A judge in the Dublin District Court granted an adjournment of an application made by the guardian ad litem to permit time for the Child and Family Agency to initiate an internal investigation into its ‘Signs of Safety’ policy. This matter was one of a number of applications being made throughout the country to inform the Ombudsman for Children of the concerns the guardian ad litem had over the operation of the ‘Signs of Safety’ policy and the implementation of that policy by the Child and Family Agency which has led to demonstrable harm to children in particular cases, the GAL’s solicitor said.
(The CFA adopted the Signs of Safety was its national approach to underpin practice with regards to child protection work child in 2017. See Child and Family Agency (2017) Tusla Child Protection and Welfare Strategy accessible at www.tusla.ie/uploads/content/Tusla_Child_Protection_and_Welfare_Strategy.pdf
The policy considers indicators of danger or harm alongside indicators of safety and strengths to make an overall judgement using a safety scale. The aim of the approach is to increase safety for the child by using the strengths and resources that the family network has to address the areas of danger or harm. This turns strengths into protective factors and over time workers will establish if these can become demonstrable ‘signs of safety’.)
In this matter a guardian ad litem (GAL), who had been appointed to a child who had earlier been the subject of interim care orders and a full care order, instructed her solicitor to bring an application under section 47 of the Child Care Act 1991. Section 47 permits a judge to make an order or direction on any matter of a child’s welfare. The GAL wanted the in-camera rule lifted to allow the Guardian ad litem to forward her report and/or any or all information gathered in the course of her appointment, to the Ombudsman for Children for the purpose of carrying out a review into the operation of the policy Signs of Safety and other issues arising in this case. The GAL submitted evidence by way of affidavit and her solicitor outlined her concerns. The GAL’s solicitor said that the operation of the policy was an on-going problem. Its operation had had a dreadful effect on this particular child who the GAL had been appointed to.
The Child and Family Agency (CFA) wanted the application to be adjourned to permit time for the CFA to conduct its own internal review into the Signs of Safety Policy. The section 47 application had already been adjourned five times.
Submissions by the solicitor for the GAL
The solicitor for the GAL said the operation of the Signs of Safety policy had had a dreadful effect on the child the GAL had been appointed to. The young child had been found by An Garda Síochána next to their deceased mother in a bedroom in an appalling condition and in the company of an adult against whom credible allegations of sexual abuse had been made by a number of other people.
When found by An Garda Síochána the child was noted to have numerous bruises and broken teeth. The maternal great grandmother, who was very elderly, was the signs of safety network for this child. The solicitor said when the child was found he lashed out and could not eat or speak. She said that demonstrable harm had been done to the child and a systematic review of the operation of the Signs of Safety policy given the impact on the child was needed.
The GAL’s solicitor said the CFA had sought to adjourn this application numerous times, and it was only when the CFA had been informed the GAL had instructed her solicitor not to consent to any further adjournments that there had been a flurry of activity from the CFA to meet with the GAL to discuss their concerns.
The solicitor said that a review of the policy was within the scope of the Ombudsman for Children. She said the Ombudsman for Children may decide not to review this policy. The solicitor was instructed by the GAL to make an application to lift the in-camera rule to permit the reports to be forwarded to the Ombudsman for Children.
The solicitor said there had been many times where judges in child care proceedings had directed that reports be released or sent to the Ombudsman either on application or of their own motion. She said the Ombudsman for Children had the authority to investigate thematic issues as he had done investigations on other issues including scoliosis. The GAL could not direct the Ombudsman for Children to act but the GAL wanted the Ombudsman for Children to be aware of the detrimental effect this policy had had on this child. She said the Ombudsman for Children existed for a reason and his office was highly important. The role of the office was to investigate and protect children, to recommend changes and it was highly relevant that the Ombudsman be aware of the detrimental effects of the implementation of this policy in this and other cases. She said she had three other similar applications in different parts of the country.
Submissions by the solicitor for the CFA
The judge invited the solicitor for the Child and Family Agency (CFA) to respond. The solicitor for the CFA said that she wanted the matter to be adjourned to permit time for the CFA to undertake an internal review of the policy. She said that a senior official in the CFA had offered to meet with the GAL to listen to her concerns but that the GAL had not been available.
The solicitor for the GAL stated: “The CFA phoned Friday lunchtime to arrange a meeting for Friday afternoon, the GAL had a medical appointment, it was only offered because we were in court on Monday.”
The solicitor for the CFA stated that an appropriate person had been identified and appointed to undertake an internal review of the policy and it was hoped this would start immediately. She said terms of reference had to be completed but that the GAL and the GAL’s legal representatives would be welcome to review and contribute to those terms of reference.
The solicitor for the CFA said it would be better to have the internal review completed before a section 8 is triggered. (Section 8 of the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002 permits the Ombudsman for Children investigate any action taken by or on behalf of a public body where, upon having carried out a preliminary investigation of the matter, it appears the action has or may have adversely affected a child.)
The solicitor informed the court that the CFA was not trying to minimise the concerns of the GAL and the national lead for the Signs of Safety policy would be available to meet with the GAL.
The judge said: “How long will this review take?”
The solicitor for the CFA: “About two or three months. Terms of reference have to be decided but the GAL would be able to see and have input into these.”
The solicitor for the GAL said if the CFA were confident about the policy they should have nothing to fear from the GAL’s reports being forwarded to the Ombudsman for Children. She said there were no reasons why the CFA could not initiate their internal investigation and the GAL’s reports be forwarded to the Ombudsman for Children concurrently. She said there could be parallel investigations.
She repeated that there were a number of similar applications across the country and, like this case, those cases had shown that children had been demonstrably harmed. She said children had been harmed and the CFA knew damage had been done. She repeated that the CFA had nothing to fear from the Ombudsman for Children being sent these reports and the CFA should welcome any review of their procedures.
The judge said that he was concerned about the wording that had been used in the application as it has referred to “any other issues” and this was open ended. He said there was no definition of what these other issues were. The judge said that he had to make an order with specificity and was concerned that the application was not sufficiently specific. He said that the wording of the application, which included a direction that the Ombudsman for Children undertake a review of the Signs of Safety policy and any other issues relevant, was too broad and he was concerned about the nature of the order the court was being asked to make.
The solicitor for the GAL said the application was not too broad, and that the phrase “any other issues” was included so as to not curtail the Ombudsman in his review. The GAL could not direct what the Ombudsman should do and he may feel there are other aspects or he may choose not to undertake a review or may wait until the CFA have completed their own internal review. She said that her application was to inform the Ombudsman of the GAL’s justified concerns about the operation of a policy that she believed had harmed this particular child and other children.
The judge noted that an application under section 47 of the Child Care Act 1991 had been made by the GAL to lift the in-camera rule to permit the reports of the GAL be sent to the Ombudsman for Children so that he might undertake a systematic review of the operation of the Signs of Safety policy and any other relevant issues. He stated the position of the CFA was that this application was premature, and the CFA wanted to adjourn the application to permit time for an internal review of that policy. An appropriate person had been appointed to conduct that review although the terms of reference for the review had not been completed. The CFA had agreed that the GAL would be able to contribute to the terms of reference.
The judge said he was aware of the impact the policy could have on children but that the application was premature and he adjourned the application to permit the CFA time to update the court on progress with its review.