A regional court granted an application by a father to discharge an interim care order in respect of his two children. The children were under an interim care order, but in the care of their father at a close relative’s home. The father was asking the court to discharge the order so that he could bring them back to his home in another European country, where they could live with his partner and their two children.
Social Work Evidence
The social worker outlined the circumstances which led to the children coming into care, which centred around the mother’s mental health difficulties. The children had an older sister who disclosed concerns for the safety of her siblings to their father. The mother admitted that she used a belt to hit the children and that she intended to give her children a strict upbringing. The older sister said the mother would switch off the electricity to save money and the children would have to shower at least twice a day and were not allowed to attend extra curricular activities.
Following the concerns raised by the older sister, the Child and Family Agency (CFA) had intervened and a safety plan was put in place. The children had spent their summer holidays with their father and his family in another Europe country and the social work department had intensive involvement from when they returned to the care of their mother after the summer holidays. The father came to Ireland upon hearing that the children were taken into care.
The social worker told the court that the mother constantly attended at the children’s school and interrupted their classes in order to check on the children. The social worker believed that the mother thought the children were not safe.
The judge asked, “does she think they will be trafficked?” and the social worker said that she did not know what the mother’s concerns were. The social worker said that the mother attended for mental health assessments and it was recommended that she be voluntarily admitted for further assessment and treatment, but she declined to do so.
The judge asked if the mother was safely able to parent the children and the social worker said that her mental health issues needed to be addressed first. The social worker told the judge that the children have said that they are afraid of their mother and have repeatedly expressed a wish to live with their father in his home country. Both parents are from the same European country and the father said that the children will continue to have contact with their maternal family if the care order is discharged.
The social worker said that there was no need for the CFA to be involved if the children were in their father’s care. She said that international social work services’ checks had been carried out and there were no concerns in respect of the father.
The mother’s solicitor put it to the social worker that the father had not been in contact with the children for years. The social worker said that the father had told her that he had tried to stay in contact, but the mother made it impossible. The solicitor asked if checks had been carried out in relation to the father’s partner and the social worker said no.
In relation to the mother’s mental health concerns, the mother’s solicitor put it to her that her general practitioner didn’t sign the involuntary admission to hospital, because he did not believe that she met the criteria. The social worker was unable to comment.
The solicitor also asked the social worker about a panic attack the young boy suffered since the children were taken into care. She asked what supports he would be offered and the social worker said that if he is returned to his father’s care, the social work department would liaise with their counterparts in his country seeking supports.
The father’s solicitor asked the social worker to outlined the circumstances preceding the panic attack and she explained that the mother had threatened to kill the children’s older sister once the court business was over and that night he had a nightmare that his father died and he had a panic attack. The social worker said that he was brought to hospital and mental health services put it down to stress.
The father’s solicitor also asked the social worker about the level of absence from school and she told the judge that the children missed 70 days of school two years ago and 60 days of school last year. The social worker said that due to the difficult and strained relationship between the school and their mother the children were removed from the school and enrolled in a different school last year.
The judge asked if there had been any positive steps taken by the mother to improve the situation. The social worker said that there had not been any change. The social worker then said: “In fairness to her, she has allowed us to access the house and she is attending mental health appointments, but there has been no change in her presentation.” The social worker was of the opinion that her engagement was more superficial than meaningful.
The judge then asked about the situation in the father’s home country and the social worker said that he had a two bedroomed house and there were no concerns about the children’s presentation after they had spent two months in his care.
Evidence of the guardian ad litem
The guardian ad litem (GAL) was appointed three weeks previously in order to ascertain the views of the children. She said that she met with their school principal, who said that given that they had missed so much school, they were resilient and had made friends quickly.
The GAL said that she met with the father and also the eldest child (who was now an adult and not subject to care proceedings) who told her that she did not feel that she could tell people what was going on in the home until she had turned 18 years old. The GAL told the court that she was informed that the father had tried to stay in contact with the children and had come to Ireland on three occasions, but had only been allowed to see the eldest child once.
The GAL also met with the mother and she admitted that she slapped the children, but said that she had not beaten them. She said that the last time she chastised the children was because they were talking to their father too much on the phone.
The GAL was of the opinion that the mother did not understand the care proceedings and she did not believe there were any concerns or that the situation warranted the CFA being involved. She also had concerns about the children returning to her country of origin as they did not know how to speak the language and the father’s house was small.
The GAL met with the boy who said that he loved his time with his father and loved playing with his half-siblings and told her that he was learning the language. He said that he wanted to go and live with his father and that he would miss his aunt and cousins in Ireland, but that he did not feel safe at home with his mother.
The GAL also met with the young girl and she said that her mother hurt her older sister lots of times and hurt her too. The young girl said that her only worry was that they would have to go back to live with her mother and she expressed a wish that she wanted to return with her father to his home very quickly.
The judge asked if the summer trip was positive for the children and the GAL said that it was. The GAL told the judge that she had no child protection concerns regarding the father.
The judge asked if the GAL would have any child protection concerns if the children were returned to their mother and the GAL said that she would be recommending a forensic parental capacity assessment and told the judge that she had a number of concerns following her conversation with the mother.
The mother’s solicitor put it to the GAL that as she had only been appointed a number of weeks previously, she could not comment on the wishes of the children. The GAL acknowledged that there was a limited time-frame and explained that was why she would be looking for a full parenting assessment.
The solicitor for the father asked: “Are you happy that there was no influence by any third party and they wished to return?” and the GAL said that she was happy it was their wish to return with the father.
Evidence of the mother
The mother gave evidence and said that she believed it was in the best interest of the children to stay at home with her and to stay in school in Ireland. The mother acknowledged that she had some mental health difficulties and said that she attended a psychiatrist. The mother did not believe it was the children’s wish to return to their fathers care and said: “It is hard for them because they haven’t seen me for a long time and they are sad.”
The solicitor for the father cross-examined the mother and it was established that the mother had put a knife to her older daughter’s throat and had slapped the children with a belt. The mother admitted to threatening the older daughter by saying that if the knife evidence was given in court, she would kill her. However, the mother said that this was just a joke.
During cross examination, the mother said that she had no mental health issues, but admitted to hearing voices in her head.
Evidence of the father
The father gave evidence and told the judge that he came straight to Ireland when his eldest daughter told him what was happening in the family home. The father said that the children would have contact with both sides of the family in his home country and they could have contact with their mother via Skype. He said that she could visit them, but if she tried to take them back, that would be a problem.
The father said that the mother had already done horrible things to the children and he did not want them to go through that any more. He said that his eldest daughter was also going to return with him and that he would get her a flat to live in.
Decision of the court
The judge said that there were two applications before the court: a private law application that the father be given sole custody to relocate to his home country, and the discharge application. The judge said that she was cognisant of Brussels II bis and quite satisfied that the children have expressed their wishes through the GAL.
The judge discharged the interim care order and said: “I am going to give the father sole custody of the children. The fact is that he resides in [European country] the children want to go back there where life will be normal. I’m not worried about concerns about the language and I am satisfied the father has the best interests of the children at heart. The passports are to be given to the father. Skype contact is to be maintained with the mother and I am noting that the children’s wishes have been taken into consideration”.
The mother looked for a stay and the judge refused the application for a stay on the grounds that there was an immediacy requirement.
The judge directed that the social worker write a letter to the international social work services indicating that the children receive whatever therapeutic or counselling services they required.
The judge also directed the Courts Service to provide an annex to the Courts Service in [the father’s home country] as evidence of the orders of the court.
Finally, the judge told the father to keep the lines of communication open between the mother and her children.