs.”
Father: “I know I’m an addict. I’ll always be an addict. I just want one more chance. If we did f… up then I’d understand.”
Parents’ solicitor: “Are you asking the court for a one-year Care Order? What would you do?”
Father: “Counselling. What they want. Whatever needs to be done. I know I have a lot of work to do. I love [D] more than anything in the world. I know she loves me. She’s my daughter. I know we’ve done wrong. I think if we were given another chance we could do it.”
CFA solicitor: “You asked for a last chance back in September. You got that. Everything that needed to be done was very clearly outlined. Why will it be different this time?”
Father: “I think we’ve become more steady. We’ve had two chances. I think we deserve one more. If we fail, we don’t deserve another.
“I went for counselling that the social worker set up for me. I was opening up to [the counsellor] and then I went in one day and he said he was just filling in for someone else. Then I went to see someone else and she went out sick.”
The CFA solicitor said that the risk factors outlined remained.
The parents’ solicitor told the court that the relationship between a child and its mother, a child and its parents, was stronger than any man-made bond. The idea of sundering it must be considered very seriously indeed.
The parents were trying in the fact of very, very difficult childhoods. “For them to present themselves in a way we would find acceptable is asking too much.
“I am not asking the court to return the child now. But the mother is not a young girl. She is becoming more mature. I am asking for one last chance for these people to be parents to D.”
The judge said: “I accept entirely that the parents are sincere in their attempts to deal with addiction. I accept entirely they love their child. But it still remains the case they did not engage properly with the addiction services. They have been given every assistance.
“In the circumstances the threshold has been met and the intervention is not disproportionate. I grant a full Care Order until 18.” He agreed to a request for a one-year review.