Teenager asks court for aftercare – 2014vol3#18

A teenager due to “age out” of legally being a minor within a week moved a Section 47 application in the Dublin District Court seeking the court to direct the Child and Family Agency to provide her with aftercare and an aftercare worker. She had been made a party to the proceedings by the court. The minor (A) was not entitled to aftercare or an aftercare worker as she had not been in the care of the State for two years. An absence of aftercare also prevented her from being deemed eligible for funding.

The CFA’s position was that they had provided a plan for funding for a continuation in her private residential placement for one month. However, the minor was worried she would be made homeless if alternative accommodation was not found for her within that month.
The minor was accompanied by an advocate from EPIC (an independent association working with children and young people in care).

In opening evidence the CFA solicitor told the court that Section 45 (aftercare) of the Child Care Act was a discretionary position. “The HSE can provide aftercare or can decide not to provide aftercare under certain circumstances. They have provided a plan for funding for a continued placement for a month. The applicant is unhappy with the plan. The CFA have addressed each point of the application before the court. How can the court make directions when the CFA has a statutory discretion to do nothing?” asked the solicitor.

The judge replied that it was not a discretion to do nothing, but to make a decision whether or not to do something after examining her circumstances.

Each one of the directions [of Section 45] had been addressed by the social work department, the CFA solicitor told her.

The barrister for the minor told the court that in Eastern Health Board v McDonnell (Judge Gilligan) a number of directions were made by the District Court judge affecting matters which were within the discretion of the then Eastern Health Board. Directions were made that the foster placement was not to be changed without leave of the court. The HSE had argued the judge could not make a direction as such, but they had not succeeded.

The minor’s barrister said that Section 47 of the Child Care Act was intended to give the overall control of a child in care to the District Court. “The section makes it clear the child is in the ultimate care of the District Court and the District Court has the power to make directions,” said the barrister. “The CFA can only act within its statutory function while clearly a power is vested in the District Court.”

A told the court that the social work department had got involved with her family six years ago after she had told her school guidance counsellor that she was suicidal because she was living with her Dad. She began to self-harm two years ago when she felt very low, following this she was admitted to a suicide and self-harm crisis centre. She tried to overdose when she went home and late last year her parents signed her into voluntary care when the HSE sought an Interim Care Order.

The girl told the court that she was now settled in a private residential unit and had not self-harmed since April. She was consistently attending a Youth Reach programme where she had made friends and was attending psychiatric appointments. She wanted to do the Leaving Cert Applied and it was very important to her to stay in the area. It was the first time she had made friends, the people had been really nice and welcoming and she found it hard to adapt to change. She felt part of the community and she had never felt that way before.

She was worried that a month after turning 18 she would have nowhere to go or that she would be placed somewhere that would not suit her. She would like for someone to work with her until she was 21, to help her get into the right courses in University.

In her residential centre there were staff doing 24 hour shifts. She washed, cooked and cleaned for herself and had keyworkers to help her around budgeting for electricity and gas. On bad days she could talk to the staff who would bring her out and this had helped to stop self-harming and overcome her bulimia. She did not know anything about her aftercare plan or what would happen to her after the next month.

Her psychiatrist was helping her a lot and she was a lot calmer. She told the court that she would she like to go to a residential unit for people with a mental health diagnosis. She said she was not getting aftercare because she had not been in care long enough.

“I’d like to know what’s happening in my future, I’d like you to really listen,” she told the judge. “I really would like aftercare because it would be important to me, I would like some support, someone to check up on me once a week. I would like to stay in the area, I’m really settled in, I’m the happiest I’ve been in a long time. I had felt I’d never get anywhere but the people in Youth Reach told me I would, they were really welcoming, they didn’t judge me once, they are there for me on my good days and bad days. It doesn’t matter that you’re in care, you’re still the same person to us, they said.”

“Where did you think you’d be a year ago?” asked her barrister.

“I didn’t think I’d still be alive a year ago and that’s being honest.”

The CFA solicitor reassured her that there was a plan and that the social work department were very aware of her concerns. They were anxious to reassure her she would have an aftercare worker and they would do their best to continue her living in the [same] area. He had a plan that was in with her solicitor, her father’s solicitor and the judge.

There was a commitment from the CFA to try and advance her accommodation and her education, and her social worker would continue to work with her as her aftercare worker.
The up-to-date report from her social worker provided a commitment to one further month in her residential unit while other options were being explored.

“I’m worried I’ll be thrown out if nothing is found,” A told him.

The CFA solicitor then explained to the girl that she could not go on the housing list until she turned 18 and her social worker would go with her to the county council office on her birthday next week to make that application.

The girl’s solicitor gave evidence that she had worked in the field of juvenile crime and children in care for 12 years and had become involved in this case when A’s keyworker in EPIC contacted her. He wanted to meet her in an emergency where a child was about to age out with no specific aftercare plan, and no appointed aftercare worker.

“The aftercare worker can be appointed at the discretion of the HSE,” said the girl’s solicitor. “They have an aftercare plan, there are criteria: they remain in education, an aftercare worker can link in with them till 21 years of age, funding would be appropriated for the child who is aging out. The general social worker would deal primarily with the child that is not over 18 and is in care.”

Generally social workers did not do aftercare work. Generally a meeting would take place, an aftercare strategy would take place and an aftercare worker would be appointed, she told the court.

Girl’s barrister: “What do aftercare plans look like?”

Girl’s solicitor: “They usually set out a strategy for the child, a plan of action, what would happen, where the child is going to be when the child would reach 18. There wouldn’t be the lacuna where the child reaches 18 and then achieves some sort of accommodation, there would be a seamless plan; how they’re going to live, the income they’re going to have, the aftercare worker draws it up in conjunction with the social work team.”

Barrister: “Why doesn’t this child have one?”

Solicitor: “Because she didn’t meet the criteria for aftercare because she hadn’t been in care for 12 months (in some areas it’s two years). Her distress is mainly that she will be made homeless, her absolute dread is that she will have to give up living in the area, and hostel living, she is signally unprepared for it with her psychological difficulties. It could result in an unhappy outcome very quickly.” If an aftercare worker was directed for A, she would be deemed eligible for funding.

The solicitor for the CFA told the court that the social work department had spoken with an aftercare service but they did not have the staff to support A. The social work department was not in a position to provide aftercare because she was not in care for 12 months.

He said the Section 47 application sought a direction for the provision of an aftercare plan and an aftercare worker. They had provided a plan, although A did not accept it was a plan, and her current social worker would continue to work with her once she turned 18. The appointment of an aftercare worker today in advance of her turning 18 next week would be a backward step.

“The last time I had a case like this the child died in a hostel three months later,” said the girl’s solicitor. The plan should be extending her placement for six months and committing to appropriate accommodation that had been sourced, with aftercare workers allocated.
The CFA solicitor pointed out that all housing in the area A wished to remain in had been addressed in the plan.

The girl’s solicitor said the CFA either had to privately source accommodation or invent accommodation.

The social worker gave evidence regarding the aftercare plan, saying he would assist her with applying for a social welfare allowance, rent allowance, and Jobseekers Benefit if the Disability Allowance application failed. The aftercare service based in her area had flat out refused her as she had not been in care for two years.

Both the judge and the social worker felt accommodation in the city centre was not suitable for A’s needs. Her name could not go down on other lists which went through local housing authorities until she turned 18.

“What she is searching for doesn’t exist. At this point we need to come to some other plan for her in relation to housing,” said her social worker.

He himself had a good relationship with her, he did not feel it would help her to have an aftercare worker because he had an in-depth knowledge of her needs and the area she wished to live in. He felt all the directions sought were satisfied. However he told the court that “things could be different if she were eligible for aftercare, the outcomes achieved by the worker might be different because different services might be available.”

Once she was in the system with an aftercare worker and an aftercare plan she would be eligible for funding, said the social worker. However the judge remarked that they were not clearly inextricably linked because she got funding for one month without an aftercare worker.

“She is under great stress at the moment,” said the social worker.

The judge asked the CFA solicitor about a contingency plan. The solicitor said there was a commitment from the CFA to apply for funding as a contingency plan.

The judge said that, given the girl’s particular needs and vulnerability, it was only proper that the commitments the CFA had made to support her be clearly set out in a plan which was easy for her to read and understand, and she was going to give that direction.

She directed that an aftercare plan be provided, which would address her accommodation needs taking account of her expressed wishes, especially in relation to the location of the accommodation. She refused to direct the provision of an aftercare worker, but pointed out that there was a commitment that the existing social worker continue to work with the girl after she turned 18.

The judgment is on the Courts Service website, www.courts.ie