Emergency Care Order for young children left alone – 2013vol3#27

A judge made an Emergency Care Order in respect of two young children who were left alone in a house by their mother who said she had left them for five minutes while she visited a nearby shop. However, a social worker from the HSE said that she had left the children on their own for a much longer time and both she and a Garda said she was drunk and aggressive. The children had been taken into care three times previously because of the mother’s drinking.

The Garda said he went to the house following a call from a social worker. The sitting room was very dirty and untidy and the children’s bedroom was “very messy”. When he entered the kitchen, the mother had her back to him and was standing in front of a large pot of spaghetti which was boiling over. When he asked her to turn it off she became very aggressive and lifted her hand to strike him. He said she was highly intoxicated and she continued to shout at him.

He had difficulty in getting through to her and there was a strong smell of alcohol from her breath. When he persuaded her to come into the sitting room he told her he was invoking his powers to take the children pursuant to Section 12 of the Child Care Act as he believed the health and welfare of the children was in immediate danger. She continued shouting and raising her hand and told him to “get out of her face”. Two social workers were present at the time and she was particularly aggressive to a former partner who arrived on the scene. The children had witnessed this.

He said the woman’s former partner had been very co-operative and he had helped him to calm her down. When the judge asked him what was the immediate and serious risk to the children, the guard replied that the mother was extremely aggressive and intoxicated and the cooker was boiling over. He told the judge that she did not acknowledge that the children were at risk. Asked if she was coherent when she had calmed down he replied “not really. She was still in my face and aggressive”.

A HSE social worker said they received a telephone call informing them that the mother had been seen stumbling on the road near her home. She went to the house with a colleague and knocked on the door. When there was no answer, she looked through the window and saw the youngest child sitting on a couch on his own. She telephoned the mother who said she was in a park and would return and speak with her.

When asked by the social worker who was minding the children the mother said she couldn’t hear her. After a number of other telephone calls during which the mother said she was in her home and hung up the phone, the social worker told her she would call the Gardaí if she did not open the door. The social worker had made a total of four telephone calls to the mother. Shortly afterwards, the mother was seen by the social worker stumbling up the road. She said she could tell that she was drunk and there was a stench of alcohol. The mother had arrived home about 40 minutes after the social workers had arrived at the house. When they went into the house, they found the two children alone with no adults present.

The social worker said they asked the mother to sit down and she did but was jumping up and down and swinging her arms. She claimed that she had only drunk two glasses of wine and had only stepped out to the shop. Her former partner, who is also the godfather of both children, then arrived and the social worker said she asked him to stay.

The mother lashed out at him several times hitting him in the face and body. “Her words were all mumbled and it was very hard to understand her. We were very concerned as the state of the home was very bad.” The mother kept changing the conversation. “It was like she forgot the reason she was there.”

She said the children were very dirty and one of them had dirty knees from being on the carpet. “We wiped his dirty knees and when he got down on the floor again, within two minutes his knees were dirty again”, she said. The other rooms in the house were also dirty and untidy. The children seemed hungry and one of them ate two bananas while she was with them. The children were now with two foster carers in another county.

The mother’s solicitor said she had been closely monitored during the previous few months and there had been no evidence of concern about alcohol or the children during a number of home visits. School attendances had been going well and this was the first complaint about excessive alcohol for some time. He said the mother was doing her best in difficult circumstances in a house which was sub-standard and she had been on a housing waiting list for 14 years.

When the solicitor told the social worker that the mother said she had been in the local shop to get some shopping and not in a park, the social worker replied that there were no groceries in her bag when she returned to the house.

The mother gave evidence that she had only had two glasses of wine and had gone to the local shop to buy cigarettes and phone credit when she got the call from the social worker. It was only about two minutes from her home. When she got the phone call she had panicked and was afraid to answer the other calls.

Asked why she didn’t go straight home after she received the first call she said she was hoping the social workers would go away. “I felt bad and guilty because I had left them,” she said. She denied having told them that she was in the park. She denied being aggressive. “I was getting more frightened and I never raised my hands to the Gardaí or social worker,” she said.

She admitted she “started freaking out” when one of the social workers put the children into the car. She said there was no risk to her children but admitted she made a mistake by drinking. She had two glasses of wine and had not “touched a drink” for 11 months.

Asked by the HSE solicitor if she had ever received treatment for her drinking, she said she had done a detoxification programme with her GP about two years ago but would be willing now to undertake some form of rehabilitation programme if one could be organised for her. She told the judge that she had not been staggering or incoherent and when he reminded her that was the evidence of the Garda and social worker, she said: “They will back each other. I understood what was going on around me”.

The judge made an Emergency Care Order, saying he accepted the evidence of the guard and the social worker. The reality, he said, was the mother did not remember what happened and the children were left at home on their own for an unacceptable length of time. At most, the time to get home from the shop after the original call would have been a maximum of five minutes.

While one could not but have sympathy for a single parent with children and little support and accommodation difficulties, there was an immediate and serious risk of it happening again. If it was established that it was “a slip” by the mother, then it might be a matter that could be dealt with quickly but he was satisfied there were grounds for making the Emergency Care Order for eight days.

“While she may not be aware of what happened, I don’t accept what she says as being in any way accurate,” he said. The judge made an order that the mother could have access to her children three times during the eight-day period, at the end of which the case would come back to court.