Care Orders for five children where both parents cognitively impaired – 2017vol1#9

A judge in a provincial city granted care orders until the age of 18 for five children under the age of 12 on the grounds that they had suffered neglect and they were likely to continue to do so if such orders where not granted.

A family support worker with a children’s charity told the court the house was very dirty when she visited. There were concerns for all five children relating to violence in the home, their attachment and behaviour, including bad language and sexualised play. There were 13 support sessions with the parents, followed by a further 10. The support worker was attempting to teach the parents how to focus on the reactions of the children, encouraging them to sit at a table, talk about school, etc.

The parents said yes, they knew what they had to do. The mother prepared dinner, the father attended to the children while the support worker was there. But there was no evidence this was practised between the sessions.

The support worker concluded the parents were not attuned to the children’s needs. They blamed the children for the chaotic home environment and were hyper-critical of the children. The children communicated with each other by screaming. The parents did not communicate with each other. There was a lack of supervision, two of the children were in the back of the car without seat-belts, and they were left alone in the car.

Psychologically there was lack of limits and boundaries. The parents were unaware of what the children wanted when they acted out. Their behaviour was inconsistent and unpredictable, shouting “you’re bold, you’re bold” at the children, who were frustrated, kicking and crying.

All four boys in the family used bad language to each other and their parents. There was sexualised play between the children.

In summary, in both scheduled and unscheduled visits both parents demonstrated a lack of insight into the children’s needs and they did not demonstrate they had taken on any learning. The father lacked emotional availability to the children and was aggressive to them physically and verbally.

Asked by counsel for the mother if she had noticed an incremental improvement over the sessions, the worker replied: “I can’t say I did.”

Mother’s barrister: “If there was more long-term input?”

Family support worker: “There were 23 sessions. I explained in great details after each session, gave feedback to each parent. I did not observe the parents as being able to transfer the skills.”

Barrister: “Is there any course they could go on?”

Worker: “I struggle to see how they could improve.”

The barrister pointed out that both parents had learning difficulties. Earlier an expert had said the mother was at the fourth percentile of cognitive ability (meaning 96 per cent of the population would have more ability) and the father at the first percentile, or in the bottom one per cent of the population in terms of ability. Later the expert evaluated them both as at the first percentile.

“Would they do better in a more structured environment, rather than attempting to learn on the hoof? Do you think they understood what you were saying, in the light of their learning difficulties, as outlined by the expert evidence?” the barrister asked.

Support worker: “I felt they were unable to apply [the advice].”

A social worker said that she had been dealing with the case from the end of August 2014. There were concerns from the school about the oldest child, then 10, who was sunburned. Two Gardai went to the house, and were very concerned about hygiene in it. A referral had been made by a medical social worker in 2011 about extensive burns on the two younger children. There were a number of community-based supports, including getting a washing machine for the family.  The case was closed in 2013 on the basis of the community supports.

The Gardai then reported concerns that the oldest child, A, was hitch-hiking alone. A decision was made to assess the family for supports. There were six-monthly case conferences, and supports to ensure the children came to school regularly. The family moved into a new house in 2014.

The house was very dirty, even when social workers were expected to visit. The floors and walls were dirty and the children were very smelly, some of them had lost teeth. The upstairs rooms were clean. Since the children were taken into care they said they had slept on the floor of the sitting room. One of them said he had a room upstairs but was afraid of ghosts coming in the night. Another said he often sleep-walked and woke up in his parents’ bed upstairs.

A was diagnosed with epilepsy and had a lot of seizures. He had quite a high dose of anti-epilepsy medication and melatonin. All the children in the house got “A’s medicine” every night. He was now off melatonin. The second child, B, got quite a high dose of her brother’s medicine. Her father said: “She was the hardest to knock out.”

“I was very clear what they were doing was against the law,” the social worker said. “They said they would stop.

“There was no soap in the house. There was one gleaming place in the house – the bath tub, which had a shower head. When asked, the children had no idea what a shower was.”

She said the children had no friends and one said: “It’s because I smell.” The parents regularly got basic instruction about washing the children and changing their clothes, but they did not change, and the decision was made to take the children into care.

When taken into care the children were underweight. One had a distended stomach and stick legs. The third child, [C], was running around in a feral way. He was referred for speech and language assessment, and was assessed as having very serious deficits in his speech. Since receiving speech and language therapy the therapist could not believe the improvement, the social worker said.

The child was now in a foster home with his younger brother and was very happy and excited, and was in the school play.

When received into care the children had dried faeces around their behinds. None of them knew how to toilet. Their toe-nails were long. They cried when their teeth were washed. Their teeth were fused with built-up plaque. “It’s unbelievable how happy they all are now. They love being clean. C loves his baths and having access to food regularly. B won two gold medals in Irish dancing and is also swimming.”

The social worker described the evidence of violence against the children. B had an old burn. The three oldest children said their father hit them and shouted at them. B and C had to sleep with an uncle, and they said they did not want to go home and sleep with their uncle. This uncle had asked the foster carer to befriend him on Facebook, using a false name. He had a picture of his nephew on his Facebook page.

“The threshold has long since been reached for a Care Order,” the social worker said.

She said the doctor was very happy with A’s progress, and planned to start reducing his medication. He felt that anxiety and not getting the medication consistently made his condition worse. Educationally he was still getting teaching support, but had made huge progress in English and Irish spelling. His behaviour in school had improved.

Referring to access, she said that the children’s parents were their parents. Her role was a child protection one. The best interests of these children were that their emotional and educational development was assured. Weekly access was very stressful for the children, so now access was every two weeks.

Asked by the mother’s barrister about help for the parents, she said that they had been encouraged to get all the help they could, including parenting courses. “Anything they learn will benefit their interaction with the children,” she said. “But their cognitive ability won’t change. The first percentile won’t change. All the work we did with them was based on understanding that.”

The guardian ad litem told the court that at first it was very difficult to understand the children, due to their language difficulties. Their language was much better now and they could express themselves. When asked what they wanted the GAL to say to the judge they said that they were happy, they liked their clothes. At home they didn’t get the right food and were slapped. They wished to stay in their foster homes “forever”. In the GAL’s view the children need to be in long term care.

The judge said that the threshold for Care Orders had been reached under Section 18.1 (a), (b) and (c), that the children had been neglected and they were likely to be in the future. “It is incumbent on the court to make Care Orders until the age of 18,” she said.