Dublin District Court grants a care order until 18 for young girl whose mother had been in care – 2023vol1#39

A judge of the Dublin District Court granted a full care order until 18 years of age for a young girl whose mother had been in care herself and who had been found to be unable to parent her daughter. The judge, who was very sympathetic to the mother, ordered the lawyers for all of the parties to provide him with a list of the services and supports that were available to the mother so that at the next hearing date he could consider what orders might usefully be made by the court to assist her in maintaining her relationship with her daughter, which he said was in the interests of the young girl.

The mother had consented to placing her daughter in care under a voluntary agreement, but she was not consenting to the application by the Child and Family Agency (CFA) for a full care order in respect of her daughter. The CFA applied for a full care order for the young girl up to the age of her majority. The application was supported by the young girl’s guardian ad litem (GAL).

The young girl’s mother was in court on the first day of a two day hearing along with an advocate from EPIC. However, she did not attend on the second day of the hearing as she was not feeling well. The judge expressed his sincere wish that the mother would have the opportunity to put her case to the court in person. He acknowledged that the information put before the court had been extremely difficult for the mother to hear. He said that, in his view, the adversarial nature of the hearings was not the best mechanism to deal with such matters, especially in this case, where the issues raised in evidence had not been the fault of the mother but rather had been brought about by the traumatic circumstances in which she herself had had to be taken into care. These had had lasting consequences which were impacting her daughter now.

The respondent father was not present in court and the CFA’s legal representative told the court that all efforts to contact him had failed.

Evidence of the clinical psychologist

The court first heard from the clinical psychologist, who had conducted a parental capacity assessment of the mother.

The psychologist said that he had met with the mother on four separate occasions and his assessment had also involved observation of a number of structured interactions between the mother and her daughter.

He said that the mother had been transparent with him, but that she had been defensive about her own time in residential and foster care. She had repeatedly referred to her own mental health as having been “behind her” and/or “in the past”, despite the fact that she had a current diagnosis of depression and she had had at least three admissions to mental health services. He said that the mother’s history of engagement with the courts and the CFA had been crisis driven.

The psychologist had experienced significant difficulties in eliciting information from the mother and that she had become progressively more defensive as the sessions became more challenging.

He had found that the mother had experienced significant physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her own mother (the young girl’s grandmother). She had described to him a very strong relationship with her father, but he had found her childhood descriptions did not support her assertions that her father had been a strong figure in her life.

The mother and father of the young girl had met while both were in care when they had been about 15 or 16 years of age. The relationship had lasted for approximately three years. The father had proposed to the respondent mother early on in the relationship and they had discussed having a child. The pregnancy had been planned. However, two days after the baby had been born, the relationship between her parents had stopped and mother and daughter had had little contact with the father since.

The psychologist told the court that as far as he was aware, the young girl’s father had spent some time in prison and had since been released but that the CFA had not been able to locate him. The CFA’s lawyer told the court that she did not know why the respondent father had been in prison. She had been aware of one incident of domestic violence while the mother had been pregnant, but the mother had claimed that the incident had been widely exaggerated. In contrast, the mother’s foster carer at the time had claimed that the incident had in fact been quite violent.

The psychologist said that the mother had had a long history of significant mental health issues as a result of her own traumatic up bringing. Reports relating to the mother had referred to a number of suicide attempts and deliberate self-harm. She had attended Jigsaw services on a number of occasions, but the psychologist said that it did not appear to him that those sessions had ever really got to the root of her mental health difficulties. As an adult, she has been in psychiatric care and has been prescribed medication. She had also had a number of emergency admissions to psychiatric care. Her difficulties with her mother had continued into adulthood and had included her mother ‘gaslighting’ her. As a positive, the psychologist said that she had participated in, and had completed, an online self-help course to help her increase her resilience and that she had readily engaged with psychiatric services.

When asked by the CFA’s lawyer if the mother had accepted any of this information, the psychologist said that while she had acknowledged that she had attended the Jigsaw services and the hospital on a number of occasions, she had denied much of the rest of what was contained in the reports.

According to the psychologist, the mother had admitted to some substance abuse. This, she said, had amounted to taking some cannabis approximately once a month but it had increased in frequency to weekly when her daughter was not present. She had been adamant that she did not use any substances when her daughter was present.

The psychologist had observed a close rapport between mother and daughter. However, she had denied the reports of social workers that there had been any difficulties during access visits with her daughter.

She had acknowledged to the psychologist that she had struggled as a single parent and that she would put daughter’s needs ahead of her own. He felt that the mother did not understand why her daughter had been taken into voluntary care and that she had shown very little insight into the fact that her daughter was engaging in a parentified role with her. He said that he had seen this during his own observations of interactions between mother and daughter. He said because her own mother had been very domineering with her, she had taken on a very passive role with her daughter.

He said that the mother had struggled with self-care and hygiene. He had used a structured, task-based approach for his assessment of the mother-daughter interactions and he had observed a lack of boundaries and structures during such interactions. He said that there was a very warm bond between the mother and her daughter and there had been no difficulties with the use of a nurturing touch between them. However, the mother had struggled to direct and guide her daughter.

He had observed that the daughter would read out the instruction for tasks instead of her mother and in so doing, had negated the assessment purpose of some of the tasks. In that regard, he said the young girl was being parentified – in other words that she had stepped into the parenting role with her mother.

He said that the mother had shown difficulties with her working memory, problem-solving skills and also with certain visual spatial skills. He noted that she had benefitted from the use of non-verbal instructions as a follow up to verbal instructions. Her cognitive function had been above borderline range.

The mother had indicated to him that she had had no difficulties with anxiety or depression and that she had no history of alcohol abuse. However, he said that she had been defensive about this with him and there had been inconsistencies – for example, while she had said that she had not had thoughts around self-harm, she still had attended mental health crisis services during 2019. He said that she did not appear to see the need for change and that although she was attending psychotherapy, this had appeared to be working at a very superficial level only. He noted that the mother had lacked unconditional supports in her life and that she had had a very limited social support network available to assist her. He was concerned that she was emotionally isolated and that caring for her daughter would aggravate this. Also, her history of substance abuse and self-harm had been significant concerns.

He made the following recommendations to the court: That the mother would engage with services on a consistent basis so that the appropriate services could be put in place for her, along with regular reviews; That the mother would engage more accurately and openly with her psychotherapist to enable her to address her mental health issues more effectively; That the mother would be assisted to develop a social support network possibly through engaging in some voluntary and/or community work (although he had acknowledged that she had said to him that she did not wish to engage in voluntary work); That the mother would engage in progressive levels of a parenting programme to assist her to develop a greater insight on how her own past traumatic experiences were affecting her daughter, in the event that her daughter were to return into her care; That the mother would be assisted in developing a consistent narrative for her daughter around the current child care proceedings; That the respondent mother would be supported in improving her own personal hygiene habits and the hygiene within the home; That a detailed and structured reunification plan would be put in place after a review period so that the mother would know what was expected of her to allow progressively more access with her daughter; and That the young girl should remain in the care of her foster carers for the time being.

The psychologist told the court that the mother had denied a lot of the findings in his report at a subsequent feedback meeting between them. She had dismissed many of the recommendations and said that her daughter should have been returned to her immediately. The psychologist told the court that, at that time, he did not feel that the mother had the capacity to parent her daughter. However, the mother had not agreed with that assessment.

When questioned by the mother’s lawyer, the psychologist agreed that it would have been extremely difficult to open up to a stranger about the very traumatic circumstances surrounding her own difficulties. He acknowledged that the mother had attended all four sessions and had been open to doing the parenting capacity assessment with him, but he did not agree with the psychiatrist’s assessment that the mother had been stable at that time.

He acknowledged that the mother’s poor social support network was an ongoing difficulty and that such difficulties arose from the fact that she had been in care for much of her own childhood. In that regard, he said that he had not recommended the engagement of professional supports as it was not possible for professionals to create such a social support network. He said that this is why he had recommended that the mother would engage in local community voluntary service even if this would be very limited. He also confirmed that the mother had a very fractious relationship with her own mother and that this relationship would never improve.

In terms of her relationship with her daughter, he said that this had been very warm and that they had been comfortable in nurture and touch. He said that while the mother had done her best to reassure her daughter and to put her at ease, she eventually took a back seat at the access sessions and her daughter had just taken over. He said that this was natural as the young girl had wanted to make the most of the access with her mother and to have a happy time. However, the interactions had been quite flat and had not been free flowing.

The mother’s cognitive function had not been a barrier to providing her daughter’s care. There had been some issues about how information was presented to the mother, but those issues could have been overcome. The progress with her psychotherapist had been extremely slow. He acknowledged that the mother had completed a Parenting Under Pressure Programme during the previous December and that this had been very positive.

He said that he had conducted his parental capacity assessment in 2021 but that it had been his understanding that matters had deteriorated rather than progressed for the mother.

He said that no blame could be attached to the mother in view of her own very difficult and traumatic childhood background. However, it also had to be seen from her daughter’s point of view. The mother’s traumatic childhood had also not been her daughter’s fault and it was necessary that her welfare would now be put front and central.

He recognised that the mother had difficulties in trusting the professional services which had been understandable and that her own life had lacked any family or services support and that it was therefore very difficult for her to put these in place now.

Evidence from the CFA’s Case Manager

The case manager assigned to this case told the court that the report that had been submitted to court dated from October 2022. She said that the author of the report had supervised several of the access meetings between the mother and her daughter. She gave a summary of the reports from various access meetings from November 2021 through to December 2022.

She said that there had been 32 access visits over that time. Most of the access visits were unsupervised and had usually involved the mother bringing a snack for her daughter, helping her do her homework and then engaging in some play activity such as going shopping or going to a play centre. The case manager said that she had facilitated some of the access meetings and that she had been present for the first 10 to 15 minutes and the last 10 to 15 minutes of the access. She had observed that there would often be not much communication between mother and daughter and that she would have had to prompt the conversation.

She reported that for most of the access the mother had been unkempt and not clean. Sometimes she had appeared to be in a daze and not interacting with her daughter. She had first observed that the mother was limping in Spring 2022. This had since become progressively worse. Early on, she had suggested to the mother that she should get medical treatment for her injury. However, she had refused to do so.

She said that due to the leg injury, her walking pace had reduced. She reported that on one occasion, the young girl had become very distressed as her mother had wanted to cut her hair. She had had to direct the mother to stop cutting her daughter’s hair and the access meeting had to be stopped as a result.

The mother had been late arriving at several of the access meetings. At one such meeting, for her daughter’s birthday, the mother had arrived 40 minutes late, she had appeared pale, and her general appearance had been unkempt. The mother had brought their dog to some of the access visits which had been welcomed by her daughter.

Over time, the case manager had observed that the mother’s limp had disimproved and that she often struggled to enter buildings and other venues where the access had been taking place. She said that during the most recent access visit, the mother had presented very poorly. She had been really struggling to walk, she had been hunched over and very unkempt. Throughout the access, the mother had appeared to be in a daze.

Overall, she said that there hadn’t been a natural flow of conversation during the access meetings and often it had been the daughter who would instruct the mother on how to play a particular game. Often, the mother did not appear to be fully interacting during the visits. In many instances, the daughter was the one who had made the effort to end the access early.

When asked by the mother’s legal counsel if there were any positives to the interactions between mother and daughter, the case manager said that the mother was very caring with her daughter and that she had put a lot of effort into preparing for the access visits. She acknowledged that the mother had a lovely relationship with her daughter and that she encouraged and supported her.

Day Two: Evidence from the allocated social workers

On the second day of the hearing, the court heard from the social workers that had been allocated to the young girl.

The first social worker giving evidence to the court stated that she had only been allocated to the case for the previous 7 to 8 weeks.

She said that the CFA had received a phone call from a women’s refuge to say that they were concerned about the mother, that she could not hold herself up and that she was not able to communicate. She had been taken to hospital and the daughter was alone.

The social worker said that she had not met the mother or her daughter previously but that there had been five previous referrals concerning the mother’s mental health on file and that some of these referrals reported that the mother’s mother (the young girl’s grandmother) had been terrorizing the mother in her own house. She said that this was having an effect on the young girl who had been told by her mother that her grandmother was poisoning her and that she was watching them. In that regard, she said that the young girl was being exposed to her grandmother’s emotional abuse of her mother and her mother was unable to protect her daughter from these frightening conversations. The CFA had wanted to apply for an interim care order, but the mother had agreed instead to her daughter going into care under a voluntary agreement and she had engaged fully in that regard.

The social worker said that the young girl’s father had been in prison at the time having been found guilty of a charge of grievous bodily harm.

She said that the mother had had a very high level of access with her daughter and had visits about twice weekly. While she acknowledged that there had been some positives, she said that when the mother had not been feeling well she retreated into herself and her daughter would have to take over leading the visit.

She had also supervised several telephone calls between mother and daughter. During such calls, the mother had been very quiet, with her daughter having to ask questions to get the conversation going. She said that there had been some evidence of very good parenting, but that they were now in a different situation. The mother could not accept that her feeling unwell was a worry for the social worker. At one access, the mother had been unwell, the Gardaí had been called when she had been found unable to stand up and unresponsive. She had been admitted into A&E for 36 hours for emergency psychiatric services. The social worker had been very concerned that if this had occurred while the mother had been on her own with her daughter, it would have become a very unsafe situation for the young girl.

She said that the young girl had been scared of her grandmother and her current foster family had done a huge amount to make her feel safe. She said that the young girl had told her foster carers significant details of how her mother had suffered sexual abuse at the hands of her grandmother and that these details had been very disturbing for such a young girl.

When the social worker had asked the mother about this, her response had been that her daughter was her best friend. She had not understood how her mental health could have had an impact on her daughter and how she might have been scared by the information she had been sharing with her.

A second social worker also gave evidence. She stated that she had been allocated to the case in February 2021. She said that her evidence concurred with all that had been previously put before the court.

She said that the first engagement plan had been finalised in late 2021 and that the plan had been developed in line with the parental capacity assessment report and its recommendations. The plan had been presented to the mother to ensure that she was happy with its contents and the objective at the time had been to work towards the young girl’s return home to live with her mother.

She said that the plan had included hosting various social network meetings and the putting in place of an educational programme for the mother.

The social network meetings had involved the mother’s father and aunt. They had tried to identify other network members and had succeeded in identifying one new member – a neighbour and friend of the mother. All of the scheduled network meetings had been held and the mother had contributed to the meetings well. However, towards the end of the engagement plan, concerns had arisen with regard to the mother’s deteriorating presentation, her leg injury and with her mental health. There were also concerns that the network had become weak.

The mother’s father had been ill, the mother had fallen out with her aunt and they were no longer on speaking terms. In addition, the mother had moved apartments and as a result, the third member of the network was no longer a close neighbour and was not able to provide her with the necessary support.

The social worker had been very concerned about the mother’s leg injury and by the fact that she had not received any medical attention for it. She eventually persuaded the mother to go to her GP who referred her immediately to A&E. The medical team in A&E had wanted to admit the mother into hospital for a number of weeks but she had made the decision to self-discharge. The mother told the social worker that she had discharged herself because of what she had believed would have been a negative impact on her daughter.

The social worker said that a reunification plan had been developed to go from semi-supervised structured access that would subsequently progress to fully unsupervised access. However, the team had found that the young girl was very upset when she was leaving the access visits but had not been able to explain why. The plan had reverted to supervised access as a result.

The social worker said that from Summer 2022 onwards there had been a significant decline in the quality of the access engagements. This had related not just to the mother’s physical presentation but also to her mental health and low mood and also to the fact that there had been very little engagement by the mother during the access. Access had been reduced to once weekly and a structure had been put in around the visit. These measures had improved the quality of the access visits.

Recently, the mother had been quite argumentative with the social worker about the activities that would take place during the Christmas access visit. Eventually, the activity was agreed, but the mother was very late in attending the visit. When she finally arrived, she did not present well and she struggled to stand up properly as a result of her leg injury. She had brought Christmas presents for her daughter and they then proceeded to get some food. Despite this, the social worker noted that there had been very little engagement by the mother with her daughter.

The social worker concluded that the team had exhausted all avenues but the reunification plan had failed. They had had to return to a supervised access plan and even then, the mother had struggled. She said that they were still working on developing a network engagement plan. The mother had been discharged by the community mental health team during the summer of 2022 as she had not attended for three appointments. She said that the team would assist the mother to engage more fully with her psychiatrist in order to address her mental health issues more substantively.

With respect to the young girl, the social worker said that she was a very competent bubbly girl who was excelling in her placement. She loved her mother and her mother loved her. The young girl had taken on a very caring role in relation to her mother. When she had been informed of the reduced access arrangements with her mother, she had expressed more concern for her mother than for herself. She had told her mother what she should be doing to help make herself feel better.

Initially, the social worker said that the young girl had struggled to express her emotions. However, they had worked with her to improve this and since this the young girl has been able to express her emotions much better to her foster carers and the social workers. She had originally presented as an anxious child, but she was no longer so. She had made a lot of friends and was engaging well in various extracurricular activities.

The social worker said that the foster placement was meeting all her needs. She loved school and wanted to go there every day. She was getting on very well in school despite some educational gaps in the past. She had not needed any additional educational supports. Play therapy had been made available for the young girl and she was attending this regularly.

She said that the young girl had not had any substantive additional health issues.

She was very comfortable with her foster carers and was happy to speak with them about her feelings. The social worker said that the long-term matching process had begun with her current foster carers.

The social worker informed the court that initially they had been in contact with the respondent father prior to his release from prison. He had expressed a desire to engage with social workers following his release. However, he had subsequently withdrawn his permission for the social workers to contact his probation officer and now there was no means of contacting him.

The social worker said that they were seeking a full care order for the young girl until she reached the age of majority. She said that even though the girl was very young and the order would be in place for many years, the young girl needed consistency, day-to-day routines and clarity regarding her future. She said that they had considered applying for a care order for a shorter period of time, but did not see this would have been of any value. They had also considered applying for a supervision order, but had felt that this would not have offered sufficient protection for the young girl. She said that the voluntary care agreement had been a short-term arrangement but that the young girl needed security for long-term.

The mother’s lawyer asked the social worker if the network support meetings would continue given how limited the network had become. The social worker said that further network meetings could be facilitated, but that the network itself was not strong enough and was not doing what it was supposed to do. She agreed with the mother’s lawyer that the mother had shown a capacity for reunification with her daughter, but she was worried that the mother had not demonstrated meaningful engagement with her daughter in more recent times. She said that the reason the CFA was applying for an order until 18 years of age was so that the young girl would have security in her placement. She said that they had worked through a very detailed plan with the mother, and that even with extra supports, that plan had failed.

She confirmed that if there was a huge change in the mother’s circumstances in the future, then she would be happy that the matter could come back before the court. She added that she had spoken with the young girl and asked if she would be happy to stay with her foster carers and she was happy to either do this or to be reunited with her mother if the circumstances were right.

The mother’s lawyer told the court that her client would be devastated if a full care order was granted up until her daughter turned 18 years of age. Her client had said that she must have done something right to have raised such a beautiful young girl that was doing so well. The social worker confirmed to the court that it was envisaged that structured access between mother and daughter would continue and that they would support the access to be enjoyable and not stressful.

Evidence of the GAL

The GAL told the court that she had been appointed to girl in 2021, she had met her on numerous occasions and that she had also attended various review meetings.

She said that the current foster placement was meeting the young girl’s needs at the moment. She had been generally healthy with just the usual bouts of colds etc. She had recently recovered from a bout of tonsilitis. The young girl was doing very well at school. She had taken a bit of time to settle in but now had a good group of friends.

The GAL said that she was satisfied that the girl was getting the supports that she required and that she was engaging in ongoing play therapy as had been recommended. The girl was able to speak openly to her foster carers and to express her emotions.

She said that she had observed that access between the young girl and her mother had been difficult at times. However, when the mother had been focused on her daughter, the engagement had been very positive. The young girl always wanted to see her mother.

She said that once the reunification plan had started, the access visits had become more difficult. The quality of the access had improved when the number of access visits had been reduced and they had become more structured.

The GAL told the court that she recommended that access should continue to be supported if and when the care order was granted. She emphasized that the mother was the young girl’s main person and that it was very important that her relationship with her mother be maintained even if her mother had been found not to be capable of parenting her.

She said that the young girl had been aware of the reunification plans and that professionals had been working with her mother with a view to facilitating such a reunification.

She said that she had met with the girl in June following an access visit that had not gone well. She had spoken to her about the fact that there would be two plans in operation in parallel – one for reunification if the situation allowed it and a second plan for her to remain with her foster carers in the event that the reunification plan did not succeed. The GAL said that the girl had understood the situation. At the time, the reunification plan had envisaged the girl having some overnight visits with her mother. The GAL said that she had been very excited about this and had been very disappointed when it did not come about. At the time, she had been only able to share her feelings of disappointment to a limited extent with her foster carers, but the GAL noted that this had improved since and that she knew that she was now in a safe secure environment.

In response to a question from the judge, the GAL confirmed that she was satisfied that all avenues had been explored to achieve a reunification. She said that the young girl had wanted to go home to be with her mother and her dog. However, more recently she had agreed with the plan to stay in foster care as long as access with her mother was maintained. She had not wanted her mum to know this because she was worried about hurting her feelings. However, eventually the young girl agreed that her mother should know this. The GAL told the court that the girl wanted to have relationship with her mother.

The GAL said that she supported the application for the full care order. She said that the young girl needed the consistency that this would bring but that she should still see her mother. The young girl was well settled in the placement and she recommended that the play therapy she was currently receiving would continue. She recommended that the young girl would be reviewed by a psychologist in approximately two years’ time and, in the event that the court made the full care order, that it would return the matter for review in approximately two years’ time also.

Judge’s comments

The judge commented that it had to be in the young girl’s best interest that her mother would be supported to the greatest extent possible. He said that if the mother was not in a good place, that it would be very difficult for her to engage with her daughter. He asked all of the parties to consider how the mother might be supported and encouraged to stay engaged with her daughter. He added that the adversarial courts system increased levels of hopelessness and despair and distrust in the CFA. It was incumbent on the system to find a way to help people in such situations.

The judge emphasised that the psychologist who conducted the parental capacity assessment had been very empathetic to the mother and her difficulties. His assessment had been that the mother had the capacity to parent if she had been able to overcome a number of difficulties. The judge said that he had listened to the evidence from the CFA’s case manager and social workers and from the GAL and he had been satisfied that threshold for making the care order had been met. With a view to providing the young girl with the necessary stability and security for the long term, the judge made a full care order for the young girl until she turned 18 years of age.

The judge ordered the parties to provide him with a written list of all of the supports that were available to the mother including any foster supports and he listed the matter for mention again in a further two weeks’ time. He reappointed the GAL to the young girl.

The judge also listed the matter to come before the court for review in the third quarter of 2024. He ordered that the parties should work to ensure that the relationship between the mother and her daughter would be maintained as much as possible.

He listed the matter for after care review in or around the young girl’s 17th birthday.