A judge granted an Interim Care Order for a child who had not been attending school and was “absent at risk” (missing) in care. However, he refused an Interim Care Order for the child’s two younger siblings, saying that the issue of neglect was being dealt with, and accepting that they had attended school for six weeks prior to the hearing. All three children had been in care under short term Interim Care Orders.
The Traveller family was the subject of harassment in the flat block where they lived, leading to the older child not attending school through fear of a local gang. The HSE sought Interim Care Orders for the three children, citing physical and emotional neglect.
In relation to emotional neglect, the judge said while “the lack of emotional availability of the parents might amount to emotional abuse, it’s not fully laid out. What’s urgently required is a parenting capacity assessment.” It was his view that it was not proportionate to grant the ICO for the two younger children.
He set Care Order hearing dates for seven months’ time in respect of all three children, saying it was not a prerequisite to have Interim Care Orders in order to set hearing dates.
Social worker for Dublin City Council
During the hearing the social worker for Dublin City Council (DCC), who worked with members of the Travelling Community, told the court she had known the family for over 15 years. Her role was to work with Travellers in accommodation provided by DCC or assist those seeking it, as well as accessing services required.
In describing the family, she told the court that the father would exit the family home for up to three weeks at a time to drink, leaving the mother on her own. Because the mother suffered from a neurological vulnerability this was frightening for her. Things would settle when he returned but a period of stability was always followed by one of instability.
The children’s school attendance had been very patchy; the school and welfare section had asked the education service and the HSE to get involved. The family had told her that Child A was not attending school because he was under threat from an alleged gang in the area, that he would be “killed”. The parents also said the younger ones would be killed or attacked. After a case conference in early February the two younger children returned to school but Child A did not. Although the school guaranteed to vouch for the child’s safety the family would not agree to let him return.
The DCC social worker told the court that she had applied for and received an overall priority transfer for the family out of the flat complex. However they were on a waiting list. The threat perceived by the family had been appraised by the Gardai. She explained that if a threat perceived is found to be critical the Gardai can provide a letter whereby a family would then receive private rented accommodation prior to the transfer. However there was a distance between the parents’ perceptions and the Guards’ perceptions of the threats, said the social worker, and the letter was not forthcoming.
She visited the family once a week in their flat. There was abusive graffiti relating to the eldest child on the walls going up to the flat, it said he was “a cunt and a smelly knacker” and this was upsetting for the family. The family reported on a number of occasions the group allegedly involved had indicated they would slit Child A’s throat.
They lived on the top floor of a three storey complex and there was no lift. The social worker said it was no longer safe for the mother to live there as she could fall on the stairwell. She had applied for a transfer on medical grounds for the family in 2010, but it had been refused.
DCC Social worker: “At least once in every two months or 10 weeks the father would exit the family home to drink, leading to instability. The children don’t have much structure in their lives at this time, they don’t go to school, the mother is very upset, this can increase her epileptic activity. She doesn’t understand why the father does this, she dearly loves him and would like to marry him. On a number of occasions she has sought barring orders, but she has a need for co-parenting so she takes him back.”
The social worker felt the father was putting his addiction above the children’s needs. “One of my lasting professional frustrations is the awareness of the father to be a good father but the re-occurring of his failure to reach that, it’s a constant of getting over the last episode.”
The HSE had facilitated access to residential treatment and put in family support during his absence, but he had only stayed for one week. He had made contact with an alcohol unit three times in the last year, but floundered on each occasion.
The parents did not mean harm but they had a lack of insight which had consequences for the health, welfare and well-being of the children. She had concerns for their emotional needs and need for guidance. The mother did “her level best but it is mediated by a neurological vulnerability, she needs co-parenting, she loves her children”.
Judge: “In your view would a transfer of accommodation sort out this family’s problems?”
Social worker DCC: “It would reduce them, but the father needs to address his problems. [Child A] is involved in increasingly risky behaviour.”
Social work team leader
The social work team leader told the court that after the short term ICO the previous week, the team had gone to a halting site in the afternoon and A had been found asleep in his uncle’s caravan in a halting site. He was quite pale and withdrawn, he wore a thin T-shirt and it was quite cold. He had not yet eaten that day. The caravan was dirty, the window was broken and the door would not close. He had no belongings or clothing with him and he left with them to go to the accommodation where his siblings were now in care.
The social worker said an aunt had been suggested to take care of the children, but she was in hospital giving birth to her 10th child. The uncle who had been suggested was asleep in his caravan and there had been a smell of stale alcohol off him. Although he had been proposed as a carer that afternoon in court, the mother had later said he drank and she did not want her children to stay with him.
Her family have not provided consistent support in the past. While two family members were proposing to help, they needed to be assessed as certain risks had to be alleviated.
The social worker had concerns of the parents’ lack of insight due to inappropriate stressful conversations in front of them.
Child A had had 23 incidents of involvement with the Juvenile Liaison system, and nine cautions in last three months. He had a lack of boundaries, was refusing to go to school and was not accepting responsibility for involvement in criminal activity. The father had minimised A’s behaviour at a child care conference.
In her opinion the neglect of A involved a lack of supervision, a need for safety, omission of boundaries, lack of guidance, lack of intellectual stimulation, lack of education, and neglect of social, emotional and educational development.
The social worker told the court that she had attempted to put a huge number of supports in place, however, a lack of stability, routine and consistency for all three children had continued. A had missed two years of school, Child B was two years behind and Child C was one year behind due to missing school.
The social worker said the father must address his alcohol use in a meaningful way and a psychological parenting capacity assessment to be carried out. The father’s strengths were that he provided practical support.
When the social worker told the court that a lot of supports had been offered but not always taken up or engaged with the judge asked her what support was actually provided rather than being looked at.
The mother told the court the family had been given a one bedroomed flat temporarily, but she had had her three children there.
“I had three children there, five of us there for seven years, the children were getting bet, they were nearly four before I could leave any of them out to play, the windows and all were getting bet, the door was getting bet, when the children were let out to play they were roaring, they were all trying to beat each one of the children, whenever I was trying to make a bit of food, the children were not left play for a minute, none of them.”
She described how she had to jump over the balcony when the eldest child was getting beaten by an adult. As she gave evidence she broke down crying then started to have a seizure. The case was adjourned until the next day.
When the case returned the next day the mother’s solicitor told the court that A was missing in care – “absent at risk” – but the parents had not yet been told.
The father told the court he had been living in the flat complex for nearly 20 years. The difficulties started for the family in their first flat. “There was a lot of name calling to the kids, windows being broken, kids’ toys being taken off them, being smashed, kids going out playing and coming back in crying saying they’ve been hit, the kids being called knacker, pikey, pie bald, smelly knacker.”
He told the court since they had moved up to the third floor things had escalated.
Father: “My son has been getting punched in the face, my kids’ footballs have been taken off them, a new bike for my daughter was taken, we found it under the railway bridge with the wheels bent up, we’ve had bags of groceries kicked in our hands. We cannot enter the stairway, we’ve had a really, really difficult time where we are living.”
They had reported all of this to the Council and to An Garda Siochana but it was on-going.
The father told the court that his mother lived close by and the gang had started to throw eggs at her windows and kick her door. In his opinion it had happened because she was his mother. He was anxious to leave his current accommodation.
Father: “We’re afraid for our kids and ourselves. There’s graffiti on the stairway about all the kids – [A] is a ‘walking dead man, half bred knacker’, [Child B] ‘pissy smelly’, [Child C] ‘the pikey, the little smelly knacker’.”
He said the graffiti had not been removed.
He described how his son was assaulted outside a take-away last year in front of the children who were in the car at the time. A’s head was whacked off the shop window and they were punching him in the face and had surrounded him. The father got out of the car and the gang stopped. “If we had not been there I don’t know what the outcome might have been…They came over to the car and started kicking the doors and tried to open the doors, my youngest little fella was bawling, crying and screaming.” The incident had been reported and one arrest had been made.
In the flat complex the gang challenged the father to fights, threw things up the stairs at him
and did not let him pass in the stairwell.
“Why were the children missing school?” asked his solicitor.
The father told him the gang had said they’d get A outside of the school. His teacher had had to walk him home one day “over the crowd waiting outside”. The extended period of time the children had missed school was due to “sheer fear”.
He agreed he had minimised A’s criminal behaviour. “I tell him not to get involved in crime, to not follow my routine, not to have anything to do with alcohol or get involved in any sort of misbehaviour. I encourage him about his schooling, I want the kids to be in school, to stay in school, to get an education, Justice, to get a job and make something out of their lives.”
The father explained he had asked the children to validate their brother being punched as he felt there might have been disbelief on the part of the social worker “to let her know the kids are even saying what they seen”.
The father’s solicitor asked him about the concerns outlined by the social worker of the pattern of 10 weeks without alcohol followed by going off for three weeks drinking and staying at his mother’s. “What’s the position then in relation to what happens at home when you would go off?”
Father: “[The children’s mother] would not allow me in, when I wouldn’t be around there’d be a lot more carry-on going on, or [she] would go to stay with some of her family if she was feeling unwell.”
The father accepted that guards were called when he tried to get into the flat after drinking.
Father’s solicitor: “Do you accept there was chaos when you weren’t in the family home?” “I accept it was a problem, yes. My kids didn’t like it, it was something they didn’t want their father to do.”
He told the court he wanted to be there for his kids and for them to have a good life and education, he wanted to be there when they grew up. He would undergo treatment in respect of alcoholism in a residential centre.
Father’s solicitor: “What do you say is the best outcome today in these court proceedings?”
Father: “I’d love to have me children home in a home where they can be recognised as human beings, not being treated differently, not stuff being bought for Christmas being taken off them and smashed up, my son being punched in the face, my son not being able to go to school, scared of our own lives also and scared to hear some day my son is after being attacked down the street where we are, he’s scared of his life even to come home, he’s staying with relatives.
“We’ve been talking to them last night on the phone and they’ve been crying to come home, my youngest fella was bawling his eyes out on the phone and saying please Daddy I want to come home to you and Mammy.”
He said he was giving up drinking and would make a better life for his children and their mother. The father felt the issue of stability also related to where they lived, he said they were locked in seven days a week because of what was happening there.
Father: “I’d like the court to give us back the children till such time that the council decides to move us where we are. Since the conference the kids haven’t missed any school. We miss our kids very much and they miss us, we have never ill-treated our kids, we never let them go hungry, my wife never drank in her life. I don’t abuse me children, I don’t hit them, I don’t beat them, my kids do not see me drinking, they do not look at me drinking in front of them, my intentions are deeply to stop this and that’s my bottom line, to give up the alcohol for the sake of my kids and my partner.”
When the CFA solicitor asked him why had he not tried to see if the school could have preserved A’s safety, he told him: “When they’re actually punching him when he’s with his parents what would they do when he’s with his teacher?”
CFA solicitor: “Other than school, clothing, food, do you think there’s any other thing you need to do for your children?”
He said he now knew what he had to do. He admitted the children had missed school due to his alcoholism.
The judge pointed out to the father that on his own evidence nothing had happened to Child A in school or going to and from school, and nothing else had happened apart from the two assaults. The group had not fought the father or harmed the younger two children.
The mother’s advocate told the court the mother wanted her children back and she wanted to live in a normal home that was safe, where she would not be threatened or assaulted. She wanted Child A to go back to school and for her partner to address his alcohol issues. She felt if she was out of the flat complex it would address a significant amount of the difficulties she was experiencing.
In submissions the CFA solicitor said they were very concerned about outcomes, “there are deficiencies in the environment they are in affecting them presently and their future and likely outcomes”.
The father’s solicitor said it was a wake-up call for the father. “He says he will be available to parent his children, says he wants to be there”.
Mother’s solicitor: “Both parents say and on the evidence of everyone they love their children, the children have said they want to go home. There are other avenues open, the parents will do whatever it takes and agree to whatever sanctions or conditions, they want the opportunity to prove they can parent their children.”
The judge said he was dealing with the application on the basis of an initial ICO. He found chronic neglect in respect of the three children in respect of their education. In relation to the housing issue, he said: “While there may be some dispute to the absolute detail of what’s been said it shows a level of abuse and racism that is very concerning and has to be very difficult to deal with. Also there is the difficulty of the gang the father referred to. Clearly there are issues among the youths in the area.
“However I have to look for an objective assessment that the level of threat exists, I’ve had that evidence from [DCC social worker] and [the Sergeant], both of them accept there is considerable substance to the disquiet of the family in relation to the youths in the area but it doesn’t constitute a threat at the same level as is perceived by the parents and I have to look at the case in that context.
“Having found there is neglect – effectively the evidence is they’re not in a position to provide him with care, it is provisional on them moving to a different property which clearly isn’t going to happen, it gives rise to a very difficult situation, I have no option but to make an ICO in respect of [A] [who] clearly requires care and protection. I am not in a position to provide or direct anyone else to provide alternative accommodation. [He is] not in receipt of necessary care and protection.”
The judge found there was neglect in the school attendance of the two younger children, but they had returned to school. There was nothing neglectful in what had happened as to how the children had to deal with their mother’s health issues, it had been done appropriately.
Judge: “It has been agreed the children are provided with basic care in terms of food, clothing, shelter. The principal difficulty is the emotional availability of the parents. The lack of emotional availability of the parents might amount to emotional abuse however it’s not fully laid out. What’s urgently required is a parental capacity assessment.”
The CFA had in fact identified [a service] for appropriately assessing the family, he said.
The assessment could “examine the function of the family as a family and identify supports where appropriate to ameliorate neglect.”
The judge said that he could not understand why the aspect of lack of school attendance had not been before a court before. “I hope with the CFA taking over the responsibility for school attendance the matter may change.” He was not satisfied it was proportionate to make the ICO for the two younger children.
The judge remarked that the Legal Aid Board solicitor (for the father) got instruction about the case only 20 minutes in advance, this needed to be urgently addressed because a considerable amount of time could be taken out of these cases if there was a purposive meeting in advance with the legal representatives with regard to the issues involved.
This was rendered impossible with a service period of four days for an Interim Care Order and representatives obtaining instruction only minutes before the case commencing.
The judge said the father’s drinking was central to the case. He said to the father: “In that context if you’re not available as a result of alcohol addiction it might have a very telling effect on how the matter might progress in the future.”
Care Order hearing dates were set for seven months’ time and a guardian ad litem was appointed.