See also Vol 1 of 2018: Care order application adjourned to address citizenship concerns
During the extension of an interim care order, the District Court heard that the father of three Irish citizen children in the care of the Child and Family Agency (CFA) had been granted permission to reside in the State and was seeking reunification. The father had obtained a one-year residency permit, which could potentially be extended for four years before the father would be eligible for Irish citizenship.
The three children, all of school-going age, were taken into care two years ago from his estranged wife who struggled with long term homelessness, lack of support and mental health issues. The CFA report referred to the mother’s lack of engagement with services although medical evidence regarding her mental health was absent. The couple had two other adult children living in Ireland.
Present in court were the father, the social worker, the GAL and their legal representatives. The mother, who was not legally represented, had returned to her country of origin where she had support.
A year earlier the CFA had applied for a care order for the three children in the absence of both parents. The District court judge extended the interim care order and directed the CFA to locate the father and inform him of the proceedings. The judge also directed the CFA to ascertain the citizenship status of the mother and the children as well as the specific reasons why the mother did not attend the proceedings.
At the next hearing a few months later, both parents and one of their two adult children were present in court. The father, who was professionally qualified and self-employed in his country of origin, had just found out about the children’s circumstances and was making plans to ensure they would return to his care. A six-month interim care order extension was granted to allow the father to seek legal representation and to move to Ireland permanently so as to put himself forward to be the primary carer of the children. The mother, who was an Irish citizen by naturalisation, supported the adjournment.
It was agreed that the mental health assessment that the mother had previously failed to attend would be rearranged. The judge had directed the CFA to outsource the relevant appointments privately, if necessary, to avoid any further delays. Following a GP referral, there had been a delay by the psychiatric services in dealing with the mother. A second referral to a different mental health service followed. In the meantime, the mother was staying in homeless accommodation.
The court heard that the mother missed the parental assessment, which took some time to arrange with the adult mental health services, despite her being aware of it. She had returned to her country of origin but she had agreed by email correspondence to attend a parental assessment appointment. The CFA solicitor told the judge that there was “no point in going ahead” until she returned to the jurisdiction.
The solicitor for the father said that delays in the mother’s process had a knock on effect on her client. The CFA agreed that the parental assessment of the father would be carried out independently of the mother. Acknowledging the Agency’s efforts, the judge said: “It is important for the children that there is some progress at least with one of the parents.”
Father’s parental assessment
Four weeks later, the district court judge granted a section 47 application to lift the in camera rule to allow reports to be shared with the appropriate experts and facilitate the father’s parental assessment. The interim care order was extended on consent by the father, who was in court and represented. The GAL was also present, but the mother continued to be abroad.
The social worker told the court that she had been allocated the case two months earlier. The mother had returned to her country of origin and had very little contact with the social work department except for email. The father had come back from the same country under a four-week tourist visa. The parental assessment of the father had commenced and was ongoing. “He is working very closely with us,” said the social worker. The father had increased access with the three children during this time. There was no clarity about the timeframes for the father’s residency permit in Ireland thus there were no short-term goals.
The judge said: “He explained to me that he is trying to move his business to Ireland. Is there an update?” The social worker said that there was paperwork showing that the father had registered a business in Ireland where he intended to work in a full-time basis. He had identified office space. He was dealing with the immigration authorities and presenting himself as the primary carer of the children moving forward. The social work department welcomed those developments.
In relation to the mother, the social worker said she had advocated “very strongly” with the mental health services area to arrange the parental assessment appointment. However, she was out of the country and the appointments had to be cancelled at the last minute. “We need confirmation that she wants to proceed,” said the social worker. The fact that the mother was not in the country and continued to disengage was a significant factor.
The court heard that the eldest child (child A), who was in a residential unit, did not want to engage with any educational plan. She did not have the capacity or motivation to do the Leaving Certificate. Alternative education was being considered given that soon she would turn 18 and there was a possibility she could work with her father. “It is clear that she is struggling and she wants to withdraw from being in care,” said the social worker. Child A really hoped that she would be able to reunify with her father quite quickly. She was in great form after access to her father. She also had access with her siblings.
Child B was doing very well in school and with the foster family. The youngest sister (child C) had just moved with him to the same foster placement. He was really happy that they were together. Child C had transitioned very quickly because she had been diagnosed with autism and it was essential that her routine was maintained. Her crèche and support disability services were also changed. The foster placement was only for one year.
The social worker said that the disability support team would be in the position to educate the father about autism and how to look after the child. “The father is very engaged and very willing to spend a lot of time with his children,” said the social worker. While the Agency supported his residency in Ireland, there was a need for greater clarity in relation to the logistics involved.
The solicitor for the father told the court that her client was very grateful for the assistance of the social work department in advancing his immigration status. There was very positive evidence regarding the father who had had a very busy few months in terms of appointments, assessments and trying to set up the business. The social worker agreed that matters were progressing very well. He was focused on trying to spend as much time with the children as possible and access had been arranged accordingly. The court heard that the father was residing in shared accommodation thus the children could not have overnight access with him.
The GAL agreed that child C had transitioned very well to child B’s foster placement and the GAL supported the social work care plan. The foster carer was very committed and was taking on training to support child C who was making great progress. Child B was happy in the foster placement and felt comfortable challenging some of the rules. He was doing exceptionally well in terms of education and academic life. His father had great expectations for him. Child B was keen to move in with his mother or father as soon as possible. The GAL said that the foster carer could not give a long-term commitment to two children with such needs.
Sharing the concerns regarding child A, the GAL said she had very significant needs and her mother, with whom she had mobile remote access, could have influenced her lack of cooperation and unhappiness. She was attending therapy and it was hoped she would engage in alternative education programmes and perhaps she would undertake the Leaving Certificate at a later stage.
The father had indicated to the GAL that his wife was not cooperating with him thus he felt that he needed to pursue the care of the children alone. The GAL agreed that the grounds to extend the interim care order continue to exist and that the in camera rule should be lifted to release relevant reports and facilitate the father’s parental assessment.
Acknowledging that the father was doing the best that he could do, the judge was satisfied that it was proportionate and necessary to extend the interim care order. The judge lifted the in camera rule to release the relevant reports in order to facilitate the parental assessment.
Solicitor for the father said her client was concerned he could not be in court at the next hearing in four weeks’ time. The judge said: “He is trying to engage between two continents. I understand the complications involved. However, I am anxious that we observe carefully these children.” Noting that the mother had been in court previously and could attend again, the judge said that it would be important, at the next hearing, to confirm the dates and the reports needed, either for reunification or for the purpose of progressing the care application.
Pursuit of residence in the country
The case returned to the District Court four weeks later. The parents were not present in court. The GAL and her legal representatives were in attendance. The solicitor for the father said she had not received instructions but the extension of the interim care order was consistent with her client’s plan to reunify with the children. The father continued to pursue residence in the country on foot of an elaborated business plan.
The social worker told the court that the mother had not indicated any return dates. She continued to have some level of contact with her adult children and child A through a mobile application. This contact had impacted child A’s relationships with peers and staff in the residential unit. However, restricting contact with the mother would be more detrimental.
The social worker said that the father’s parental assessment had been completed during his last visit. Parental capacity concerns were not identified. In the future the social workers would only assess progress and support him. The social worker was positive that the father would get permanent residency imminently based on the Irish citizenship of his children. He had already registered his company in Ireland.
While the father had showed a high level of motivation and commitment with his children, there were concerns about how he would manage the children’s needs and care, particularly in relation to child C who had been diagnosed with autism. The court heard that child A, who would turn 18 in a few months, suffered from social anxiety and she struggled with people. The social worker said: “We really want to progress the case and support the father. The father is realistic about the differences between the children in terms of a reunification plan. He is also understanding of [child C’s] disability.”
The GAL believed the best solution was for the children to be in the care of their father or their mother. She said child A’s moods fluctuated. She had been allocated a worker from the same non-European country as her mother. In terms of education, they were trying to focus on one or two subjects but sometimes she would refuse to attend the grinds. The GAL said: “It is about her controlling her social interaction and the interaction with other young people. She tends to look for isolation.” Her father was of the view that, once he had his company transferred, she would help him. “I believe him, judge. He will encourage her to take courses as she becomes an adult. He is very focused on academic achievement,” she said.
The GAL said child B and child C were doing very well with the foster carers. Child B had said that he wanted to be with his mother or father. Regarding child C she said: “She is not verbal. We do not know how she sees the world. She reacts to change.” The GAL was not confident that the current crèche was a good fit for her.
The GAL told the judge that it was very hard to get a real sense of the children’s relationship with their father. The father had said that he did not know the children were in care because he was not involved. He took responsibility for this but he had not given an explanation. Now he would like to focus on being a parent.
Judge: “Is he a successful businessman?”
GAL: “That’s according to himself. He is very optimistic. He believes it would be very positive for his company.”
Judge: “Maybe he is considering Brexit.”
The court heard his wife, who had difficulties emotionally, had become a very different person than the one she used to be. “She is not well. She is not very articulate,” said the GAL. The GAL supported the interim care order application.
Based on the evidence provided, the judge was satisfied that it was necessary and proportionate to extend the interim care order. The judge adjourned the care order application under section 18 and said: “We may know the Agency’s decision in relation to the children by then.”
Reunification and timeframe concerns
When the extension of the interim care order came into court four weeks later, the court heard that the father had just been granted a residence permit and was anxious to reunify with his children.
Present in court were the father, the GAL and their legal representatives. The court heard that the mother continued to be outside of the jurisdiction. She had been served with notice of the proceedings by email.
Solicitor for the father said her client was consenting, without prejudice, to a three weeks extension of the interim care order. He reserved his position in relation to practical matters to ensure “a timely, calm, levelled and satisfactory transition of the children”. He would work with the CFA to achieve this outcome and welcomed any support or advice that would be available to him.
The CFA solicitor told the court that her client agreed with the extension but was not confident that everything that needed to be done could be achieved in three weeks. The CFA considered that a period of 28 days would be a more suitable timeframe in order to clarify the father’s housing and business situation, to carry out home visits, to liaise with the children and to assess how best to increase the access and manage the situation. Counsel for the GAL said her client supported the Agency in relation to the time frame concerns.
The social worker told the judge that the father had been very open to engaging with the social work department and his parental assessment was very helpful. The father prioritised his children which was honourable and showed that his motivation was obviously very high. “It is just the practicalities and the impact on the children that are a concern,” the social worker said. For instance, where would the children live or what schools and support services they would attend?
The father had been given residency for a year, which could subsequently be extended for four years. After this time, he could be eligible to Irish citizenship, which was his goal. The social worker explained that the father needed to get permanent accommodation in order to facilitate overnight access and observe the impact on the children over an extended time frame.
Social worker: “The children are very eager to return to his care.”
Judge: “Did you hear that? The children are very eager to return to your care. And the social work department are very eager too.”
Social worker: “Judge, a bit of time is what is needed. Because of [child C] diagnosis of autism, the child needs stability, routine and careful transition. It may take longer for her because her difficulties.”
Father: “I do understand. Not too long but longer than the others.”
Judge: “Make sure [the father] understands. The social worker is giving excellent evidence and I want to make sure he understands.”
The judge said that naturally they were all very anxious but it was important to take the appropriate time in order for reunification to work. The judge said: “It is implied that it may take longer than the three weeks that are consented. The purpose of the interim care order is to try to advance matters. The welfare of the children is the paramount consideration.” The judge acknowledged that the Agency did not anticipate any problems, but it was important to go “at the children’s pace”.
The social worker said that child A’s focus was to disengage from the social work department altogether. “If that is the case, the aftercare worker will continue to be available,” she said. The judge asked for a brief report at the next occasion in relation to the aftercare plan for child A.
There were concerns that child A wanted to return to do the Leaving Certificate, because of her father’s focus on education, which would be a lot of pressure. The judge told the father: “I noticed you are very focused on education, which is excellent. But it is something that has to be teased out between you and the social worker. It may not be in her best interest because she may not be able to achieve her Leaving Certificate. Another course that assists her without the stress may be better at this point. It is important that we go slowly.”
During cross-examination, the solicitor for the father said that her client accepted without difficulty the Agency’s best intentions and commitment. She pointed out that the function of the court was to establish whether the threshold to extend the interim care order existed. The purpose of the court was not to convene a family welfare conference. The social worker reassured the court that the absolute goal was to discharge the children to reunify the family but the Agency was trying to assess whether it was sustainable and the impact that it would have on the children.
The judge said: “It is an unusual and complex case. Two of the three children have special needs. The welfare of the children is the paramount consideration. This court is of the view that while the children continue to be in the care of the Child and Family Agency all supports should be available. If reunification was not possible for any reason, you want to make sure that the health, safety and welfare of the children are protected. It is a good story that the father is here but steps had to be taken.”
The social worker said that child B had issues in relation to his emotions. He was always very pleasant and did not get angry, which could be “exceptional resilience”. However, there were concerns given the difficult trauma he had experienced, which his two other siblings had reacted to.
Judge: “Is he getting any support?”
Social worker: “No, because his behaviour is not requiring it. He is not in crisis.”
Efforts continued to be made to identify a school with special supports for autism spectrum disorders for child C. There was a possibility that she would commence school the following year instead. A meeting with a disability team had been scheduled to provide insight in relation to her diagnosis and how to best engage with her and support her.
In relation to the mother, the social worker said that communication by email continued to be sporadic. She had updated her by email about recent developments and the prospect of reunification. She was very supportive and said that she would probably return to Ireland in the short term. The social worker told the judge that the grounds that warranted the interim care order continued to exist.
The GAL told the judge that the father was very good with his children. The recent parental assessment was very positive and she was optimistic that the father was very committed. The judge said to the father: “Did you hear? That is the best evidence you could have.”
However, the GAL supported the Agency in relation to the time frame concerns. During their time in care, the children had experienced a lot. The GAL was very supportive about the father’s ability to take care of the children but it was “untested”. The GAL’s view was that the children had to be protected and change had to be managed in a proper way.
The court heard that child A was making good progress in the residential centre. She was delighted to hear that her father had returned. Child B continued to make great progress in the foster placement. He was also delighted that his father was in Ireland and was looking forward to having access over the summer.
The GAL told the court that child C was not verbal so her views could not be ascertained. The GAL was not entirely satisfied with the crèche. There was a possibility that child C would need to change the crèche and wait for another year before starting school. The GAL said the foster carer was great and very committed. Child C needed to be managed in a particular way and the father would need considerable support to do that.
The GAL told the court that the mother’s intention to return imminently was a concern. “She is a wonderful woman but she has issues that have not been addressed,” said the GAL. The GAL was also concerned about how the mother’s return to Ireland would impact on the father. The GAL said: “There is a lot ongoing albeit I completely agree with the social worker that we want the children returned as soon as possible and the children want to return to him because they are very attached to their family.”
The judge noted that the psychologist’s report in relation to the father’s parental capacity had not been signed.
Based on the evidence and the reports from the social welfare, the GAL and the psychologist, the judge was satisfied that the threshold had been reached to extend the interim care order for three weeks on consent by the father. The judge noted that the social worker and the GAL had both expressed their delight and satisfaction that the father had obtained residence in the jurisdiction and had put himself in the position that the matter could be moved along. “There is a journey to be undertaken by everybody,” acknowledged the judge.
The judge gave directions to the CFA to facilitate access to the father with the view to assessin whether reunification could progress satisfactorily. The judge also directed that access to the mother, in case she returned to Ireland in the meantime, would be at the discretion of the CFA. All supports and services were to remain available to all the children.
Judge: “The situation has to be managed. I wish you well and I hope there is a lot of progress. It is important to keep working together. Thank you.”