Two-year care order for young girl amid allegations of CFA negligence – 2014vol3#10

A care order was granted by the Dublin District Court for just over two years for a young girl amid allegations that the CFA had acted negligently in the case.

The court heard that the father in the case had instructed separate legal representatives with a view to suing the HSE (as it then was) on the grounds of negligence. The father agreed to the care order being granted for two years. The views of the mother were unknown. The judge, when making the order, directed that an independent retrospective review of the case be carried out and that the in-camera rule be lifted to allow such a review to take place.

An agreement between the parties was read into the court record. That document contained a plan of action for the agreed care order. The document explicitly re-stated the principle contained in section 3 of the Child Care Act, 1991 that the welfare of the child is the first and paramount consideration and also acknowledged that it was in the best interests of children that they grow up within their families but where that is not possible the HSE shall provide for their care. It was further stated in the agreement that the father in the case had demonstrated a “tireless and commendable commitment” to his daughter “in challenging the entitlement of the HSE to have her in its care and in seeking custody of his child and maintaining access” with her.

Another part of the agreement stated that it was acknowledged that the girl was not in the care of her father when she was taken into the care of the HSE and that the concerns that led to her being placed in care of the HSE centred on her mother’s capacity to care for her. The father’s right to aspire to full time care of his daughter was also acknowledged. It was stated to be in the child’s interests that her parents and her foster carers establish and maintain mutually respectful relationships with each other.

The agreement contained a plan that included the provision of an appropriate support worker for the father to be identified and funded, but not employed, by the HSE. The support worker would provide the father with ongoing advice and support and act as a liaison between him and the social work department. This support worker, or a replacement, would remain in place for the duration of the care order.

There were provisions in the agreement for the father to meet the support worker, for access with his child to be increased and assessed and for a child in care review to take place as well as multi-disciplinary meetings. The views of the young girl were to be assessed and given due weight having regard to her age and maturity. The agreement also contained a direction that a parenting capacity assessment take place of the father and an independent facilitator was to be appointed in this regard.

Various members of social work and social care departments gave evidence during the hearing of the care order application.

Social care leader

A social care leader gave evidence about the child’s relationship with her foster carers. She said that the overlap between foster and birth families is important so that the child realises all the connections are secure. She said that when children see the overlap their anxieties reduce and that it was important for the child to see that all the adults can get along. In cross-examination by the barrister for the GAL, the social care leader said that there had never been any concerns around the father in relation to child protection concerns. When asked about the father’s anger, she replied that he had been verbally angry and that it had always been in the context of the HSE.

The same witness said that she was satisfied that the foster placement was meeting the child’s needs. She also said that immediate reunification would be detrimental as stability was important for the child. In relation to reunification, she could not give a time period when it would happen but that it had to happen at the child’s pace and to rush it would be detrimental to the relationship she had built up with her father. When asked by the barrister for the mother whether she had any concerns that the father could be verbally abusive with his daughter during access, the social care leader replied that she had never seen him behaving inappropriately.

The same witness described access visits of the father and the child and spoke of cards that the father had sent to his daughter. She said that the GAL had heard the child say that she thought her foster parents did not want her to see her father. The father’s barrister argued that the pace of access was being set by the foster parents.

The same witness described life story work she completed with the child. She also described the occasions when the girl requested access visits with her father. She told the court that the father became angry on the telephone because she (the social care leader) was working a three day week and he (the father) was worried that access being arranged during those three days would not suit him. He said that he felt that he had been “messed around” by the HSE.

She commented that when the daughter and her father were together they always seemed to be very natural. She also described a conversation she overheard where the girl said that her foster mother was always angry after she had had access with her natural father. She said that the girl spoke about her mother frequently and she would ask why her mother does not come to see her and she was beginning to question why her father came to see her but not her mother.

Social work team leader

A social work team leader gave evidence that he had conducted a number of meetings with the father and described his level of co-operation as guarded. He said that the father engaged but there was not complete openness and that it was difficult to move beyond procedural things and to get a level of insight.

The social work team leader went on to say that the father’s perception of how he was being treated by the HSE over-shadowed his responses. He described meeting the foster parents and how he tried to keep them abreast of court developments. He spoke about the reunification plan and how it progressed at a slower pace than originally anticipated. When asked why the progress was so slow the social work team leader said that a number of key factors held up the decision-making process, and they were trying to deal with historical allegations. He said that the plan was not going at the tempo he would have liked but that it was progressing at the child’s pace which was the key factor.

The father’s barrister cross-examined the social work team leader and asked about the delays in investigating the case. The social work team leader replied that the original files had been in a different social work area and it had taken a few months for him to get access to the files.

The father’s barrister asked the same witness if he recalled whether the foster parents were told about court proceedings and whether they in turn told the girl about the proceedings. The social work team leader said that he could not recall what was said to the foster parents about the court proceedings. The father’s barrister argued that the child’s bed-wetting and hair loss was occurring at pivotal moments of the case and therefore the foster mother should have been asked whether she was telling the child about the proceedings. This witness did not know whether the foster parents had talked to the children about the proceedings.

The court heard that, as a result of allegations of abuse, an investigation into the father was carried out and that it took nearly two years for the father to get a final conclusion stating that he was not deemed to be a danger to his daughter. The court heard that one report was mistakenly entitled “Report on Sexual Abuse”. The father’s barrister asked the social work team leader whether he appreciated that during the time when there were suspicions hanging over the father’s head that fact could be brought to the attention of employers. The social work team leader said that he had a brief conversation with the father about the report and advised him (the father) to seek legal advice. He also said that the fact that the final report took so long was an omission.

The father’s barrister argued that the signs of stress allegedly displayed by the child (bed wetting, violent behavior, alopecia) may not be related to access with her parents as suggested by the HSE but may have resulted from the child’s awareness of court proceedings concerning her that were taking place. She asked “is it not self-evident that there is a connection (between court proceedings and child’s stress)? The dates are at pivotal times.”

Social care worker

A social care worker told the court that a fostering relations training session had been set up for the child’s foster parents but that they never completed the course because they lived too far away (approximately two hours from Dublin). Subsequently foster care training was provided to the foster parents at a location near where they lived which enabled the foster mother to attend the training.

The same witness told the court that the child’s foster carers admitted that they knew very little in relation to the child’s background and circumstances. She read a quote from a research document in relation to the cross-over between birth parents and foster parents: “If this cross over isn’t happening or isn’t possible the child will never be able to feel totally secure and will never be able to explore dual family membership.”

The same social care worker described conversations she had with the foster mother during which the foster mother became upset. The social care worker told the court that it was not unusual for foster parents to become upset when discussing reunification of the children they have grown to love with their natural parent(s).

The judge asked the social care worker whether she perceived the foster parents to have a difficulty with the possibility of reunification. She replied that she perceived this to be the case and that it was her opinion that the foster parents did not deal with this difficulty appropriately and that there was a slight negativity around the child’s father. When asked by the judge whether she felt that the foster parents had taken on board the contents of training support that was offered to them, the social care worker replied that she believed that they had not.

The same witness said that after one meeting she felt that she had to work harder on family membership (with the foster parents) and asked the foster mother to have a photograph of the child’s natural mother and father in the living area of the foster home. The social care worker also commented that the foster mother did not appear to know very much about the child’s background but that she was finding out more since the child had been doing life story work.

The court was told that the foster mother felt that there were a lot of professionals involved in her life and that she felt “intimidated … under a microscope.” The social care worker said that the mother continued to say that she felt too many professionals were involved in the case but she was continuing to have weekly meetings despite expressing that concern.

When asked by the mother’s barrister whether she would accept that the level of professional involvement might be overwhelming the social care worker replied that when she was involved in the case there were two people visiting every week and access taking place every second week. The social care worker said that she did not feel that that was a huge amount of involvement.

The same witness described an incident where the child’s father had sent the child a present but the foster mother wanted the child to change it. The court heard that the foster mother “got quite irate, red in the face.” The social care worker said that the foster mother was too upset to discuss the matter of contact with the child’s birth parents.

Another incident was described where the father had sent the child a photograph of a dog and the foster mother had said that the dog looked very old and the social care worker said that she had to try and diffuse the negative response (of the foster mother) with positive comments.

When asked about the reports by the foster mother that the child was self-harming and bed wetting, the social care worker said that she went through a bed wetting programme with the foster mother which seemed to help and the only evidence of harm she (the social care worker) saw was a little mark on the child’s eye but never witnessed any self-harming per se. She also said that she did not witness the girl pulling at her hair (hair loss had been referred to earlier in the proceedings). She said that she did not make any referrals to other professionals.

Social worker

A social worker gave evidence next and told the court that the girl had behaved extremely violently on occasions at crèche and that she had displayed behaviour indicative of self-harm. The social worker told the court of a number of occasions where the child had said she did not want to see her father. The judge, on hearing the evidence said that the question that was arising was a serious one – whether the child had been coached. He also said that someone had to get to the bottom of why the child was saying she did not want to see her dad.

In cross-examination the barrister for the GAL pointed out to the social worker that 20 months after the child had come into care a parenting capacity assessment had still not been carried out. The social worker replied that a parenting capacity assessment was discussed when the father attended counselling sessions but that it was felt that it was something he was not able for, “it was about putting in the foundations”. The GAL’s barrister made it clear to the court that the GAL was recommending an independent review of the entire case.

The judge asked the social worker whether consideration had been given to the fact that the foster placement might have been the source of the child’s anxiety. The social worker replied that consideration would have been given to this issue but that the placement was appropriate and was meeting the child’s needs. The judge also asked the social worker whether it was possible that the foster parents were saying that they were open to reunification but that their actions were saying otherwise. The social worker replied that she thought that there had been an improvement and felt that they could take things on board and work with them.

In making the order for two years the judge directed that the HSE re-enter the matter if a social worker or fostering link worker was unallocated for four weeks; if there was a change of placement or a planned change of placement; if the placement was not matched by a certain date or if the statutory child in care review had not taken place by a specified date.