Care order extended and access reduced where assessments delayed and access disrupted by Covid-19

The District Court extended an existing two-year care order and reduced access for two boys of pre-school age in circumstances where the pandemic had led to a delay in a number of assessments taking place and caused major disruptions in access. The care order was due to expire in two days. A hearing of a full care order application was due to take place but was delayed to early next year.

The mother and father were both present and the court was told they had split up in 2019. The mother’s solicitor said that she was neither consenting nor objecting to the extension of the care order, but she would be contesting the order at the full hearing. The father’s solicitor said that he was consenting to the extension, but would also be contesting the care order at the full hearing.

The mother’s solicitor expressed concern with the lack of communication the mother had received from the Child and Family Agency (CFA) over the course of the pandemic, particularly with regard to access. She said that the mother had cognitive difficulties and needed a clear plan in relation to access arrangements, as well as information on what was required of her to ensure family reunification was possible.

She told the court that the mother was engaging with a counselling service, and had also contacted a parenting service, with the hope that this would assist in family reunification, but needed guidance that she was “on the right track.”

The social worker was asked why the CFA had breached the access order which was in place and which had led to the mother getting less access than had been ordered. The social worker said that because of the pandemic the original venue for access had become unavailable, and the boys’ normal routine had been disrupted. She said that a new venue had been located, but the boys were having difficulty readjusting to access since it restarted. She said a decision was made that access would be reduced “in the best interests of the children.” She said that both the mother and father had consented to this.

Solicitor for the mother: “Bearing in mind [the mother’s] cognitive issues, how were you satisfied her consent was true?”

Social worker: “I discussed it with her on the phone.”

Solicitor for the mother: “[The guardian ad litem] had recommended that [a family support service] be engaged to assist in putting in place a proper plan and this was agreed in court. What happened there?”

Social worker: “We felt that it would be inconsistent with the plan in place.”

Solicitor for the mother: “Why didn’t you advise her [the mother] that the plan had been abandoned?”

Social worker: “We did discuss it with the parties.”

Solicitor for the mother: “It was never communicated to us. It has fallen through the gaps clearly.”

The father’s solicitor told the court that access had been going well before the pandemic and that the father had been making “enormous efforts” to engage with the CFA, but that since it started back up, the boys had been making strange. She said that the pandemic had damaged the father’s ability to develop a meaningful relationship with the boys, and that it was detrimental to the relationship that access had been reduced on this basis. The social worker agreed that the boys were also distressed going to creche and that they had difficulty leaving their foster carers. When asked when the access might increase, the social worker said that there had been a lot of ups and downs, and it was important “to not add excessive distress to the situation.”

The social worker said that there was no problem organising an access review meeting with the mother and father and that a written access schedule could be provided. The father’s solicitor said she was also concerned by the delay to the finalisation of a number of therapeutic assessments which were needed to consider the possibility of family reunification. The social worker said that it was expected the reports would be available by December.

The solicitor for the guardian ad litem (GAL) said she was supporting the CFA application to extend the care order. The GAL told the court that the boys had not been managing the reintroduction of access with the mother and father as well as she had hoped and that they had been getting upset at access when the foster carer left. She said that the pandemic had “a really negative impact on access.”

She said the boys had attachment issues and the hope was to “achieve a sense of stability around access” once the attachment assessments and parent and capacity assessments were ready. She said the aim was to eventually pull back the foster carers from the access, and that it was important that they “work together and collaborate in a way that was beneficial to the children and parents.” She said the boys were doing well day to day, although one of them was further along in his development than the other.

The GAL said that the mother was in contact with her regularly and described her as “a very vulnerable person.” She said the mother had limitations in her abilities and information needed to be provided to her in a “clear, simple and consistent way.” She suggested the use of visual representations which would be beneficial to the mother. She told the court that she had previously recommended that [a family support service] be engaged and did not know why this had not occurred as it was clear the mother needed the support. She said it was possible Covid-19 had got in the way.

The judge said he was satisfied to extend the care order until the full hearing early next year. He said it was clear that the pandemic had caused disruptions in access but that the GAL had seemed encouraged that things were improving. He said “there is no science to access, you can’t say what will work and what won’t work. All relationships are different and it’s a question of seeing how things will go.” He added: “When access doesn’t go well, it reinforces [the boys’] fears.” He said for this reason he would discharge the access order and leave in place the agreement which was made between the CFA and the mother and father.