Care Orders were granted for two young children who had been in interim care with relatives since they were very young. An application to consider the relatives as long-term foster cases was adjourned.
The social worker told the court the older child [A] had come to the attention of social services aged four months, when his mother had hit him. There was intermittent contact with the family following that. The mother suffered from depression, and a second child [B] was born. The mother suffered from diabetes and stopped taking insulin when pregnant, which could have led to a still birth.
The mother was convinced that A had cancer as a baby and kept bringing him to doctors for the first year of his life. This was never challenged by the father. She was very unpredictable. The father was very passive and not concerned about the mother slapping the child as a baby. The children had no protective parent. Interim Care Orders were granted for both children, who were placed separately with relatives.
The social work department had concerns about the mother’s capacity to care for the children and about the father’s passivity. The children required stability in their care placement, the social worker said. There were problems with the relative placement, and the foster care committee considered general foster care would be better.
At this stage in the proceedings the parents’ barrister said a problem had arisen. The mother was very distressed and did not want to participate further in the proceedings.
The judge said the issue was the welfare of the children. The case would go ahead, but she would do everything possible to make things easy for the respondents. She granted a short adjournment, after which the mother returned to participate in the proceedings.
A psychologist from a specialist parent and child centre told the court she had assessed the parenting capacity of the mother and father. The father found it difficult to express emotion, and struggled to understand the impact of his wife’s behaviour on the children. The mother had had very, very difficult formative years, including having been the victim of sexual abuse. She spoke of wanting the children to have loving care.
The parent’s barrister said the parents said they had learned from their experience. “How can they demonstrate change if the children are not in their care?” she asked.
Psychologist: “The father lacks an understanding of the child’s psychological experience. He says he [the child] was too young to understand.”
Barrister: “If the right conditions could be put in place should the children go back to their parents?”
Psychologist: “There is not a lot of hope the parents can change.”
The manager of the child and family centre told the court that the mother was unable to provide basic care for the younger child. She was unable to put into practice lessons about bathing, putting the child safely in a high chair, etc. Nappy changes could be quite violent. When the team was not there to prompt her and intervene with the care the child received no real care. The team had to be extra vigilant around her. The mother struggled to understand the multi-task nature of caring for small children, the physical tasks and emotional responses.
The father demonstrated consistency in the practical aspects of parenting, but was not able to respond to the children emotionally. “It is very concerning that it’s now, two and a half years after the first involvement with social services over B, that the father thought he needed to change.”
A consultant psychiatrist told the court that the mother could not cope well with stressors. She had a lack of insight into her mental health problems. He agreed with the barrister that her inability to interact with the children could be a feature of depression.
Barrister: “Depression is not a barrier to parenting?”
Psychiatrist: “It does not have to be, but it can be.”
A psychologist who had examined the father said he had never acted on the alleged cancer diagnosis of his son. He was extremely passive about the situation. Asked if he was likely to change, the psychologist said: “People can always learn from experience. Both parents are very inexperienced with independent living, taking care of themselves. I have no sense of the quality of their relationship. They are like companions.”
In relation to their intellectual capacity, he said it was within the normal range. Their intellectual functioning would not represent particular difficulties in their ability to learn and would not impact in any practical way on their capacity to parent.
“There is no doubt the father loves the children. The question is what to do to make them safe. He said he would require an in depth parenting programme. However, in a follow-up report he gave no evidence of having changed at all. He felt when his wife has solved her problems she would resume parenting and would be the primary carer.”
Asked if the father could get the ability to parent in the full sense of the world, the psychologist said: “He is capable of acting in a responsible manner, holding down a job, etc, but he does not appear to be able to apply that to the emotional sphere.”
Asked how the father explained the situation around the claims that A had cancer, he said: “It is hard to understand. He seems to have adopted a very traditional role. He did not wish to involve himself in the details of the children’s care. He said he did have doubts.”
The psychologist who assessed the mother said she had suffered the trauma of a sexual assault when she was young. She was off and on medication. She ceased her medication when pregnant. In relation to the fabrication of A’s illness, she was not able to explain what was going on at that time. She was aware she had made up stories.
In relation to her intellectual functioning, she was within the average range overall, with variations in certain categories. She did not make a connection between her psychological well-being and her ability to care for her children. The psychologist had recommended she engage in therapy, in a parenting capacity assessment and in a structured parenting programme.
Asked if the mother’s mental health difficulties, including depression and some suicidal ideation, had an impact on her ability to parent, the psychologist said: “There is a connection. There is an impact on her ability to be available for the children.”
The guardian ad litem told the court that the younger child, B, who had been placed with a relative when a very young baby, was doing very well, thriving and meeting his milestones. He had formed a very secure attachment to his foster-carers and there would have to be a very good reason to interfere with that.
A had been placed with other relatives voluntarily in 2013, when he was almost three. They found him boisterous and difficult to handle, but over time he settled in. It must have been extremely difficult for him as a young child to collude with the claim he had cancer.
He did say he wanted to go home because there were more toys there, but more recently he said he wanted to stay with his relatives and that he wanted to call them Mum and Dad.
In relation to the cancer, the GAL said that the father did say his son had told him once the nurse had not come, but he wanted to believe his wife [that she had].
A’s situation is different from that of B, in that he lived with his parents for two and a half years and had a relationship with them. It was very urgent he had a determination as to where he lives, along with intensive psychological therapy. To leave him in an uncertain situation while seeing whether psychotherapy and parenting programmes might work for his parents would not be in his best interests, the GAL said.
Asked about moving A from the relatives he was with (which was being proposed by the CFA) the GAL said one could not underestimate the impact of moving him from his relatives, his school and community. He was attached to these relatives, but had attachment insecurity arising from his earlier experiences.
The father told the court he had met the mother on a foreign pilgrimage. She became ill at the airport and he looked after her and later they exchanged letters and phone calls and went out together. “It was very gradual,” he said. He had strong religious views and took very seriously the marriage vow “in sickness and in health, till death do us part.”
A was born before they were married, when they were not living together. Then they moved in together. “I feel it is important to provide for my wife and offspring, to look after their needs, give them a good direction in life in general.”
Referring to A’s initial referral to the social work department he said he thought the mother needed a break and brought the boy to his relatives. He said he was very surprised at the social workers’ reaction to the mother slapping A when he was four months.
His barrister put it to him: “Part of the case is you are a passive person. You sat back and did not deal with this incident or his alleged illness.”
Father: “I will admit I sat back. I did have concerns. That was completely wrong. I am to blame to a certain amount. I didn’t know then what I know now about [the mother’s] depression and how it could affect a person. It can hit different people in different ways. It has been a learning experience for me.”
He said he had believed his wife about the cancer claim, and was shocked when he heard it was groundless.
Asked if he had not thought of bringing the child to a doctor himself, he said: “I did convince myself it was not true but I didn’t get it checked.” Asked why, he said: “I was thinking of doctor-patient confidentiality. I thought it would be intrusive. I do respect people in authority, especially doctor-patient confidentiality.”
He said if a similar situation happened now, he would ask the professional involved what was going on.
Asked what he wanted now, he said he wanted the children returned and them to receive support. He was prepared to ask his employer for reduced hours so that he could help in looking after the children. Pending that, the children should remain with the relatives. If this did not work out, he was prepared to give up work to look after the children.
Asked if he understood the concerns of the CFA, he said: “I understand they have the right to protect children. They’re there to help families who are in trouble, as I understand it. [A] was in voluntary care. We never broke that. I am capable of looking after my two kids if they come back into my care.”
The mother also told the court she wanted the children home, or otherwise stay with the relatives. “I know things were wrong. I wasn’t well. I fabricated stories, I admit it. I was not taking my medication because I was pregnant. I feel I was a good parent. I love my children. I feel whatever I do it’s not good enough now.”
Asked if she had any explanation for her claim that A had cancer, she said: “I didn’t know what I was doing. I was very down. I’ve improved dramatically, I have more energy, more motivation. I have said I’m sorry [about the cancer claim], I said sorry to [A]. I love my children. I admit I was a risk.”
She said she had been involved in psychotherapy and found it very helpful, but had ended it because of its cost and travel difficulties. Asked if she had refused insulin treatment when she was pregnant despite the effect it could have on the unborn child, she said she had, because of her depression. “I had no energy, no motivation. My husband was working, I was caring for [A]. I had no friends. I was an outsider in the community. I did find it difficult to cope.”
The judge said she would take time to consider her decision and adjourned the case for a week. When the case returned the judge said she had considered the evidence carefully. The legislation required that the child should stay with the natural parents where possible, but the welfare of the child was paramount.
It was clear there were problems, the judge said. The mother suffered from severe depression which impacted on her ability to care for the children. This was shown in relation to A, and her failure to stick to her medication for her diabetes put her second child at risk. The children were placed in voluntary care and assessments were carried out as to whether the mother and father could care for the children.
“At this point in time the mother is not able to give physical care. The father is able to give care from a physical point of view. Ultimately [I must consider] the other issues, the father’s inability to deal with the claim of cancer and the psychological damage to the child. Having considered all the evidence and the requirements of Section 18 [of the Child Care Act] I regret the CFA has met the burden of proof.
“It is clear the mother and father have an extremely close relationship. It would not be in the interests of any child to expect the parents to separate. The father has a huge burden which he has taken on voluntarily, which is the care of the mother.
“Nothing is set in stone. Psychological help for the mother is extremely important to allow her at some point to parent her children. In relation to the father, an assertiveness course may be appropriate. Contact with the children must be maintained.”
She said she would hear submissions relating to the issue of the foster carers the following week.
Application by grandparents to be appointed foster carers
An application under section 47 of the Child Care Act, 1991 to be appointed as foster parents of A was made by the grandparents. The application was adjourned to allow the completion of their assessment as suitable foster parents. The District Court had already directed that such an assessment take place.
The social worker said that the foster care committee had met in relation to the court direction and they had completed an assessment and highlighted a number of concerns. It was acknowledged that the assessment was not fully completed but the grandparents had not been approved as foster carers.
A social worker gave evidence that the social work department had concerns about the level of hygiene in their home as well as the age of the grandparents, who were both 65 years old.
The social worker said that the concerns related to the child’s “long term needs.” These concerns encompassed the grandparents “age; ability to work with the Child and Family Agency (CFA); ability to understand the role of fostering; home conditions and health and safety issues.” In relation to the foster carers’ criteria the social worker said that the grandparents “did not meet the criteria, [which are] that there was a reasonable expectation that they could provide care for children in the future and their ability to work as part of a team with the Health Service Executive (HSE).”
The judge asked what the criteria for foster carers were and the social worker replied that they were the national standards in respect of foster carers. She went on to say that “whilst we [the CFA] recognise the huge love and attachment [of the grandparents for their grandchild] it is our concern that they may not be able to meet his needs.”
When the judge asked how the decision of the foster care committee was transmitted to grandparents, the social worker replied that it was communicated by letter and that the social worker team leader had met the grandparents.
The judge then asked whether there was any process of review. The social worker replied that she did not believe there was an appeal, “I don’t think there can be an appeal because there wasn’t a full assessment done.” The judge asked the social worker to clarify whether, if a full assessment had taken place, there could be an appeal and the social worker replied that this would be the case.
The barrister for the grandparents asked the social worker to confirm that the District Court had directed that a foster care assessment take place. The social worker confirmed this.
The barrister confirmed that the concerns surrounding the grandmother’s health were all being managed by medication and that this had been confirmed in the fostering assessment. The social worker replied that she accepted that the grandmother’s health was being managed but that it was felt [in the social work department] that her health issues combined with her age might become more challenging.
The barrister for the grandparents confirmed that, in relation to the concerns of the CFA about the hygiene in the house, the conditions in the home at no point warranted the child’s removal from the placement. The same barrister also pointed out that another assessment that had been carried out had made no comment about hygiene but had said that the house “was not cold and there was plenty of food.” The social worker disagreed with the barrister and said that the surfaces in the house could be “quite dirty” and dogs were allowed in the home as well as there being evidence of mouse traps. She also said that there was food and debris on the ground.
The grandparents’ barrister pointed out that the child had come out of difficult early years and has been assessed by the CFA and scored normally across the board. She said that notwithstanding the concerns about hygiene, the child was getting on “really well”.
The barrister told the court that the child’s school reports said that he had made great progress, was always the first in the classroom and was an active participant in class and had a proven commitment to academic achievement. The social worker accepted that but said that the concern was that the “grandparents may not be able to meet his needs”. The social worker also said that the school had raised issues in respect of the child’s hygiene and “unkempt appearance.”
The grandparents’ barrister noted that the child’s cognitive assessments had significantly improved after he went into full-time care with his grandparents. “He is doing well in terms of maximising his ability in the care of his grandparents.” The social worker replied that such an improvement could be open to interpretation and questioned whether his potential could be achieved in his current placement.
The judge said that she thought it would be appropriate to hear direct evidence from someone from the fostering team. She said: “This is not a case where fostering assessment has proceeded and concluded and the grandparents have been rejected as not suitable. I don’t think you have got to that stage, that is my concern. I note there is a preliminary assessment.” The judge said that if the fostering placement regulations provide for a right to appeal then, by cutting that off, the right to a remedy was removed.
The judge said that there would be no point her making a consultative case stated to the High Court until there had been a formal rejection. The social worker replied that it was “our view that there was an assessment.”
The judge said that the (fostering) regime has to be done under a statutory and regulatory process and there were statutory regulations to follow and so she needed to establish how far it had been followed in terms of regulatory provisions. She said that she would like to hear from a witness from the fostering department as this could be relevant to the making of a consultative case stated to the High Court.
The CFA solicitor confirmed that the CFA would fast-track the full process and any assessment. The CFA solicitor apologised, saying he “did not have any intention of misleading the court” and said that clearly the issue of the appeal was a very significant issue.
In adjourning the application the judge emphasised the importance of sibling contact and suggested that the level of contact between the siblings would continue. The judge asked all the parties to expedite matters and suggested that the grandparents step back and look at the situation.
She noted that whatever the outcome of the current application, the grandparents would always “have a role in their grandchild’s life, but so too would the CFA.” She asked the grandparents to start “on a fresh page” in facing the assessment. The judge also directed that the CFA support psychotherapy sessions for the mother.