Court hears of social workers’ efforts to bridge cultural gaps – 2019vol2#25

During the extension of an interim care order in respect of a teenager, child A, the court heard that she and her three younger siblings had come to the attention of the Child and Family Agency (CFA) eight months earlier. A neighbour had reported hearing children crying loudly and the police were called.

The mother explained that the children were fighting and things “went out of hand”. Just before leaving, child A approached the Gardai to tell them that the mother had been hitting the children with a stick. The children were removed from the care of their parents. During medical examination, one of the children showed marks. A safety plan was put in place and the children returned home to their family four weeks later.

However, child A presented herself to the Garda station alleging that it was not safe for her to return home. Initially the parents agreed to voluntary care for a period of one week. After that the parents withdrew consent but child A did not wish to return home. An interim care order was granted and subsequently extended. The court heard that both parents did not intend to participate in the proceedings although the social worker had been in contact with them. Present in court were the solicitor for the CFA, the social worker, the team leader, the GAL and her solicitor.

Leaving certificate

The social worker told the court that child A had been significantly stressed in the last few months. Unable to eat or sleep, she had had difficulty retaining information. Although the situation had improved, she preferred to defer the upcoming Leaving Certificate exams to the following year. The school principal, who was very fond of child A, had tried to persuade her to take the exams. However, she had very high expectations of herself and wanted the best results in order to study law.

The foster carer had identified two suitable schools nearby and child A was happy to go to either. In the meantime, she found herself part-time work and her shifts could vary weekly. “It keeps her stabilised during the summer,” said the social worker.

Shame to the family

Child A was worried about her siblings. The mother was willing to work with the CFA but refused to work with the same social worker because “the trust was gone”. The social worker told the court that she would continue working with child A and a new social worker had been allocated to deal with child A’s family.

It was very important to keep open dialogue with the parents but every effort made by the social worker to engage had been turned down. The parents had previously attended the hearing but they left half way through. The father was represented by a solicitor who subsequently came off record. He had not participated since. The court heard that the events have brought shame to the family within their religious community.

Solicitor for the GAL told the social worker that child A was very mindful of her siblings and that it would help if there was clarity on what was happening. The court heard that the neighbour next door, who initially reported the situation to the Gardai, had not indicated any further concerns.

The social worker told the court that the threshold for an interim care order in respect of child A continued to exist.

Cultural gap

The team leader told the court that she had had a lot of telephone conversations with the mother who worked full-time. The team leader had tried to be as flexible as possible making herself available late nights and weekends. The mother engaged well on the telephone. She felt insulted that the social work team was trying to engage a cultural mediator. She said she was perceived as “a black African fool”. It was “her life” and she was accountable to “God and God alone”.

As the mother had “very intense Christian beliefs”, the involvement of a pastor had been considered in order to bridge the cultural gap. The discussions were ongoing. When the team leader suggested a pastor with whom she had worked before, the mother indicated that it would be a good idea. She would attend only if they listened and took on board her views. The team leader and the new allocated social worker were due to meet soon to follow up.

The court heard that the mother had suggested meeting in a coffee shop because the CFA local office was not open at the weekend. However, it was not a suitable venue given that the parties would have to go through the allegations. The mother did not want to have the conversation in front of the children. The team leader had offered child care services as her helper was not available. She had also offered transport. Ultimately, they agreed that the team leader could visit the house but not to speak about the allegations. “With the involvement of the pastor we will hopefully move forward,” said the team leader.

The judge noted that the matter of appropriate cultural mediation had been brought to the court three months earlier. The solicitor for the CFA acknowledged the delay and told the court the CFA would ensure that the process would be expedited.

The team leader told the court that they visited the family on a weekly basis. On the basis of evidence from child A, the social worker team was considering calling a child protection conference for the other children. However, there was no evidence beside child A’s allegations. The neighbours who initially reported the parents had no concerns since.

The solicitor for the GAL asked about the efforts made to engage the family in a preventive programme designed to support families with welfare concerns or families who do not necessarily meet the threshold for care but concerns still existed. The team leader acknowledged that it had been difficult because both parents had refused to engage with the social work team.

The judge asked if A had access to her younger siblings. The team leader said that A would like to meet her siblings but that it was necessary to balance the needs of A and the needs of her siblings at home. In particular she was concerned about the impact of forcing the younger children to meet A. The team leader was hopeful that the situation would change once they began working with the parents with the assistance of the pastor. The team leader told the court that a safety plan for all the children was in place.

The GAL said that A was very settled in her foster placement. The foster carers were very flexible and willing to help. Child A had her friends staying with her for sleep-overs. A was very clear that she did not envisage returning home. She was focused on friends, social activity, work and exams.

A was worried about her siblings, in particular about their reactions and specific phrases used. When A lived with her parents, they had told all the children to answer “my family keeps me safe” if anybody asked any questions. She was upset to hear that her siblings were using that phrase.

The GAL had spoken to the mother to try to progress the case from A’s perspective. A’s mother considered that the teenager could make her own decisions at that point in her life and that her role could only be “as a spiritual guide” for her daughter. A’s mother did not see the point in meeting with the GAL.

Supporting the extension of the interim care order, the GAL said that it was very positive that the pastor was willing to mediate.

The judge was satisfied that it was necessary and proportionate to grant the extension of the interim care order.