A full Care Order for two children was granted by the District Court in a provincial city after a one-day hearing. The children, both of secondary school age, had not been attending school and the mother, who had limited cognitive ability and mental health problems, was parenting alone.
The solicitor for the CFA told the court that there had been several prosecutions under the Education and Welfare Act. There was concern about the mother’s ability to care for the children. He said the main social worker in the case had been transferred to another area and there would be difficulties in establishing all the facts of the case.
An education and welfare officer told the court he had become involved with the family in October 2013. He had called to the house on a number of occasions and outlined the mother’s legal responsibilities. The younger child was due to attend fifth class at this stage and had missed 59 school days.
In January the mother was given a formal warning, and there was some minor improvement, but some months later the children were still not attending school regularly. The mother said the child was sick, but she was seen around the town. There were seven court appearances concerning non-attendance at school over a 15-month period. The child then became established in another school and there were no further concerns. However, the children went into care under an Interim Care Order in December 2014 when the mother was admitted to hospital as a result of mental health problems.
Asked if there had been concerns about hygiene or nourishment, the education and welfare officer said there were none recorded in the reports, but there were a number of occasions when the child said she was quite hungry. The house was clean and tidy.
Asked if he was aware the mother had a borderline intellectual disability, he said he was not.
Her barrister said: “At all stages she needed help in getting the children to school. Did if ever cross your mind she did not fully understand what you were saying?”
Education and welfare officer: “It appeared she did understand what we were saying – that the children, given their ages, had to go to school.”
Barrister: “She was attending mental health services. Did it occur to you to get a cognitive assessment of the mother?”
EWO: “I was aware she was attending other services. That is their area of expertise.”
Barrister: “Did you never check out the mother’s capacity to understand what was required?”
A clinical psychologist said she was contacted by the CFA and asked to carry out an assessment of the mother. “She was very engaging, very cooperative. But she seemed to lack insight into the concerns of the CFA.”
She said the mother had had a very challenging life history. Her parents moved to another jurisdiction when she was nine, and then separated. She had a number of relationships. “She was quite vulnerable and taken advantage of. There was some physical abuse,” she said.
The mother had two children and moved back to Ireland, where she lived with her mother for a time. She had mental health issues and a diagnosis of bi-polar disorder. She was admitted to hospital at the end of 2014 when the children were taken into voluntary care, and later released on medication, with which she was fully compliant.
The psychologist said she had carried out a number of tests on the mother relating to her mental health and cognitive ability. She was at the fourth percentile of cognitive ability, meaning 96 per cent of the population would have a higher ability.
CFA solicitor: “So she is capable of change?”
Psychologist: “Everyone is capable of change, but it depends also on life circumstances, mental health, etc. Her concrete style of thinking was very black and white. If the child said she was sick and could not go to school, it meant she could not go to school. She could not question how sick she was. I would have big concerns about her insight into safety issues with her children.”
She told the mother’s barrister that her cognitive ability meant she would find it very difficult to understand a lot of instructions at once. If she was given a number of tasks she would find it difficult to prioritise and to follow instructions.
Asked if the mother could manage if the tasks were presented in simplified language, one task at a time, she said she could. Asked if she could have done so had such a plan been put in place, the psychologist said there was a better chance, but she could not say what the outcome would be.
Barrister: “People on the fourth percentile can have and raise children?”
Psychologist: “Absolutely. It depends on what supports they have and also what is going on in the rest of their environment.”
Barrister: “If supports were put in place for the mother that may be of assistance for her?”
Psychologist: “It may be. But I understand that she did receive a number of supports.”
Asked if, in relation to her mental health, she would recover, she said No, but she could be kept well and stable with a reduction of her symptoms, and could interact with her children.
Barrister: “She loves her children?”
Psychologist: “Very much so and the children love their mother.”
A psychologist from a child and family centre said that she carried out a parenting capacity assessment of the mother. She had met the mother weekly. She did not understand the educational needs of the children, and there was unintentional neglect.
Asked if the mother had a capacity to change, she said everyone had the capacity to change, but the question was by how much, and lasting how long. She had had a difficult childhood and if a person had no experience of positive parenting herself it was more difficult to acquire such skills. The amount of time required to put change in place would be problematic for the children.
Her report had said 24-hour parenting support would be necessary, that is, someone on call all the time. It would be difficult for the children to have all their needs met. There had been numerous social workers calling but change, while it occurred, was not sustained. Abstract thinking was very, very difficult for the mother.
She had very strong religious belief, and was very open and pleasant. She had had a very difficult early history and did not want her daughters to have the same experience she did, she wanted her daughters to be loved, and to be there for them, to be their friend. She saw their relationship as more a friendship relationship than a parenting relationship. She spoke of her social worker in very positive terms. She thought she had set boundaries for her children, but said the children had behavioural problems.
The children were being confrontational. As their development ages change children expect more, they push boundaries. The psychologist said.
The mother spoke of the older child [A] being bullied at school. She received inappropriate sexual images on her phone. This child spoke of being suicidal and the mother said she would pray for her.
“[The mother] is very engaged and engaging, but the history of the case is that she can’t meet the needs of the children relating to their health, hygiene, setting boundaries, education, due to her intellectual difficulties and her mental health difficulties,” the psychologist said.
Referring to the mother changing, she said: “My concern is, how long do her daughters have to wait? The question is whether the change is long-term, consistent, and how much change. I saw the social workers give instructions, model the instructions, repeat them. It suggests that when someone is there with her on a one-to-one basis she can make some changes. I don’t know how sustainable they are. Her capacity to change does not match the children’s changing development needs as teenagers.”
The mother’s barrister pointed out that the psychologist had recommended the reduction of telephone contact between the mother and the children, and pointed out that the older one was almost 17 and her phone use was almost impossible to control. The psychologist agreed it was very difficult. “Our intention is to allow the children enjoy their teenage years,” she said. “They’re very worried about their mother.”
The barrister also said that the proposed reduction of access to one hour a week would damage the children’s relationship with their mother. The older one had lived with her until she was 14 or 15. The psychologist said that the proposal was in order to allow them to settle into their foster home. She suggested reduced and supervised access for a few months, and to review it then, assessing the quality of the access.
Referring to the psychologist’s criticisms of the quality of the access so far, the mother’s barrister said that it had taken place in the coffee shop of the child and family centre, which was described as cold and uncomfortable, “not the most suitable environment to assess the interaction between family members.”
“I’m with you on that,” the judge said. “But the response is that the access is unrelated to the venue.”
The social worker with the family for the previous few months gave evidence that the older child was articulate, pleasant and chatty and was involved in various activities. She had good relationships with her peers and her teachers and her school attendance was very good. She had a boyfriend, who was age-appropriate. She was now 17 and an after-care plan would be developed soon. She said both girls were doing fine and had no difficulties in school.
Mother’s barrister: “That would come from the mother. To that extent it’s a protective factor?”
Social worker: “Yes.”
The barrister suggested that A’s boyfriend, who was almost 20, was a young adult and that this was not an appropriate relationship. The social worker said that there was no indication it was a sexual relationship, and the young couple appeared to have a good relationship. The siblings were together in foster care.
Asked if access should not be more, given the loving relationship between mother and daughters, the social worker said this would be reviewed in three months’ time. They would see then if it could be increased and what level of supports was required.
Asked about therapeutic interventions for both girls, the social worker said an application had to be made for funding.
The guardian ad litem said that she was supporting the application for Care Orders for both girls until they were 18. There was a positive relationship between them, and between them and their mother, but she could not meet their needs as they got older. The children were quite care-giving, and, given their own needs and the fact that their mother was vulnerable, the phone calls should be restricted if possible. Recently they had come to recognise their mother’s difficulties with cognitive functioning and her need for care.
She acknowledged that A had disagreed with the recommendations from the child and family centre, and wanted more access with her mother. Referring to their drawings indicating happy times at home, she said the mother loved the children and took very good care of them, but there were times when the social work department was very concerned about A’s safety.
Asked about shared care, she said she would be concerned about supervision.
The mother gave evidence, saying: “I would like a chance to look after my kids. They attended school every day under the Interim Care order. I am contesting the full Care Order. I would look after them to the best of my ability. [A] has always been very kind and loving to me. She wanted to come home.”
Mother’s barrister: “How would you support her goals in life?”
Mother: “I would support her to go to college and have a chance to better herself. I wouldn’t allow her out at night. I would get them both up and ready for school, with a breakfast.”
Asked about access, she said she used to enjoy it when she met the girls for lunch and they went shopping, but now it was just an hour with a family support worker present. She would prefer access at weekends at home, and for the girls to be given a chance to come home on Fridays and return on Saturdays and then go to school.
She said she had seen a psychiatrist a few weeks earlier, and he had said she was stable and she could come back in four months. “I take my medication and make sure to get my rest. I have done the ‘Easy Parenting’ course and I’m in touch with the vocational school. I found an art course there very therapeutic. I did five paintings and they said they were very, very good.”
Asked about the children not going to school, which had prompted the social work intervention, she said that the younger child [B] had educational problems and A had been sick. The CFA solicitor pointed out that the GP said he did not understand why she was not in school, and the mother said she had been sent to specialists for investigation, she had headaches, stomach problems and an endoscopy.
CFA solicitor: “Nothing was found wrong.”
Referring to other problems, the mother said the children had showers every second day, they had a balanced diet and home-cooked food. She denied that A, when she was 14, was sleeping with her boyfriend. “There was never any sexual activity in my home. The bedroom door was always open when the boyfriend was there,” the mother said.
The CFA solicitor put it to her that when B was not going to school she was allowed out with older young people.
“I could not keep her cooped up in the house all the time. I did allow her out with [A] and her older friends. They were meeting boys.”
Asked if they had attended an adult party at which there was alcohol, she said this was a confirmation party which she had attended as well. The child did not drink.
CFA solicitor: “The children are doing very well at the moment. Really what you want is greater access?”
Mother: “I would like more access. I’d like to be given a chance to take care of both my children and experience being with them again.”
Giving her decision, the judge said: “The mother is not capable of doing what she needs to do in a time-frame that meets the needs of the children. The sad thing is that for a period of time the children were more than adequately cared for by their mother. But due to her cognitive ability she was not able to meet their needs as they got older.
“She is one of the best-intentioned persons we’ve seen here. We all want to put the best side out, but at the time they came into care the children were suffering from neglect. I will grant full Care Orders until B completes her Leaving Cert. I want a review every year, including of where the children live.
“In relation to access, what is happening in [the child and family centre] is very cruel. Access is not for the mother, it is for the children. The mother did work with [the local social services] but by the time of the assessment she had slid back. That is why [the centre] made the recommendations it did at this time.”
She made a direction under Section 47 that the children receive therapeutic support relating to their being in care, access visits and their relationship with their mother, in line with recommendations from the GAL. In four months’ time the court would deal with access, after-care and therapeutic supports.
“I want the mental health services to provide all the supports needed by the mother. She’s been absolutely marvellous. She attends all appointments, obeys all instructions. I look forward to positive news about what happens in the future,” the judge said.