Child’s father travels from USA to attend proceedings for child he did not know was in care- 2022vol2#19

A judge in a rural town granted a care order for one year for a child of post-primary school age, who was the subject of an interim care order and had significant special needs. The Child and Family Agency (CFA) had applied for a full care order to age eighteen. The child’s father had travelled from the USA to participate in the proceedings as he had not been previously notified that his child was in care. He consented to an extension of the interim order to facilitate the CFA to carry out an assessment of him.

The child had written a letter to the judge, clearly voicing her wishes to go and live with her father in the USA. The judge considered the child’s expressed wishes and decided to appoint a guardian ad litem (GAL) to assist the child to understand the process of getting to know her father gradually over a twelve month period, while remaining in care.

At the start of the proceedings the judge left his position on the higher bench and moved to a lower level bench as he said he preferred not to be talking down to the parties. He said that he had read the letter from the child carefully. The lawyer for the CFA told the court that it was making an application for a full care order to age eighteen. She described the child as having significant needs as she had dyspraxia, dyslexia, dyscalculia and was on the autism spectrum.

The lawyer for the CFA told the judge that the father was consenting to a care order but was opposed to a care order until the age of eighteen. The CFA was applying for a full care to provide stability in the child’s life. The lawyer for the father informed the court that he was opposing an order to age eighteen but was consenting to an extension of the interim care order as the CFA had not had an opportunity to assess him.

She explained that it was the child herself who had taken the initiative and reached out to communicate with her father who lived in the USA. The father was unaware that his child was in care and had continued to pay the mother substantial weekly child maintenance for her. The father’s lawyer said he wished for a GAL to be appointed for the child. The judge enquired how much money had been put in the bank for the child from this weekly maintenance and the mother replied that some of the money had been used to pay for the child’s boarding school expenses.

When the judge asked the child’s father about court proceedings in the USA, the father explained that he had been charged with assault and battery on the child’s mother and had been found not guilty of a threat to commit a crime against the child. He said his penalty was two years in a house of correction. A restraining order against the father had been made in the USA fourteen years previously and the mother and child had left the USA and returned to Ireland when the child was less than two years old. When the father put the court in the USA on notice that he wished to contact his child, who had initiated the original contact with him, the court had to consider changing the restraining order and a hearing date was set for those proceedings in the USA.

The father’s lawyer informed the judge that he was now married in the USA with two very young children. The judge asked if it would be of benefit to the child to see her father and the lawyer for the CFA said that it would be supportive of this. The judge said that the father had “travelled a long way geographically and in other ways too”. He may now be an older and wiser person. The contact between the child and her father could be therapeutic and beneficial to her. The judge referred to the letter written to him by the child in which she had said she would rather go and live with her father in the USA; she wrote that she no longer wished to remain in care and that the judge was the only person who could help her.

The father told the judge that he had a room in his house for the child. However, the judge said that he “can’t jump the gun” as the child had had a very “dysfunctional and abusive childhood and upbringing”. The father could not be blamed for this as he had been kept out of the child’s life. The judge stressed the necessity to proceed with great caution and that the possibility of turning over a vulnerable young person to a new life in the USA was unlikely.

The lawyer for the CFA said that the interim care order had been for three months and that it was now seeking a Section 18 care order until age eighteen. The mother’s lawyer said that she supported the extension of the interim care order and the appointment of a GAL. The father’s lawyer said that he was very much in favour of the appointment of a GAL to help the child to understand the process but that he only consented to an extension of the interim order while an assessment of him was being carried out.

The judge asked how the child was to be prepared for her re-introduction to her father. The social worker replied that the child was really looking forward to meeting her father and it would be emotional for her. The introductory meeting with her father would be fully supervised. The judge expressed his satisfaction with this arrangement as it was bound to be a very emotionally charged meeting and he stressed that the re-introduction was to be for the benefit of the child.

Judge: “Don’t give the child any impression she’s going to live with you in the USA soon. She will be in care for one year.”

The father’s lawyer enquired about the possibility of the child and father having virtual access with each other through FaceTime if the initial supervised visit went well. The judge expressed his reservations about this proposal as it would be an unsupervised conversation and he decided to leave matters to the supervision and discretion of the CFA during the twelve months. The father’s lawyer asked about the funds paid by the father in maintenance and the judge stated that the court would expect the mother to fully account for the funds on the next court date.

The judge granted a Section 18 care order for one year to give certainty to the child’s situation. The year was to be used to “explore, check and verify matters”. The judge accepted the CFA’s recommendation for the appointment of a GAL for the child. The judge recommended that the father’s visit “not be squandered” but that the re-introduction be facilitated for the benefit of the child. A review date was fixed for a date three months later.