Case review hears of placement breakdowns – 2021vol1#28

The parents of two children in care contested the conclusion of a review of their case in the light of a recent breakdown of their placement and move to another placement. The mother was also concerned about access.

The solicitor for the mother told the court that the review was as a result of a placement breakdown for two of the children and it was not the first placement breakdown. She said there had been multiple placement breakdowns since 2018 and the matter had been frequently before the court since then.

As the move had just occurred just prior to Christmas the mother had concern for the stability of the placement, its location in a county on the other side of the country and a lack of planning with access. The solicitor said that she had been instructed to bring an access application in respect of the parents and for sibling access but that the application had not issued at that stage due to the level 5 Covid-19 restrictions.

The mother had two young children still in her care and the CFA had wanted them to travel across the country but the mother did not think this was fair on the young children. Since the child had moved placement he had not been back in school due to the pandemic and  had attended remote schooling. The mother wanted to see how the child got on in the new school before the review was concluded.

The solicitor also submitted that the review was not urgent and should not be proceeding at that that time during the full level 5 restrictions and as it was adversarial there was a need to cross-examine so there would be a number of people present in court. The solicitor said that the mother wanted to work collaboratively for the best interests of the parties rather than a highly contentious hearing where all parties had to give evidence. The mother wanted the review adjourned so she could issue an access application.

The solicitor for the father told the court that the parents were ad idem and he was surprised by the suggestion that the matter could be concluded that day during the level 5 restrictions. He told the court that there had been a number of placement breakdowns and six breakdowns in relatively quick succession.

Father’s solicitor: “The new placement was at risk because of the historical pattern and for that reason alone it should remain before the court for oversight.”

The solicitor said that access was still an issue both for parents and for the siblings and the father had given him similar instructions to issue an access application. The solicitor said that he was of the impression that the court wanted only urgent matters to be heard during the level 5 lockdown. He submitted that an adjournment would avoid duplication of matters before the court by way of a lengthy review and then an access application and it therefore made sense to adjourn the matter and keep it before the court as it was premature to conclude matters.

The solicitor for the guardian ad litem (the GAL) told the court that she was supportive of concluding the full review. Although the were some issues outstanding the GAL was of the view that it was in the best interests of the children to conclude the court process to send a signal to the children that that they were entitled to be settled in their placement.

The access application had not yet issued and it was not before the court and having regard to the best interest test the GAL was recommending that the review conclude that day. The CFA solicitor said that she echoed the GAL’s submissions and it was detrimental to the best interests of the children to keep the matter live before the court. She said the parents were entitled to bring an access application and that could be dealt with when it came before the court. The CFA also confirmed that Child B was still going to school remotely and it was not a totally new placement as he had been at that school before and the foster carers were known to him.

Judge: “I don’t have from the GAL and the CFA the point of view why it is so urgent in the middle of a crisis with all these people in court.”

The CFA said that the Child B was aware of the court proceedings and it was causing him some distress and the CFA wanted him to know that it was a proposed long term placement and the matter would not be constantly before the court, giving the child some anxiety. The mother’s solicitor told the court that the mother had no issue with undertaking to the court that she would not talk with the child about the court proceedings and the father also gave those instructions that he was prepared to give that undertaking.

The judge took the view that in circumstances where it was said to be in the best interest of the children that he had to hear the review and the matter could not be adjourned. The review proceeded with eleven people present in court in addition to the judge and the registrar.

The allocated social worker gave evidence that B had had a number of placement breakdowns since he came into care. The CFA had been working towards a reunification plan with the parents but that did not go ahead. Following a placement breakdown in an attempt to have the child remain with family he was placed with the paternal grandparents in spring 2020. The social worker said that the placement appeared to go quite well but six months later it was indicated that the placement was going to break down as the grandparents considered they did not receive enough or any support from the parents so they did not think that they could continue to care for the child in the long term.

The social worker said that she and the GAL had met with the child at school and he had indicated that he was deeply unhappy in the placement and he had felt very lonely and isolated as there were no activities in the area such as GAA, which had been promised, and that he felt he had nothing to do.

The social worker said that he had been moved to the current placement where he had lived before with his two brother but the carers had struggled to manage the behaviour of the older brother and as a consequence all three children had to move placement. She said that B had maintained some level of a relationship with the foster carer, they then reconnected and the child had asked on a number of occasions to go back to that placement. At the time the placement was breaking down with the grandparents the foster carers had decided that they were going to re-register.

Social Worker: “I met with the child in school with the GAL and we went through all options and his first preference was to move back to this placement.”

In respect of how the child had been getting on in the placement she said that he had settled really well and had reconnected with many friends he had in the area and the school he had previously attended from junior infants to the beginning of primary school was very happy to take him back. At the child in care review she said the feedback was fantastic about how the child was getting on and he had made great progress.  The social worker said that the child had remote learning during Covid and was supported by the foster carer and the adult son living in the house was helping him with his homework.

The social worker described some issues that occurred after contact with his parents that placed stress on the placement, as it impacted on his behaviour. She said that the child felt safe and secure in the placement and she was open to working with parents but that the “contact can sometimes distress the child”.

The social worker said that it was her opinion that it was in the best interests of the children to conclude the review as there had been a lot of court dates over the years. She said the children were very aware of court attendances with visits from the social workers and the GAL. The social worker said that there had been conversations from the parents about court “where the parents said to him what does he want and they would tell the judge”. It was her opinion that it was not in the child’s best interests to have the court proceedings ongoing and the two reunification attempts had not gone to plan.

Social worker: “They need security more than ever to know where they are staying. It is not a new relationship he is building and they are people he has known for a long time and he has said he wants to remain there. The children need security and can no longer be thinking am I going home or not, am I able to stay here or not. He is with foster carers who love him very much.”

The mother’s solicitor asked about when the children had moved placements and about a transfer to another social work department where there were “a lot of communication issues”. The social worker was unable to confirm whether there would be a transfer to another social work department but it was her understanding that she would remain the allocated social worker.

The mother’s solicitor outlined the mother’s concerns in respect of the distance to travel across the country to attend access and that she had young children in her care which made the travelling difficult. The social worker said that they had agreed a mid-way point and she appreciated the difficulty for the young children to travel a substantial amount of time but that there were “five children to be considered in this” and it was necessary to consider them all and agree a midway point.

The solicitor said she was instructed to issue an access application to include overnight access so that all of the travel was not in the one day and the mother had obtained a property to facilitate overnight access. The social worker said that she would have to consider how access would proceed going forward in the child’s best interests as contact had been distressing for the child.

The mother’s solicitor asked about the learning supports that were in place at the school as there had previously been difficulties with the child running away from school and he had also for a period attended a special needs school. The social worker agreed that the special needs school had not worked for the child as he was a very sociable young boy with a learning difficulty but “he was streets ahead of the other children”. The social worker said that he was settling down really well in the school he was able to return with and they were looking to support him in any way they could such as with the reduced timetable and special needs assistant.

The mother’s solicitor said that in her experience it was very unusual to complete a case and conclude a review where there was an outstanding educational assessment where it was also a welfare issue. The social worker said that the assessment was not directed by the court but the CFA had elected to carry out the assessment. She confirmed that a referral had been made and the CFA wanted him to be successful in his education and to receive all the supports he needed.

The mother’s solicitor said that the mother’s access with Child C every second month had not been occurring and she asked what the social worker did to promote access, in particular between the siblings. The social worker said that she had arranged video calls between them and she was reviewing access in line with the government Covid guidelines on a constant basis.

The solicitor asked if there was a reason why the parents had not been included in the celebration of C’s birthday. The social worker described the access dates coming up to Christmas and the mother had said that there was no issue until the child in care review and it was “never the intention to exclude the mother from any time of celebration”. The solicitor said that the siblings who were not in care had also not been part of the birthday celebration.

The solicitor raised an issue that the mother had found it difficult to contact the social worker over the months and various calls seeking a meeting had not been responded to and she asked about the communication procedure. The social worker said that she was always available and the mother had not attempted to contact her for a number of weeks.

The social worker described the child in care review meetings that took remotely place over Microsoft Teams. She said the parents had been unhappy with Christmas access arrangements and had left the meeting and on another occasion the parents were in the car driving and the connection was lost on the video call. The social worker said that she had called the parents back so that they could hear the discussion at the meeting. The social worker said that the parents had not attended the meeting for C and the solicitor said she was instructed that the parents had not received the log-in details and one of her children may have opened a message on her phone that she did not see.

The solicitor asked the social worker about any consideration that had been given to reunification with the mother after the previous placement breakdowns. The social worker outlined the previous reunification plan that could not proceed and was unsuccessful due to the breakdown in the relationship between the parents. She said that there had also been an allegation by the mother that the child had displayed sexualised inappropriate behaviour towards her and it was decided he could not return to her care.

Social worker: “I can’t describe the disappointment for the child. It was massive. He had years of that, they wanted him to come home and plans to come home and it was full steam ahead, and then it stopped. It was huge for him.”

The social worker said that after the previous foster placement had broken down they felt that a placement with the grandparents was the next best thing and they had tried to see if it could work. The social worker described how the current foster carer was very committed but she had also taken on board the reservations of the parents as the children had had multiple placement breakdowns before. The solicitor said that the mother was not criticising the foster carers but was just looking for a further review as she was sceptical in light of the history and challenges through the child’s trajectory and she was “hoping to ensure the best possible outcome”.

The father’s solicitor asked the social worker a number of questions in respect of the outstanding education issues and the estimate of the timeline for the necessary assessments. The social worker gave further detail about the school supports including the reduced timetable and the special needs assistant who it was hoped would be allocated full time.

She said it was hoped he would return to a full timetable in the near future which would be monitored by the school and that he had been engaging in school work at home which he had not done during the first Covid-19 lockdown in his previous placement. The solicitor for the father stated that there were three educational welfare issues outstanding which were a decision on the special needs assistant, a NEPS assistant and whether the child would return to a full timetable.

The father’s solicitor asked why face-to-face access was not taking place as there was no such restriction with the government Covid-19 guidelines but that it was “a Tusla policy instead”. The social worker said that she may have been mistaken and it may be a “Tusla policy” but that “in-person access is on hold at the moment for children in care”. The solicitor reiterated the point that it was a CFA policy and not in fact government guidelines to suspend face-to-face access. The CFA solicitor confirmed to the court that it was a CFA policy rather than government guidelines.

The father’s solicitor queried what regular updates of the children had been passed on to the parents. The social worker said that she had not spoken to the parents since Christmas and had received no phone calls from them but she knew that they had spoken directly to the foster carers who had given them updates.

The solicitor asked whether it would have been appropriate to meet the parents and discuss the issues that arose around access at Christmas. The social worker said the child had been distressed and that the parents had given the child a mobile phone with no consultation with the social work department and they had been making numerous phone calls to the child on the mobile phone. She said that parents had contacted the child directly to say that they would collect him to come home for Christmas which was not in line with the social workers’ plan for access and with all of the calls the child had become very distressed. The social worker said that the child was not able to manage the phone on his own with all the calls and the phone was removed from the child and he could use the foster carer’s phone for access.

The solicitor said that the father was unhappy that there was “a unilateral decision to change the access arrangement”. He said that if there were changes to the access plan that impacted the family that there should have been a meeting to discuss it. The judge queried why a meeting was necessary and said “these things happen and it doesn’t mean there has to be an inquiry and meeting” as the changes may not be a permanent feature.

The social worker said there was no plan for the phone to be returned to the child as the CFA did not feel it was in his “best interests at the moment, but maybe in time”. She said that when the child was trying to settle into his placement it was disruptive and the child had felt that he had to be secretive using the phone to contact his parents which was “not healthy for him” and that the comments the parents had made about access at Christmas and court dates were “not helping or beneficial to him”.

The solicitor asked a number of questions about the matter remaining in the court for the review to be adjourned due to the outstanding issues “for the judge to keep an eye out” and a statement of security could still be given to the children. The social worker said that the children had been in care for a long time and they know that the ongoing court attendance caused a level of stress for them and it was unsettling for time. She confirmed her professional opinion that it was in the best interests of the children to conclude the review.

The mother gave evidence to the court outlining her views in respect of the outstanding issues and that further court oversight was required. The mother confirmed that she had a good relationship with the foster carers and she had “no problem with them they are lovely people” and she had maintained contact with them.

However the mother was concerned that the placement with those foster carers had broken down a few years ago because of an older sibling. She said that the child suffered major anxiety and he still wasn’t settled as there was a “bunch of things” he was going through. The mother denied having said anything to the child about the court or the judge and that she had just shown him around the new house on a video call. She told the court how she had obtained a three bedroom house instead of an apartment and that it was her “ultimate aim” for the child to return home and that she “will fight for him as he is my child at the end of the day”.

The mother expressed concerns about the outstanding educational issues and that if the child could not settle in a placement how could he settle in school with the issues outstanding. She said that the child “wants to be with his mummy and daddy and siblings. He said to me that he wants to be with me”.

The mother gave evidence about the video call attendance at the child in care review while they were driving and she said they were not happy that the child was not coming home for Christmas and that he should have been with her in her new house for Christmas. The mother denied any inappropriate conversations with the child and said that she had supported him and encouraged him the settle in the placement.

The mother confirmed to the CFA solicitor that her hope long term was for reunification. The CFA solicitor told the mother that the CFA were obliged to look at reunification and it was “always on the radar” and if the review was concluded it did not mean that the possibility of reunification was going away.

The solicitor asked the mother if she was satisfied with the care the child was receiving and she said “not really” as the foster carer was at work and it was her two sons minding him. The mother confirmed that she would prefer the child home with her rather than with the foster carer as she was his mother. The mother confirmed that she understood that no decision of returning the children to her care could be made that day. The court was told the father was not giving evidence and was ad idem with the mother.

The GAL gave evidence to the court and provided a report. She said “today in itself is an example of why court should end”. The GAL agreed with the parents’ legal representatives that the outstanding issues should be dealt with and everyone should be sat around a table to discuss access issues.

The GAL said that Child C was in a long-term placement and was a “gorgeous child with great potential” and there were no outstanding issues for him. She said that for the court attendance she had face-to-face time with the child to discuss court in a child-centred way and the foster carer had reported that he got very hyper and it was unsettling for him and he was not able to do school work that day.

The GAL said that for C “this process should end” and it was unsettling for him which was the “bottom line”. She said that the placement was fundamental and there was room for the parents and the social workers to work well together and “for relationships to be nurtured”. The GAL said that in court “here we are all heightened” and there was analysis of every text message and a “he said and she said” dynamic which she felt was “not helping”.

The GAL acknowledged that there were some educational issues outstanding but that she felt that on balance the stability of the placement was everything. The GAL described the placement as the “last shot” and that there was a possibility that the child would need to go to residential care if it did not work. She said he is “a gorgeous child with massive potential and a really good sportsman and I don’t want him to go to residential care”.  The GAL said that the “school stuff won’t end today or tomorrow and will trundle on for a while” and the transition to secondary school would be difficult.

The GAL said that there was “massive drama in this case in the background” and that court heightened all of that. “Having the default of court means people don’t have to sort it out around a table.”

The GAL said she understood the parents’ concerns about the outstanding assessment but that everything had to come secondary to the security of the placement and “if we don’t get it right it will be residential care God knows where”. She said it was necessary to “throw everything at the placement” to get it right and get the matter out of court.

GAL: “I feel so strongly about it, it was nearly wrong for me to see the child in January but I had to do it and it unsettled him and it didn’t seem right professionally.”

The GAL also expressed the view that if the assessments were not carried out by the end of the year or if the funding was not approved there could be a court direction that the matter should be relisted in court.

GAL: “It is really important to get education right but on balance it is all futile if we don’t get the placement right.”

The judge made a number of comments about the similarities of the case with private family law proceedings and the adversarial nature and dynamic of the case. He also commented that within all of that dynamic the child was entering his teenage years where he would be changing on a rapid basis in terms of his growing up. The judge said that he had heard the evidence from the allocated social worker, the mother and the GAL and he was satisfied to conclude the review.

Judge: “I think it is very difficult for children if they get in a place where they feel that people close to them and people that they love that care for them have different views and loves and loyalties become conflicted.”

He said that the mother had identified the child’s anxiety and whispering on the phone and there was all of those things that pointed to his divided thinking. The judge commented that everyone around him had to strive to present the child with a united view. The judge noted that everyone wanted the child to succeed “whatever about the differences” and he was  satisfied to conclude the review.

The mother sought a direction from the court that if there was an intention to transfer the case to another social work department in the county where the child was placed that the CFA had to notify the mother’s solicitors so that steps could be taken that were deemed necessary. The judge agreed to make the direction that the parents be given two months’ notice if the CFA proposed to move the case to another social work district.

The GAL sought a default direction that if a NEPS assessment was not available that a private assessment be carried out and that it be done in advance of any transfer to secondary school. The judge directed that the matter was to be re-entered before the court if a private assessment or NEPS assessment had not concluded by December 2021. The judge discharged the GAL from the case.