Application for care order adjourned, insufficient proof of neglect to reach the required threshold – 2020vol2#36

An application for a care order was adjourned as the judge stated there was insufficient proof of ongoing neglect, and the mother had “pulled herself out of the situation” she had been in.

A lawyer for the Child and Family Agency (CFA) made the application to a judge in a rural town in respect of A, a child of junior post-post primary school age, who it said had suffered cumulative harm due to long-term neglect. The CFA lawyer told the judge that five supervision orders had been made regarding A in the previous three years but that there had been no engagement by his mother, who was suffering with her mental health. The social worker and team leader outlined the concerns and many instances of neglect of A which led them to seek the care order.

The mother was present and was represented and her lawyer reported that the mother had recently entered into a new relationship and was now in a position to offer a much improved life to A. When the court heard that the CFA did not have an appropriate plan or suitable placement, it was given a week by the judge to formulate a plan and return to outline this plan for the court. A suitable placement was not found for the child within the week and on the second date the judge adjourned the matter for an additional three weeks to facilitate the CFA to formulate an acceptable plan.

On the third date in court, the lawyer for the CFA outlined the shared care plan for A but the mother’s lawyer argued that more time should be given to see if the new home situation might provide the child with some stability. The judge did not make the care order, stating that there was insufficient proof of neglect to reach the required threshold. He adjourned proceedings for four months, extended the existing supervision order and arranged for the appointment of a guardian ad litem (GAL) for A.

Day one

The lawyer for the CFA told the judge that A’s mother had moved to another house during the tenure of the supervision order but had not contacted the social services. Neither was it possible for the social worker to contact the mother after the move as she had changed her contact number. The mother’s lawyer acknowledged that the mother had difficulties in the past but the judge replied that “five supervision orders was quite a history”. The CFA lawyer described instances where A’s mother had become very aggressive and had threatened to kill both the social worker and the social work team leader.

The mother’s lawyer said that A and his mother had moved in with his very elderly great-grandfather but that living arrangements in that household had become fraught following the introduction of the Covid-19 restrictions. A’s mother entered into a new relationship and the child and his mother, along with the mother’s new partner, moved into new accommodation where a bedroom was refurbished for A’s use. The mother’s lawyer highlighted some strengths in the mother’s ability to care for A. She was now in a new relationship with a partner with a good employment history in new accommodation where A could continue his good relationship with the social work team leader.

The mother’s lawyer acknowledged that the mother was on medication to alleviate her low mood but that she was taking the correct medication and had an appointment to visit a psychiatrist in two months’ time. The lawyer said that this was not the appropriate time for the CFA to be seeking a care order, stressing that that mother had seen the CFA psychologist from whom a report was due. The mother’s lawyer suggested that there was still a prospect that A could go on living with his mother, with whom he had a close emotional bond.

Judge: “There has been a serious mental health history…threats to kill…does she think it will be sorted on an amicable basis?”

The CFA lawyer reported that things had not improved at all for A despite five supervision orders. The lawyer described unannounced visits by the social worker to A’s home where the house was noted to be in poor condition, there was a lack of any food and there was an unhygienic odour from A, who told the social worker that he had not had a shower for a year.

A’s social worker told the judge that his poor school attendance record triggered an investigation. A’s older brother had been thrown out of the home two years earlier and was now progressing in life and studying a trade. However, when A’s older brother was living in the family home the social worker said he had suffered from hallucinations due to using acid and that it was the concern of the CFA that A would also “go down the same route”. The social worker reported that A’s great-grandfather had been abusive of him, poking him with a stick.

The social worker said that A’s school principal had contacted the social work department to say that he was missing school and when present in school he was dishevelled and distant. The social worker said that the report from the school described how he had come to school wearing a neighbour’s uniform, shoes belonging to his elderly grandfather which hurt his feet and with broken spectacles. The school reported that A had suffered bullying in primary school and had done none of the prescribed school work during the time that the school had been closed during Covid-19 restrictions.

The social worker told the court that his school attendance record for the previous three years had been very poor, missing over 150 days. The social worker reported that A had also missed the peripheral school activities like after-school clubs which were available to other pupils. She said that the boy had told her that the lockdown had made no difference to his life because his everyday life was “missing school and staring at the ceiling”. The social worker said that the only time that A had a smile on his face was when he was with a foster family for respite care every third week, who had encouraged his interest in baking. The social worker said that when A was with his mother he never “saw a world outside of his bedroom”.

The social worker said the boy’s mother had lots of demands made of her in caring for her grandfather and that she had only recently engaged with health services. When a family support worker had been organised for the mother, she neither engaged nor worked with her but refused to answer the door and changed her mobile number. The social worker described the recent accommodation move by the child and his mother as having taken place so suddenly that he did not have a chance to bring his schoolbag with him. A’s school community was not informed that he was leaving and he was afforded no opportunity to say goodbye to his friends there.

The social worker reported that A was reluctant to become attached emotionally to his mother’s new partner as he had been let down suddenly when a previous relationship with another partner broke down. The CFA lawyer asked about A’s relationship with his mother and the social worker replied that his mother dearly loved him but that “love wasn’t always enough”. The judge noted that A’s father had died tragically 13 years previously and that his life was one of “deep sadness and total abnormality”.

The hearing was paused for lunch and the judge advised the mother’s lawyer to speak with her client as there were many gaps to look at. When the hearing resumed after an hour, the mother’s lawyer informed the judge that the CFA had no placement planned for A, apart from the first night. The mother’s lawyer pointed out to the court that the mother’s new partner was supportive of providing A with a suitable home; his room had been prepared and he would be attending school regularly in the future.

Judge: “Let’s be creative. What are the proposals for the mother? What will transform this situation?”

The mother’s lawyer said that the mother would work with her and with the child care team leader. The judge asked what the ideal situation would be going forward. He said that the social worker’s report highlighted A’s very poor school attendances. The CFA lawyer mentioned a possibility of A spending the weekdays and nights with the foster carers and the weekends with his mother.

The mother’s lawyer said that the foster carers had not yet given a commitment. The judge said that a deeper analysis and deeper co-operation was necessary from the mother and suggested that he pause the proceedings to facilitate the parties to have a 20-minute conversation. However, the hearing was not paused but proceeded with the evidence of the social work team leader.

A’s social work team leader reported that he exhibited a “very worrying clinical manifestation of neglect” and needed a stable placement with supported intervention therapies until the age of 18 years. The team leader stressed the importance of A being cared for in terms of his education, his food and his general hygiene from Monday to Friday each week. She suggested that the foster carers who provided A with respite care were keen to be involved in A’s life and that there was a possibility of a school placement being obtained for him in a town near the foster carers.

The mother’s lawyer said that she was “aghast” at the suggestion of a school place at a location which was not a commutable distance from A’s home. The social work team leader answered that the foster carers were not yet in a position to make a commitment on this. The mother’s lawyer said the CFA was “putting the cart before the horse” but the team leader stressed that the CFA had met the evidence threshold for a care order.

The judge suggested that the matter be listed for a date a week later to facilitate progress. He described the social work report as “see-sawing” and that all was reported as being well one week but all poor the following week.

Judge: “I am meant to facilitate solutions…there is no magic wand.”

The judge told the parties that he was not closing the case. He said the mother’s lawyer had made the point that the CFA was seeking a care order before it had a plan in place.

Judge: “I don’t completely agree with [mother’s lawyer] but we want to get a green light to get that plan together.”

The case was listed for a date a week later so that all avenues could be explored before a decision could be made by the court.

Day two

On the second day that the case was due to be finalised in court, the lawyer for the CFA told the judge that there was not yet a suitable placement found for the child and the CFA was seeking an adjournment of its application for a care order. A date three weeks later was fixed by the judge for the CFA to come back to court with an appropriate plan for the placement of A.

Day three

The judge welcomed the parties and said that he was hopeful there was “light at the end of the tunnel” in this case. The lawyer for the CFA told the judge that it had come up with an appropriate plan for A. The plan was that A would live with foster carers during the weekdays of Monday to Friday and would return to his mother’s home each weekend.

The mother’s lawyer pointed out to the judge that A’s other siblings were now adults and that his mother had moved him out of his grandfather’s home when that relationship broke down. The mother was now in a new relationship, with a new partner and new accommodation. She had engaged fully with the mental health nurse twice weekly and was taking the appropriate medication.

The mother’s lawyer explained that the mother was living with her new partner as a couple and that the partner had arranged suitable accommodation so that A could continue to live with his mother and he had a suitable bedroom of his own.  The mother’s lawyer acknowledged that there had been earlier difficulties but that the mother had “climbed out of that”.

The judge asked the lawyer for the CFA how A was progressing at school and the lawyer answered that he was still presenting at school with a rather dishevelled appearance. The lawyer for the CFA reminded the judge that the mother’s relationship was still very new and that its concern was that this was a case of cumulative harm, where A’s basic needs were not being met. The mother’s lawyer said that the weekend respite currently in place for A every second weekend would have to cease should he be placed in a new foster placement. She pointed out that A was a child of teenage years and was entitled to have “his own independent wishes heard”.

The social worker told the court the main findings from her report. She reported that A was on the child protection notification list (CPNS) longer than any other child in the country. There had been no improvement in A’s appearance over the previous few weeks and he told them he had chosen the smallest room in the new accommodation as the house was so cold. The social worker said it appeared that the mother’s partner was the one tending to A’s needs and that his mother, who had been diagnosed with a learning difficulty, was not able to help with his homework. The potential foster carers would be able to help him with his homework from Monday to Friday.

The mother’s lawyer reported that an educational psychological assessment had been carried out on the boy, which diagnosed his learning difficulty and made recommendations on how he could be helped in school with his learning difficulty. The social worker pointed out that there had been no stability in his life and that there had already been five supervision orders made by the court, which had not remedied the situation. The mother was not contactable and hence the social worker was unable to do the required supervision checks.

The mother’s lawyer said that the mother’s current partner wanted A and his mother to be able to live together and that she had a very close bond with her child. The social worker said that A had done really well in respite care in the past. The mother’s lawyer pointed out that in the event that a care order was made for A, the bond with these former respite carers would be gone and that this matter had not been addressed at all by the CFA.

Mother’s lawyer: “It’s a leap in the dark for this little boy. Let’s just see how he gets on in first year and then review how things go? He’s made friends in school.”

Lawyer for the CFA: “It’s the same school. We need Mum to show that she has engaged with mental health services.”

Mother’s lawyer: “She’s not a critical psychiatric case.”

The judge asked about the lack of proper heating in the new accommodation and the mother’s lawyer answered that there was a heater in A’s bedroom and that the radiators were being repaired as quickly as possible. The judge said that his inclination at this point of the case was to consider the appointment of a GAL for the child. When the judge enquired if he had been involved with the Child and Mental Health Services (CAMHS), the mother’s lawyer told the judge that he was outside the threshold of need. However, the lawyer for the CFA reported that CAMHS appointments had been made for A but that his mother had not attended.

Judge: “The history is not good. I can see exactly where you’re coming from. He is doomed to the same fate as his older siblings if his mother does not co-operate.”

The social worker told the court that A had been bullied in primary school and had developed gastric issues. She said he was at the level of a class below his allocated class in his schoolwork. The mother’s lawyer said that A’s headaches had now disappeared, he had been in attendance at school every day and that he had good friends in the town.

The judge told the parties that he was inclined to put the matter back and to appoint a GAL. He said that the CFA was only trying to help and do what was best for the child. He acknowledged that the mother had no problems with addiction.

Judge: “The problem is if he goes into care, he may not come out. I don’t think I should make a care order just now.”

The lawyer for the CFA requested that if the judge were to refuse the care order, he should give the reasons for the refusal. The judge replied that there was insufficient proof of neglect and that A’s mother had “pulled herself out of the situation”. The mother’s lawyer told the judge that the parties would agree on the name of a suitable GAL and send this name to the court.

The judge fixed a date four months later to review the case and agreed that the supervision order should be extended, under the same conditions as previously, until that date.

Judge: “This is really an adjournment of care proceedings with liberty to apply.”

The case was listed for review on a date four months later, with the supervision order to continue until that date and the GAL to be appointed for A.