Care Orders for children who escaped home – 2014vol4#2

Full Care Orders were granted in the District Court for three children (B, C and D) in their early and mid-teens, who had escaped from home seeking help. The children, who were home-schooled and not allowed outside their house, had experienced emotional and physical abuse and neglect. There were also allegations of sexual abuse against their mother. Their father, who seldom visited the house, had failed to be a protective factor and did not propose that the children live with him.

The judge said he would allow an application from the guardian ad litem to have the question of why concerns known as long ago as 2009 were not followed up on referred to the Ombudsman for Children.

The children had no friends, no structure to their day and were self-taught. They stayed up late at night in order to sleep longer into the day and avoid their mother who was prone to violent outbursts. They had no knowledge of either of their parents’ extended family, although they had met paternal aunts and uncles a few times when they were young.

Their mother spent most of her time in her room, using a bucket as a toilet which she asked her son to empty. She beat Child B telling the other children that she was the reincarnation of the Holy Spirit and that she was “beating the white devil out” of the child.

The mother, who was originally from Africa, and the father, who was Irish, failed to engage with the social work department when the children were taken into care. When the Garda Sergeant called to the house the day after the Section 12 [Emergency Care Order] had been invoked, the mother denied that they were her children and would not admit to her own name. Their father would not discuss the history of the case with the social workers while his children were in care. They did not have legal representation for the full Care Order hearing, they did not call any witnesses and did not give evidence.

The Care Order hearing

The Garda who had invoked the Section 12 of the Child Care Act told the court that the three children had gone to a neighbour’s house seeking help. The owner of the property had called the station to attend at her house in relation to the welfare of three children. “[Child B] informed me that she had escaped from the family home as she was not allowed outside the house, nor were her siblings. [B] explained that they were isolated from an early age and not allowed out.

“They said that if they did try and escape their mother would physically assault them. [B] explained that they never went to school, they were home schooled but she only learned how to read at age 12, her sister taught her. I called to the family home. There was no answer. A light was on. I went back to the children and talked to the Garda superintendent. I invoked section 12 of the Child Care Act and I contacted the out of hours’ service,” said the Garda.

When the mother presented at the station she was irate and abusive and did not seem to have any interest in welfare of the children (two girls and a boy).

Out of hours’ social worker

The out of hours’ social worker told the court that on the night in question she went to the Garda station with a colleague. They met the children’s mother when they were all leaving the station to go to the foster family. “The mother was immediately very aggressive and combative and her language was vulgar. She talked about paedophiles and was talking about Magdalene Laundries. I wondered was she unstable, her presentation was peculiar. I was concerned.”

She felt the children were very fearful of their mother. The boy appeared dazed and seemed to struggle to understand simple conversation. The social worker told the court that when he got to the foster home he appeared like a small child, running in and out of rooms.

Garda Sergeant

The Garda Sergeant, who visited the family home the following day, told the court that when he went to the house it was in a deplorable condition, with the floors covered in grime and dirt. He could not gain entry into two of the bedrooms as there was clothing, bags and objects piled four to five feet high. “I took the pictures by stretching my hand through the door,” he told the court.

“A lot of the house was inscribed with religious rhetoric. While we were there and talking to the mother she talked about these writings. Also in the sitting room in front of window there was an altar that took up prime position, [and] was described as an altar while we were there.”

The Garda described a makeshift bed in front of the fire; a table with detritus all over it and the altar, all in one room. “It was in an unbelievable condition. Adjacent to the bedding on floor there was a free standing electric heater providing heat but it was an extreme hazard. The front panel was an exposed heating element; if it came in contact with anything it would have ignited it. The kitchen was dirty, there was food in the cupboards but they were dirty. I had grave concerns that house was a hazard in itself and it wasn’t fit for children to live in those conditions.”

The Guard told the court that the mother denied who she was. “I pleaded with her that we were there to discuss the welfare of her children. She denied all responsibility and said they weren’t her children,” said the Sergeant.

The social work team leader

The duty social work team leader told the court that on the night the Section 12 was invoked she received the new referral and called out to the family home. The mother had been aggressive and said her children had been abducted. She would not let them into her house and waved a cross at them.

On returning to the office to prepare her report, the social worker said she discovered they had a file open on the family. The previous file had been opened in 2009 when a community welfare officer had expressed concern about the children being home-schooled and whether they were receiving an appropriate education. It also included a query about whether the mother had a mental health difficulty.

“Our next referral was from a senior education welfare officer, the mother had been refusing assessment in relation to home schooling. Then the social work department closed the case as [she] agreed to some level of assessment and it was felt a minimum level of education was reached. The final piece was that we ensured a professional had seen the children and she did. We received one more referral in 2012 from an education welfare officer,” said the duty social worker.

The duty social worker also obtained previous files from the relevant social work department from 1999 onwards. She found there had been a concern around Child B and whether she had received adequate attention for a burn in 1999. Social workers were concerned at that time, they were not clear whether a skin graft was necessary but felt the child needed medical attention. However the mother had discharged her against doctor’s advice and had not followed up subsequent appointments.

There was also a referral to the social work department in 2001 in relation to A’s school attendance (a sibling now over 18). The mother was concerned that child was being bullied, a family support worker was allocated and the file was subsequently closed.

The duty social worker told the court that she endeavoured to assist engagement between the parents and the allocated social worker, but the parents refused to meet them. She also changed social workers at the mother’s request because at one of the social work meetings the mother had said the social worker was complicit with an Garda Síochána in the abduction of her children. However the next social worker had the same difficulties engaging with the parents and another new social worker was appointed.

The duty social worker said her main concern was the children’s firm belief that they did not want to see their mother or return to their parents’ care.

“They wished to see their father but they didn’t wish their mother to be part of their life. I was concerned about their speech, I was concerned about how interested they were and how they were saying they weren’t allowed out of their house, they were looking forward to going to school. I have never heard children looking forward to these things, the basics.

“I was concerned about parental engagement. I would find it unusual how little they engage. We have changed personnel, arranged meetings with legal representatives, but the parents have not wanted to engage. The mother is firmly set that something untoward has happened and we are complicit in this. Letters were sent to the father. Generally families want to be involved in children’s care. The parents didn’t engage,” said the duty social worker.

The mother put it to the social worker that home educating was not against the law.

“My opinion is that home education is legal, some parents educate their children to a high standard,” replied the social worker. “I don’t believe these children were being educated to the required standard. That is evidenced by the fact that none of the children are in the right class for their age. I don’t think the minimum social interaction the children were having was meeting their needs.”

The mother said that she had tried to engage with the social worker to see the children. The social worker told the court that the children did not want to see their mother, one access visit had been arranged and they did not want another one.

The children’s social worker

The children’s social worker gave details to the court of what Child B had told her during their first meeting in the foster home.

“She (her mother) had talked about people watching her through the TV and laptop. She said she went to library with her dad. The mum had said that somebody could kidnap them if father was not present with them at all times.”

Child B had seen Child A (now over 18) handcuffed by her mother in the house.

Her mother had told her that they should not have friends. “I asked could they identify anyone as their friend or someone they could ask for help. They couldn’t name anyone. That gave me concern.

“[B] said that the children had made an escape plan, they used a ladder that they had moved. The side gate was locked as their sister had got out that way. They brought a few things they had; money, an iPad, a book from the library on bullying, a phone number for fostering services, a number for the Samaritans. This was very concerning that the children had spoken of an escape plan. They had moved a ladder.

“They spoke about testing the plan when their mum had gone out. They had tested the lock on the front door and thought it was too noisy so they altered the plan. They told the brother only on the night they were leaving as they thought he was too young to be told before. The children carefully removed each item from the window so as not to wake their mother. [B] said that there were beer bottles and alcohol near her mother,” said the social worker.

Child B had also said she was worried her mother might sexually abuse her because she had insisted on washing her although she was in her mid-teens. “She put her finger up my bum, I moved, she tried to put her finger up me. She had been drinking the night before, I don’t know, maybe through the night,” she had told the social worker.

“I wanted to wash myself and mum said so you think I am one of those rapists. Another time I felt uncomfortable with mum washing me. I was scared to say no. I was scared she would beat me,” she had told the social worker.

[B] had told the social worker that she had no friends and that they were told the only relationship they were to have was one with God. The children’s main stimulation seemed to be watching TV and going out with their father on Saturdays. One Saturday they came home and went to bed. “’Mum vomited all over the floor and was screaming at Dad calling him a white demon. Dad had to go outside the gate. [A] was holding mum and she was falling over.’”

Child C told the social worker that she had tried to commit suicide by jumping out a window, then her mother had told her suicide was evil and to go to bed and say her prayers. C had vomited with the stress. “She said that when she was younger she was a bad eater, and one time she dropped food on the floor and put it in the bin. ‘Mum picked chips out of bin and forced them down my throat and said she didn’t care if I died.’ [C] could recall it quite clearly,” said the social worker. She had then described her Mum’s room as covered in clothes, beer and whiskey bottles.

The social worker told the court that she was concerned about the mother’s mental health and that the father was leaving the children on their own at home with a woman who was getting sick and screaming. She began to have serious concerns about his role.

The children had never been examined by medical professionals. A GP was asked to examine the children and made extensive recommendations for therapeutic interventions for children C and D, as well as socialisation opportunities. A referral was made to the medical card department. There was on-going liaison with the Education Board for hours of tuition. A referral was also made to a unit for child sexual abuse therapy.

“I felt they required a whole selection of services to determine what their needs were,” said the social worker. “The lack of engagement by the parents was one of the most serious, it was the least engagement I have experienced from parents whose children have been removed from their care. My view was that their health, development and welfare had been avoidably impaired or neglected. It was daunting to realise that three children could have survived in these circumstances. They are to be commended for their resilience.”

Mother: “I have seen groups of friends smoking and drinking and on drugs. Would you call that socialisation? You said you were extremely concerned that my children were not socialising?”

Social worker: “What I think the mother was depriving the children of was that there was no outside stimulus, they couldn’t identify anyone in the community they had regular contact with apart from outings with their father on Saturday. The socialisation of three children not involved in anything outside home is a concern.”

Educational Welfare Officer

The educational welfare officer told the court that there had been previous involvement between the family and the National Education and Welfare Board (NEWB). They had been before court 16 times before 2000 for the non-school attendance of her daughters. The mother had been reluctant to send in an application form to register to home-school.

By 2009, although registered, the mother had failed to comply with the assessment process and was informed that her children were being taken off the home-schooling register. She was told to put them into a recognised school.

Senior Education Welfare Officer CFA

The senior education and welfare officer of the CFA told the court that he had become involved with the case in late 2012 when it was referred from the NEWB. He tried to call out to the house on five occasions, but there was no response. He had been trying to establish if the children were registered in a school and to make contact with the parents. As far as the NEWB was aware they were not registered.

There was no provision to bring proceedings unless the children’s names were on a school attendance notice, he told the court.

Judge: “You had made enquiries and could not determine they had been subsequently registered in a school. Was it your policy then to just leave the children in abeyance?”

Senior officer: “It would be very much a welfare approach we would adopt rather than proceeding down the route of prosecution before establishing the facts.” The board wrote and called out. After a number of months they heard of the Interim Care Order application.

The judge pointed out that that was late 2013, a year later. “Your policy was not affording you contact with the parents.”

“There was no dedicated officer in the area at the time due to the moratorium in recruitment, I was trying to cover a number of vacant posts,” explained the senior officer.

HSE Clinical Psychologist

The clinical psychologist with the HSE told the court that she had carried out an assessment of the three children quite soon after they came into care. She gave detailed assessments of each of the three children, who had some similarities in their profiles within the psychometric assessment, such as overall ability within an average range, difficulty in areas of social comprehension and social knowledge as to how the world works.

They had a below average working level of memory retention and information processing speed, and no exposure to children’s literature at all, with reading ability and comprehension below their age. They had also had no exposure to multiplication or division, so they had difficulty retaining or manipulating small problems.

The children had had a very unstructured daily routine. They rose late and had breakfast with whoever was up and spent the morning drawing or playing video games. The mother prepared pots of food at night and they would see what was there. Sometimes she would join them for lunch or they would bring it to her in her room.

From 2010, TV had been banned from the house as the mother told them people were watching them through it, “after that it was DVDs and old VHS tapes,” said the doctor.

They had been exposed to a dysfunctional system of parenting with inadequate care and subjected to their mother’s paranoid beliefs and outbursts. Their father appeared as a positive presence, but with a passive role and he was not a protective factor.

The children were well aware of their mother’s mental health difficulties, which had begun when Child A was 10. Before that things were described as normal.

Child B had a much lower self-concept than average with moderately elevated depression. She was grappling with certain things such as being liked and being accepted by her peers. She had spent long periods living in her own world debating issues she had read about with herself. B could discuss intellectual and philosophical topics but had no knowledge of normal relationships.

She had only one happy memory of her mother. She described staying up late so she could sleep longer in the day and avoid her mother. She spoke of a paranoid household, with a mother preoccupied with searching for conspiracies. Although she understood her mother was unwell, her fears had transmitted to her and she tended to feel a sense of threat about approaching people when she was out.

Child B had described her father as controlled, emotionally abused by the mother and with low self-esteem himself. She had threatened him with no contact with the children and he was not able to stand up against her. They did meet with paternal aunts and uncles when younger but the mother insisted that stop. “[Child B] has suffered from developmental difficulties, in terms of intellectual, social and educational development in the context of her environment,” said the psychologist.

She had huge anxiety about integrating and making friends. There had been long term exposure to dysfunctional parenting; her mother’s fear, physical abuse, anger, and an incident of sexual abuse which was part of a separate investigation. She had been traumatised by these experiences and was tremendously vulnerable, said the psychologist. She had been unable to integrate into multiple foster families and was currently living in a residential unit where she was happier.

Child C was mildly elevated on the depression scale and judged herself quite harshly. She felt she could make friends and was keen to go to school and integrate socially, she was the least apprehensive of all the children about the world and had described her mother’s paranoid delusions as “bullshit”.

Child D had had the longest exposure to the disordered situation and had poor social comprehension. He did not find it easy to talk about himself and was not very well attuned to the emotional or psychological dimensions of situations. On the six occasions she met him he had good eye contact, but his speech was indistinct at times, his phraseology off. He was curious about social conventions and oblivious to them. He was socially unaware with eccentric interests.

He was described as pacing up and down the garden by his foster carer, talking to himself. He existed in a fantasy world of possibilities.

He was markedly anxious about school attendance and had a fear of speaking out in class. He had huge worries about being liked, with fears and apprehension about becoming involved in school, said the psychologist.

The children were at risk of intellectual, emotional, educational and social neglect if returned home. The psychologist categorised the developmental impairment of Child D as neglect.

The mother asked the psychologist if the foster mother for Children C and D was “in lesbian relationships or a believer in strange relationships like this?”

“Good Lord, the foster mother has been vetted, I’m not sure whether you feel the child is at some risk, but that wouldn’t be my impression,” answered the psychologist.

“Do you understand my concern that my children would not be sexually molested or brain-washed into being gays or lesbians?” asked the mother.

The judge asked the psychologist if it appeared to her that the children had been adequately home-schooled. “No, the children had been self-taught,” said the psychologist, “there was no provision in the daily routine of any structured learning time.”

Guardian ad litem

The Guardian ad litem told the court that the mother had outlined a conspiracy, that she continued to believe the children had been abducted from her care.

Regarding the children’s own wishes and feelings, she told the court that each

child had consistently said they wanted to remain in the care of the CFA and did not want to return to the care of their mother. Each child had expressed a desire to progress and attend education. They really wanted to integrate into the world, the GAL told the court, integrate into society, and into activities: “It’s as if they viewed this world through television prior to coming into care, they are eager to integrate but nervous of the realities about that.”

The GAL had met the mother in late 2013 and had had concerns about her mental health and her varied accounts of alcohol use. She had found it difficult to engage her in conversation about the children. The father had been present but he had not interacted and had agreed with the mother’s account of events. This had raised concerns around his capacity to act as a protective factor for the children. Both parents stopped attending court in early 2014 and refused to meet with her.

The father believed the care they received with their mother was satisfactory and there were no concerns prior to them coming into care.

The GAL told the court that in June 2009 the senior education officer had contacted the social work department due to a concern about the mother’s lack of engagement. She was refusing to allow the National Education Board to assess the home education of the children, and the children were being neglected. The officer had said he was worried this family may have fallen through the net.

The GAL was concerned as to why further action was not taken at that point, that there was no record or initial assessment and no attempt to meet with the family. It seemed to be looked at as purely an Educational Welfare Board issue, the sole focus was put on a school attendance issue; other concerns that were raised were not assessed.

“Despite the fact the education and welfare officer raised these concerns about lack of engagement, education, mental health, neglect, and inadequate cognitive stimulation, that ‘this was a family that may have fallen through the net’ is a belief that I would share,” said the GAL. The social work department had not attended any meetings in relation to this family.

In July 2009, a preliminary assessment was completed, according to the education and welfare officer. Assessors had been allowed into the home, no child protection concerns were noted, but the children were behind in the areas of maths and English relative to other children of their age. He recommended a review in four months’ time, but the case was closed in the social work department and it was not followed up.

In July 2012 the Educational Welfare Officer had contacted the social work department and reported the mother was not engaging again, she said.

“A year later the three children, in their own words, took it into their own hands and escaped from their home. I find it very concerning they had to take their own initiative and escape in that way,” the GAL told the court. Concerns had been noted and not been followed up, she wished to refer the matter to the Ombudsman for Children for an investigation.

“I do feel that this situation needs to be investigated further, it would give me concern as to how matters of this kind are dealt with in general, in particular difficulties in terms of follow up – there may need to be a review of how agencies work together.

“I have recommended further contact between the social work department and Garda specialist interviewers to clarify if statements made to both are consistent, in terms of verifying the credibility of the statements.

“The mother has referred to babysitting other children in the area, the HSE have responsibility to all children in the area, so that other children are not at risk,” the GAL said.

The GAL found all of Child B’s statements credible. While B had not disclosed sexual abuse to her, she had referred to it and the GAL was aware of the allegation. The GAL also told the court that the mother had left the three children alone in the care of Child A for six months while she went to Africa.

Child B had had 11 placements, taking into account respite placement.

The GAL read statements which the children had made which described physical and emotional violence by the mother. B said her mother was crazy and “it’s like she has two personalities.” She said she was hit by her mother “lots of times” and she had got on her hands and knees to beg her to stop beating her. She said her mother drank a lot and was “completely paranoid” and she thought people were watching them through the television and through laptops.

“Mom never let us have friends. I’ve never been inside a school,” she said. She said she did not want to have anything to do with her mother and would like to see her father on his own. “He is kind of a victim too. He is scared of her too.” She wanted to stay in care and really liked her psychiatrist.

Child D told her that his mother was “insane”. He described an assault by his mother on Child B, she told him she had beaten Satan out of [B] and now she is a good girl. He said his father listened to everything his mother said. He also said: “She used to pee in a bucket as she was too lazy and would make me empty it. It was gross,” he said.

The GAL submitted a draft letter to the Ombudsman for Children seeking an independent review of service provision for the family in this case. She said that, from reviewing the social work file on the case, she was concerned about the service delivery and there had been a possible lack of communication between the various agencies.

Child B had raised a lot of questions about why they had not been assisted before and why people had not intervened earlier. She was aware that police had been called to the home previously. “I feel they (the children) have been very badly let down by the parents and a number of state agencies and it would be important for them to have it clarified for them in the future,” said the GAL. She applied to have the in camera rule lifted so that the letter seeking the review could be sent to the Ombudsman.

“The things I am being accused of are lies,” the mother told the court. She said she knew her children did not tell lies so the lies “have been made against the children and me.” She said the lives of her children were not in safe hands. The father told the court: “I love the kids very much and I would like them back in the family.”

The judge said he was satisfied the threshold had been met for the granting of Care Orders in respect of the three children. He put the matter back for a number of weeks to allow a placement meeting and Child in Care review meetings to take place. He would give his reasoned decision on that date.

The judge said he would allow the application to have the matter referred to the Ombudsman for Children. It was an extremely difficult case and the children had shown remarkable resilience. He asked the parents to meet with the social workers in order to resume engagement with them. He asked the GAL to pursue the treatment of B’s scar. He also asked that particular attention be given to D’s request for access to the family pet.

The mother told the judge: “We feel our children are held hostage in places we don’t know. What about our rights as parents?” The judge assured her that her rights had been respected but the court had been asked to make a decision and had made it.