Four Care Orders after parents concede case “unassailable” – 2015vol3#9

9. Four Care Orders after parents concede case “unassailable”

A judge made Care Orders for four children at a district court hearing in a rural town after the mother’s barrister conceded at the third day of the hearing that the Child and Family Agency’s case for the orders was “unassailable”. A fifth child, the eldest, was living with her father and was not the subject of the proceedings.

The barrister said his client, who had up to then opposed the CFA’s application, was now neither consenting nor objecting to Care Orders being made and that a continuation of the hearing would only prolong the matter. The children were already in voluntary care before the CFA sought the full Care Orders. The barrister representing the father of one of the children said his client was also neither consenting nor objecting. The other children had different fathers and they were not involved in the proceedings.

The judge said that on the basis of the evidence heard to date it was appropriate to make Care Orders for each of the four children until age 18.

During the first two days of the hearing, a family support worker and two social workers gave evidence that the children had suffered neglect over a number of years due mainly to the inability of the mother to provide for their basic needs.

The mother was one of a family of 13 who had suffered abuse and had been exposed to domestic violence. The court was told that the social services were now involved with the third generation of the family. The CFA barrister said the social services had been providing the mother with assistance over a number of years and the scale of this assistance had increased. There was no issue about her love and affection for her children but there were a number of deficits in her care for them and the CFA had a positive duty to intervene.

A family support worker gave evidence of her involvement with the mother and her family over a number of years. On her first visit she said the mother was dishevelled and unkempt. There were dirty nappies, soiled clothing and food remnants on the floor. A baby’s nappy was being changed by a very young daughter. She described the state of the house as very dirty and hazardous. She gave the mother advice on how to improve hygiene and home management.

She said the situation never improved despite regular reiteration about the need for hygiene. The young children were permitted to play unsupervised and out of sight of the house. On a further visit, she said the house continued to be quite dirty and hazardous with food stuck to plates and pans and dirty nappies and clothes on the floors. There was a stale smell of urine from one of the children who said he had wet his bed. The bed linen was dirty and there was no mattress protector on the bed. The mother said she had burnt it by mistake.

She described another visit at 10 am when the same child told her he was hungry. He was asking his mother for food and there was no food in the house. She noticed that the infant seemed to have lost weight and she told the mother she should take the baby to the GP and to buy food for the children. When she returned at 4 pm the mother told her she could not get out of the house that day but she had bought non-food items and had not taken the baby to the doctor.

A few weeks later, when she called at 8 am she could not get in to the house. When she returned at 11 the house was cold and the same child said he was hungry and had not had any breakfast. The mother said she had not eaten for several days. The witness advised her to go to her doctor but she did not do so. On further visits, the child complained of being hungry, the house was cold, there were used nappies on the floor and there was a stale smell of urine. On a later visit, the very young daughter was playing unsupervised and out of sight of the family home. The mother said she did not need to be supervised outside the house and said the children knew how to get home.

There was no progress or positive improvement in the house and the mother made no attempts to improve her parenting. She showed no motivation to accept the advice that she was giving her. She had been shown how to clean the kitchen and sitting-room and how to engage with the children at their level. She had been given advice about budgeting and the family support worker had cooked a typical nutritional meal to show her how it was done. The mother did listen but did not follow it through.

The family support worker’s subsequent reports described further visits to the house when she continued to find the house untidy and dirty with food strewn around floors. The two youngest children were inadequately dressed and the mother had to be prompted to change the youngest child’s nappy. On one visit, the mother told her one of the children had swallowed half a bottle of Nurofen on the previous evening. She advised her to take him to A and E but when she returned later in the day she had not done so.

A week later, the daughter said she was hungry and the mother told the child to boil a kettle for noodles. The witness told the mother it was not appropriate for the very young child to boil a kettle and the mother said “she knows not to burn herself.” The child said she did it all the time because her mother would not do it.

The witness said when she was on her way to visit the house a week later, she observed the very young son running in front of a car some distance from the house. On a subsequent visit two of the children told her they had seen a rat on the kitchen table and the witness said she noticed rat droppings. She said the mother knew there were rats in the kitchen and utility room area. She advised her to contact the council but she was not concerned about it.

A few days later the son told the witness he had seen rats again in the kitchen area. The mother said he was lying. The witness noticed that the child had a swollen finger with puss oozing from beneath his finger nail. The witness told the mother to take him to the doctor but when she visited the house a few days later she had not done so. The house continued to be cold and untidy and the two youngest children complained of being hungry.

On her next visit, the mother had no nappies for the baby and there was very little food in the house. Two days later, she took the mother to a supermarket and asked her if she wanted to be shown what to buy and she said she did. Her son said he was hungry and they got him something to eat. “I had to physically advise her on what she needed to buy,” she said.

When the family support worker visited the house with a social worker five days later, the house was “in an appalling condition.” The young boy was standing at the window dressed only in a tee shirt eating a bowl of dry cereal. There was dog faeces and urine in the hall and kitchen. The other children were not in school that day and their mother did not know where they were. There were two or three used nappies on the floor.

The food which they had purchased on their shopping trip five days previously had gone off because the mother said one of the children had left the fridge door open. The social worker gave her money to buy more food. She said the mother appeared quite groggy and was not concerned when she was told that her son had stood on the dog faeces in an upstairs room and she gave out to him for standing on it. It took a lot of insisting by herself and the social worker to persuade the mother to clean it up.

The family support worker said the boy’s father was living with the mother at the time. He was a foreign national who did not speak English. He had been present when she was giving advice to the mother but did not engage meaningfully as he did not understand what she was saying.

She said her usual visits took place once or twice a week but her concerns for this family were such that she was visiting the house once or twice a day. There were no improvements and in fact, she said, the situation deteriorated. The house was freezing and conditions there were chronically bad. During a visit in November, there was no feed formula for the baby and the mother said the daughter had probably eaten it because she was hungry. She said it was common for her to eat it. She was blaming the child for eating the formula.

In late November, she again noticed there was insufficient food in the house. She went to a local shop and bought food with her own money. Dog food had been bought but there was not enough food for the children. When she visited in early December, the young boy complained again of being hungry. The house was freezing and there were no nappies. The daughter was using the oven to cook frozen food.

The mother said she had spent €1,000 on Christmas presents and she was shown laptops, Ipads and Iphones. When she asked her why she has not spent some of the money on food, she said the Christmas was more important. She did not seem to appreciate the concern about the absence of food.

Shortly before Christmas, the baby was prescribed antibiotics for a bad cough but the daughter said her mother had not given the tablets to the baby. The baby’s condition did not improve and the mother told the family support worker that the father had taken the baby to the GP. She subsequently discovered that the mother had lied to her about this.

After Christmas, the family support worker noticed head lice on the daughter and she advised the mother to get treatment for the condition. The mother said she had no money left after Christmas and the witness bought the treatment for the mother. However, the child told her that her mother had not applied the treatment. The children also told the witness they did not get the presents they asked for and none of the items which the witness had previously seen in the attic were in the house.

The witness described an incident in early January when the father assaulted the mother and his child and wrecked the house with a baseball bat. The mother left the father in charge of the children when he was intoxicated and went out. The assault occurred when she returned home. She said the father hit her in the face and was threatening his son with a baseball bat. The contents of the house were almost completely destroyed and the father assaulted two gardai when they arrived at the house.

The mother and her children stayed with a family friend for a few nights before moving into a refuge. The children were frightened and confused and the mother subsequently obtained a barring order against the father.

The family support worker visited the mother regularly at the refuge where there were rooms provided for each of the children. She said the bedrooms were untidy and the mother had to be told by staff to get up and feed the baby at night. The mother was difficult to wake and was reluctant to feed the baby. The witness said she had to ask the mother to change the baby’s nappy and she bought more treatment for head lice and showed the mother how to use it. The daughter said she was making the baby’s bottle and the mother did not seem to think there was any problem with this and she said the head lice were crumbs from a chocolate bun.

Shortly afterwards, the infant had constipation and the mother told her she was squeezing her hips and inserting a pen to try and ease the constipation. She also said she was going to get tablets “to stick up her bottom.” She said she was very clear and precise that this was not appropriate but the mother did not seem concerned that this was the wrong thing to do. She said she had done this with her other children.

The witness said she had spent a huge amount of time with the mother but she had dismissed most of the advice which she had given. There was a huge risk to the safety of the children and the young daughter had taken on a parental role and had been left to do the house work. The child told her that she had eaten half a tin of baby formula because she was hungry.

She said the father was living in the house from September until the following January. She explained what he needed to do for the baby as she was often in his care. She showed him how to make a cheese sandwich for his son “but he was not concerned that he was hungry or that he was in a wet nappy.” Asked about his response to her inputs, she said he rarely spoke to her as he did not appear to have any English. When she was there, he often remained seated watching television and did not appear worried that the children were hungry. “I would say that things deteriorated from when he joined the family,” she said.

She said the children had suffered substantial and chronic neglect and there was clear evidence that the mother never followed through on advice in spite of constant reiteration. She had a limited ability to process the information and lacked motivation and capacity to implement change. She said the mother had told her that she had been very neglected during her own childhood and that it would do no harm to her own children to be treated the same way.

She said the mother agreed to have the children placed in voluntary care and she saw alcohol in her shopping bag on the day she signed the agreement. She said the mother loved and cared about them but there was a huge issue over her ability to provide a good standard of care for them. “It was clear she didn’t see there was anything wrong with the way she was parenting or that they were hungry or cold. She didn’t see there were any concerns or issues.”

A social worker gave evidence of visiting the family home, sometimes unannounced, which confirmed the evidence of neglect which had been given by the family support worker. He had witnessed the daughter attempting to feed the baby. He had made a lot of recommendations which had not been followed through by the mother. “I found I was repeating myself.”

He said he met the mother the day after her partner had wrecked the family home. The violence had occurred after she had returned home from a night out with a friend. He was intoxicated and had jumped out of an upstairs window and assaulted two guards. His son said he had been hit in the face by his father. He did not seem upset but confirmed several times that he had been hit.

The father had later called to the social work office with his cousin who acted as an interpreter. He said the violent incident had been triggered by the mother who had told him he was not the biological father of the boy and the infant. Subsequent tests showed that he was the boy’s father. There were concerns that the mother was drinking in the refuge, contrary to the rules, and there were also reports of individuals visiting her accommodation. She admitted she had been mixing alcohol with medication and said she was suffering from depression. She agreed that the children be taken into voluntary care.

New pregnancy

A social worker who replaced the previous witness gave evidence that, when she was assigned to the case after the children were placed in voluntary care, the mother was five months pregnant with her fifth child. At the handover of the case she was aware that the mother had four children, three of whom were in voluntary care. The eldest child, who was not involved in these proceedings, had been placed with her father. The mother’s family had been known to the social services since her childhood. There were 13 children and there had been chronic abuse in the family. This was the third generation of children in the family whom the social services were dealing with.

The mother was advised there could be no reunification with her children until she demonstrated parenting capacity. At a case conference, she agreed to abstain from alcohol. She had a history of inappropriate relationships. She asked for support and the opportunity to parent her new child and benchmarked her parenting by comparison with her own childhood. She described experiencing chronic neglect and a cruel mother who had beaten her.

When she was seven months pregnant, the mother commenced a relationship with a man who was known to the mental health services as a chronic alcoholic who had attempted to take his own life. He had been a victim of sexual and physical abuse. He said he was now sober and involved in an after-care programme and he was reported to be relatively stable at the time. She believed the mother was willing to engage with the mental health supports at that time. She had presented as substance free for about seven months and she recommended to the pre-birth case conference panel that the mother be given the opportunity to parent her new child.

All the professionals who had been involved with her were present at the case conference and, given her stability and her engagement, it was agreed by all that she be placed on the at-risk register but the child would go home and she be given an opportunity to parent her. She said the mother was delighted and alluded to the fact that there were difficulties with the other children.

After she gave birth, the hospital agreed she could remain for five days in order that she could bond with the baby. She did well in hospital and the nurses were satisfied she demonstrated some capacity with the baby. Her partner was happy to engage but he recommenced drinking and demonstrated an inability to bond with the baby. He had been the father of two children who died – one in a car crash and the other was a cot death.

The mother and her partner attended four weeks of a six-week course in parenting and the staff had concerns about their ability to implement what they were taught. On discharge from hospital, a rota system was set up so that the mother could be visited on a daily basis. Initially, the mother and her partner had taken on board what they had been shown at the parenting course.

There were huge concerns of a fear of relapse by her partner. Things were better while he was there but he relapsed and subsequently moved out of the house. She was now alone with the baby and the situation deteriorated. The social worker said that on visits the house was very cold and she ran out of fuel. She did not seem to be implementing what she had been taught. There was a smell of smoke from the baby and ground dirt between his finger and toe nails were an indication that she had not bathed him.

On another visit, the social worker said the mother was bathing the baby and was dipping the baby and sloshing him through the water rather than washing him with a sponge. She was afraid the mother would drown the child. When she returned two days later, the bath water was still there. There were also concerns that the mother was seen in town every day with the baby. The social worker said that a few days after the mother said she was no longer in a relationship with her partner she received information that the mother was frequenting places where he went and he was seen drinking and holding the baby in his arms.

The mother said she was staying with him and that he was threatening to take his own life. The social worker told her she had her own issues to deal with. The addiction services were concerned about her condition when a family support worker made an unannounced early morning visit there was a man in the bed and the baby was propped up in the bed with a bottle in its mouth. She said the man was a friend from another part of the country.

The social worker said that the mother eventually agreed to be admitted to hospital as a psychiatric patient on a voluntary basis and she agreed that her infant would be put in respite care. The mother was diagnosed as suffering from a borderline personality disorder and depression. At this stage, an Interim Care Order was being recommended for the infant. The mother denied using cannabis but drug tests taken while she was in the psychiatric unit confirmed the use of cannabis.

By the time she was discharged from the unit, her infant was the subject of an Interim Care Order. She was referred to a psychologist and an occupational therapist but her mental health deteriorated. The social worker said she was continuing to engage with the mental health services but there were concerns about her tampering with urine samples. She said there was no evidence that the mother wilfully neglected her children and the conclusion of the parenting assessment was that she clearly loved them. There was never any evidence that she deliberately harmed them or put them at risk.

The issue was circumstantial neglect and her lack of ability to provide for the children’s basic needs, to protect them and not to put them at risk. In terms of capacity and ability, she was not able or in a position to provide for the basic needs of her children. She was satisfied the mother was given ample opportunity to care for the infant. There had been ongoing discussion with her legal team for several months about the risks to the child. “Reunification, if at all possible is what we strive for but it was not possible for her,” she said.

The judge made Care Orders for the four children until age 18 with a review in two years. The CFA undertook to provide an appropriate parenting course to enhance the parents’ access and the CFA barrister said there were no plans to change access for both parents until the next child in care review in four months time.

The judge said it was quite clear from the evidence of the family support worker and the social workers that they had the interests of the mother at heart at all times and they were to be commended for the way in which they had worked with her over the years.