When the case involving the new-born infant came back to the District Court for renewal of the Interim Care Order the judge directed that reports from social workers in child care cases should be made available to solicitors acting for parents at least 48 hours before the cases are due in court. This was in the case where the four older children were taken into care after six months’ protracted hearings in a rural town.
The judge gave the direction after the solicitor acting for the parents of the infant complained that he received a report from a social worker at ten past six on the previous evening. The solicitor said the report included what he described as extensive hearsay and he needed time to discuss the contents with the parents.
The judge said he would give the solicitor half an hour to discuss the report with his clients. He reminded him that this was a case without a jury and judges in the District Court were deemed capable of determining whether or not evidence was admissible. He (the judge) was capable of extinguishing inadmissible evidence from his mind.
“It’s not acceptable that you are getting the report at ten past six. To my mind it is simply outrageous that you should have a report faxed to you at ten past six. It’s just appalling. I don’t accept the excuses. I agree with you this is not acceptable. In future I want them to produce the reports at least 48 hours in advance,” he said.
The judge made his comments at the special fixed hearing for the renewal of the Interim Care Order for the infant, which would otherwise have expired. The parents have four other children, who are also in care under Interim Care Orders, which were due to expire the following week, on Good Friday. The infant was taken into care a few days after birth under an Interim Care Order and the CFA solicitor told the court she was also seeking an extension of the orders for the four older children.
The judge said he was unable to hear the application in relation to the four other children. “I’ve heard evidence in relation to the baby. I made an Order which expires today so I’m dealing with that case,” he said. “I was not the judge who heard the other applications. Another judge heard it for 23 days. He is the resident judge and he has heard the evidence.” When the solicitor for the CFA told him the other judge had indicated he would not be dealing with it in future the judge replied: “It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to comment on it.”
The judge said there was an obligation to get a fair and proper system in place within which the Interim Care Orders could be renewed in provincial courts. “The real way it should happen is that the ICO should expire on a date when the court is sitting. Otherwise you have these extraordinary situations arising like today. That is because we haven’t a structure. Hopefully in the future we will have a more cohesive structure in place.”
The judge said the President of the District Court had driven the system in “a very cohesive and constructive way”. He also welcomed the reporting of cases by the Child Care Law Reporting Project which he described as “a very important project”.
“Because this was a secret process, we added to the mystery of it and kept this whole area away from the public. We had this behind closed doors policy where nobody knew what was going on. Hopefully, because they now know what is going on here, the public will understand what is going on,” he commented.
A social worker from the Child and Family Agency told the court the family had moved from Dublin to the rural town. They were known to the social services in two separate areas in Dublin where there had been concerns about possible neglect. The mother had herself been in care and had been sexually abused by her father. Her partner’s father had been convicted of child sexual abuse.
The social worker described concerns about conditions in the house in which they lived when they moved to the rural town. There was a lack of heating and on one occasion she said her breath was visible due to the cold. There was a lack of proper bedding and there were no toys. She said a family support worker was assigned because of very grave concerns about the parents’ parenting skills. One of the children had a moderate intellectual disability. He had been referred to a disability service in Dublin where he had attended one session but attendance after that became problematic. The parents had agreed to attend a parenting course but had not done so.
She said she had had some positive meetings with the mother but never felt the father had accepted the concerns that she had about the children’s welfare. She agreed with the parents’ solicitor that they were now in a much better house which was clean and warm. Since the infant was taken into care, the parents were quite hostile towards her, she said. The infant had supervised access seven days a week in the parents’ home and over twenty colleagues were involved in the access.
There had been a significant and positive change in the behaviour of the child with the intellectual disability who was now attending a crèche and she agreed with the parents’ solicitor that they were behaving like a normal doting family during access with the infant.
The family support worker assigned to the family while the children were still at home said that out of 22 arranged visits she managed to get in to the house on 11 occasions. The children were rarely dressed and had extremely wet nappies. There was no routine in the house and she described conditions there as chaotic. The children were very cold with blue hands and runny noses. She suggested several times that they light a fire. She knew there was fuel as it had been supplied by the Society of St Vincent de Paul and the excuse offered was that they did not have a firelighter.
She introduced a routine chart because, no matter what time of the day she called, the children were in pyjamas. The children were asking for food and the parents were nearly always in their pyjamas. The mother had told her she did not dress the children in case they dirtied their clothes. When she visited the house two days before Christmas 2012 with groceries she said the house was freezing. It was about 2.30 in the afternoon and no member of the family was dressed.
She said she never observed the parents playing with the children and the speech development of the two older children was very slow. She never saw a meal being prepared and the oldest child was nearly always asking for food. The television was usually on when she called and she noticed it was invariably tuned to loud chart music stations and adult talk shows. There were two dogs in the house and she heard them upstairs where a baby was in a cot. Since the children had gone into care, she had noticed a huge improvement in the speech of the three older children.
She said that there had been a big improvement since the family had moved to a much warmer house on the advice of the social work department. It was clutter free, the kitchen and floors were clean and the central heating was on some times or else the fire was lit. Supervised access with the infant was taking place there and there were no concerns. Both parents were participating in the access and taking turns in changing the infant.
The social worker who is now assigned to the five children said that in general their care of the baby during the access was quite adequate. Access with the infant was taking place each day for six hours and twice a week for two hours with the other children. She could sense that the parents were trying very hard to have their children home but there were difficulties and, in particular, there were difficulties with the older child.
The judge remarked that it was difficult for the parents to do any work with the children within the current access arrangements and there would not be much opportunity to give the oldest child the attention which he needed.
“It’s a challenge but it’s possible,” she replied. “There’s no organisation to the access,” the judge said. “If they have four children twice a week for two hours it is very difficult for the parents to do any work with the children. You have to be more strategic about this, in the sense that you have to give each child what they require.”
He suggested the CFA should consider separate access for the children with the oldest child away from the others. With the infant on her own access was taking place in a different environment and the oldest child needed more care and perhaps separate access. He said access had to be geared around benefiting the child. “I would suggest to the social work team that you design the access. You should be thinking like that,” he said.
The CFA solicitor told the court that there had been concerns about the sexualised behaviour of the two oldest children and an assessment was about to commence at a specialist unit. The parents were also undergoing a psychological assessment and had completed a parenting course. The social worker said that, given the evidence of neglect of the other four children and the sexualised behaviour of some of them, she would not favour the return of the children to their parents at this time but she accepted that the parents were making efforts. The judge said there was a legal obligation on him and on the CFA to look at the possible reunification of the family.
Giving evidence, the mother told the court she had €200 a week to live on after paying rent and other expenses. She had been saving throughout the pregnancy and had bought a Moses basket and a buggy. She said she would like another six hours of access a day if she could get it.
During the previous two weeks there had been over twenty people coming into her house and she told the judge she would have preferred one person supervising access rather than two. One of them she said was taking notes all of the time and it was uncomfortable. The judge said he would be very uncomfortable if someone was sitting in the corner in his house taking notes.
She told her solicitor that she was the best person to look after her daughter. “I’m her mother. I know how to look after her and be her mum.” She agreed with the judge that the oldest child should have separate access with her.
The judge had been told that files relating to the family’s involvement with the social services in Dublin had not yet been transferred to the local office and he directed that the CFA make all files available to the local team within three weeks. “All the facts and files and reports should be in the possession of this team,” he directed. He said there were serious concerns in relation to the parents’ parenting capacity and the “hugely serious matter” of the sexualised behaviour of some of the children. He could not progress the case until the parenting assessment was completed and the work by the sexual assault unit was completed.
The issues were so serious and the levels of neglect were spectacular but he had heard good news today from the social workers. “They are telling me you have made extraordinary changes. You are doing this on the most minimum of income. It is simply spectacular what you are doing. How you are managing on your resources is beyond me. The change is something you have gained and achieved and is something which will stand to you. If you can make that much change, I think there are huge possibilities. What I heard on the last day and today, it bodes well.”
He said he had to make decisions putting the child’s interest first and he would extend the Interim Care Order while awaiting the outcome of the very important assessments. “The way I feel about Interim Care Orders is that they are interim. They mean the children will be returned and the way I see it is because the child is a young baby she should have the maximum amount of time with her mother. I never thought there would be 20 people arriving on the doorstep and in fairness to the CFA I don’t think they expected it either.”
The judge put forward a number of suggested alterations to the access arrangements; he finally directed that the access be reduced to four hours a day to be supervised by a team of three people with one only at each access session. “It is patently obvious that two social workers sitting in the room is ludicrous. I’m here to serve your interest as parents.
“This court is your court. It’s not the CFA court. I’m suggesting that’s the way access should be organised. Flexibility has to apply. It’s too much to have 20 people coming into your house. I couldn’t cope with it,” he said.
He told the parents: “Don’t give up. You have a good solicitor.”