Full care order amid concerns about ongoing domestic violence – 2021vol1#10

A full care order until the age of 18 was granted in a rural town for a pre-school boy, but the judge reminded the mother she could always apply to have the order varied or discharged.

The application was heard over two days, the evidence stated there were significant concerns regarding the mother’s parenting ability and sustained, ongoing domestic violence. The mother was legally represented by a solicitor and barrister. The father, who was non-Irish, was not present in court. The father had previous representation from four different law centres and he had also discharged his most recent representation. He had also had an interpreter.

The solicitor for the Child and Family Agency (CFA) said they had written to the father to inform him of the hearing date and the mother told the court the father had told her he would not be coming to the hearing. The judge was satisfied the father knew and had been correctly informed about the hearing but had chosen not to attend, she discharged the interpreter who had been booked for him. She said she would not adjourn the case, that it would go ahead in the father’s absence as it was in the child’s best interests.

In his opening statement the solicitor for the CFA informed the court the mother and father met when the mother was 15 and the father was 36. They had seven children together, this application concerned their youngest child, a boy. The older children of the parents were all in another jurisdiction and were either adopted or in care. The mother had another younger child from a different relationship who had ongoing medical needs and who was in the care of his father.

The CFA solicitor told the court that the mother’s parenting skills had not been adequate and care proceedings were started in 2019. There had been a history of non-resolved domestic violence in the parents’ relationship. He said the maternal family, composed of various relatives, aunts, great aunts and grandparents had come together to provide support for the mother and her children. These supports included but were not limited to safety plans, daily visits from family or professionals and help with accommodation. However, despite all these supports the mother had not been able to adequately parent or protect the boy and an interim care order (ICO) was sought in 2019. He said evidence would be given by the social worker, the parenting capacity assessor and the guardian ad litem (GAL), who all supported the application.

The barrister for the mother also made an opening statement and said that the mother was fully cognisant of the issues and concerns the CFA had. He said she had a realistic approach and was seeking a supervision order. He told the court she had actively engaged with services to help address her homelessness and had recently obtained a two-bedroomed apartment in a city to live independently from the father. She had recently secured the services of an advocate who had helped her to access disability services. The mother had been approved for disability payments and for a disability social worker. The barrister said the mother had hoped that with the right supports she would be able to have access with the boy and ultimately be reunited with him.


Evidence of the parenting capacity assessor

The parenting capacity assessor told the court she was a qualified psychologist and the reports had been conducted over the course of a year. The terms of reference for the report had been agreed by all parties and she had completed reports for the mother and father individually. She gave evidence regarding the mother first.

She said she had met with the mother on five occasions. The mother’s childhood had been one of significant neglect, instability, homelessness, parental abuse, domestic violence and sexual abuse. The mother’s literacy was poor and she had left school at 14 without any formal qualifications.

As part of the assessment, she had completed a cognitive assessment and diagnosed the mother with mild intellectual disability and executive decision dysfunction. She said that executive decision dysfunction manifests itself as difficulty in focusing one’s attentions and shifting attention appropriately to changing needs. The mother had difficulties in judging the intentions of others, low self-esteem, low confidence, acted impulsively, was suspicious of others and could not foresee risks to herself or others. She said the mother had limited reflection.

“How does this affect the capacity to parent a child?” the judge asked. “It may not,” replied the parenting capacity assessor. She continued “Executive decision dysfunction is static and does not improve, mild intellectual disability is static also. The mother’s IQ is in the 55–70 range; this does not prevent good enough parenting, but coupled with all the other difficulties she had, that compound this starting point.”

The solicitor for the CFA asked: “Could the CFA do anything to combat this [the mother’s intellectual disability and executive decision dysfunction] to allow her to care for the boy?” “No, I was supporting this care order because of all her issues combined,” the parenting capacity assessor said.

The assessor completed a parental assessment measure used by the National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom. She said the mother could not identify what she might need, nor the assistance she would require to help her parent the boy. She was unable to identify different forms of abuse and could not identify how she would manage abuse. She was unable to identify a child’s needs or demonstrate knowledge of appropriate boundaries.

She said the mother’s intellectual disability and executive decision dysfunction compounded her ability to learn and she could not create the environment where the boy could thrive. She said the mother’s life history, her impulsiveness, her distrust, and her inability to focus her attention or change her attention appropriately all contributed to her lack of ability to meet the boy’s needs.

She told the court the mother had been established in a very highly supported environment where she received daily contact from a professional, either a social worker, a public health nurse, a care support worker or an advocate yet she still returned to the father taking the boy with her. She said the mother had withdrawn the boy away from this highly supported environment and from early learning supports such as speech and language therapy. She pointed out that the boy was late to reach developmental milestones and acquire basic skills but when placed in foster care he acquired these skills very quickly and made rapid progress.

The CFA solicitor asked if the mother could undergo any residential training or courses or skill training which would increase her capacity to parent. The assessor said she did not believe so. She said that the mother would be unable to tolerate that level of intervention and sustain it on an enduring basis.

The assessor was asked to comment on the plan the mother had suggested of a supervision order. She did not think it was a viable suggestion. She said that the mother had a plan in place with comprehensive, extensive support services and the boy still did not thrive. She said that a highly supported environment which exceeded what would be offered in a supervision order did not work, did not meet the boy’s needs and the mother withdrew from it.

The assessor told the court this was the fifth parenting capacity assessment the mother had undergone, and all had produced the same or very similar results which stated the mother was not able to meet the needs of the boy and she had no insight into this. She continued that at some point more assessments and more parenting capacity assessments might become unethical if the outcome was likely to be the same. She said she would have concerns about undertaking further assessments with the mother.

The assessor said she met with the father four times. She said he was one of 17 siblings and was highly motivated to be seen in a positive light. His first language was not English and he did not complete the cognitive assessment as it was not multilingual, and he may have been disadvantaged because of language. She thought that, although not formally assessed, the father might be cognitively challenged. She said that he lacked empathy, had a tense bitterness and a victim-like position.

She said he had been difficult to engage with and irritated if he could not give an answer that he thought the assessor wanted. She completed the NHS parent assessment measure with him and found that his scores had been adequate with regards to basic needs such as food and safety but poor in basic health needs such as physical, developmental, and emotional needs. She stated she undertook a spousal assault risk assessment. She told the court this tool was an approved actuarial tool used to identify risks of domestic violence.  She said that the father scored highly in many factors that placed him within the high-risk category.

She informed the court no such tool like the spousal assault risk existed for children. The World Health Organisation (WHO) evaluated factors present in parents who maltreat their children and identified risk factors in different domains which included the misuse of drugs; criminal actively; domestic violence; family breakdown; aggression; and the presence of the parent in a child’s early life. She said some if not all these factors were present in the lives of the mother and father.

From the information available to her, she stated the relationship between the mother and the father had not been stable, safe, or healthy and that as far as she was aware there had been no formal ending to the relationship. She said the mother had moved from a city to a rural area to be with the father and had taken the boy with her, removing the boy from the supports and services that had been put in place for both of them. She thought there was a co-dependency between the mother and the father. The mother could not demonstrate that she could break free from the father to date and she [the parental capacity assessor] thought she would not be able to do so in the future.

The assessor said she observed access between the mother and the boy face to face and in video, she said it was apparent the boy and his mother enjoyed each other. All the assessments and the observed access visits had been considered and had informed her report.

She said she supported the application and thought the care order was proportionate. Her other recommendations included a review of access with room to develop and redesign access. She said the father should have supervised access. It was important the boy had a relationship with his parents. She said if the mother could break free and find safety with a stable home, access could be developed and extended.

The mother’s barrister asked why there were differences between the psychological assessments of previous parenting capacity assessments. “Why has your assessment diagnosed the mother as having mild intellectual disabilities, but a previous assessment determined she had moderate intellectual difficulties?” She replied she was aware that the mother had previous psychological assessments but she could only comment on the assessment she did and according to her assessments the mother was diagnosed within the mild intellectual difficulties category.

Asked what the difference between mild and moderate intellectual difficulties was, she said the difference was in the intelligence quotient (IQ) scores. In full scale IQ tests, mild intellectual disability were scores of between 55-70 and in moderate the scores range between 40-55. She acknowledged that different assessment tools can produce different results and it would be assumed that those with moderate intellectual disability would be less able.

The barrister asked: “Does this assessment you undertook take into account that the mother was living in one room with two children one of whom had significant health problems and all the associated difficulties of living in such conditions?” She replied: “Yes, the assessment did take into account the mother’s living conditions.” She added that physical environment alone was not the determinant of a child thriving and reaching milestones. The boy was with his mother for eight months, he had made little or no progress yet within a very short time in a foster placement he had thrived, reached milestones, and acquired skills.

The barrister asked if she was aware that the mother worked with the early learning intervention unit and they had informed her that these milestones would come when the boy was ready. The parenting capacity assessor rejected this and said: “In eight months, he made no progress but on entering into foster care he thrived and made significant progress in a very short period of time. I do not accept that he was not ready.”

The barrister said: “The steps the social worker has asked the mother to take towards reunification she had taken, such as finding accommodation, the mother has engaged with services, she has an advocate now and has been allocated a disability social worker, surely this would all help towards her being able to parent the boy in the future?” The assessor repeated that the mother had withdrawn herself and the boy from a highly supported environment, back to the father. She said the mother was aware of what she was doing and understood the impact of the decision.

She said she was glad the mother had new accommodation but the mother’s focus on accommodation was ill-informed, it was not the house that provides a thriving environment but the parenting. She said she had no evidence that the mother would separate from the father or that she would manage independent living. She said: “The evidence suggested that because of Mum’s intellectual disability, her executive decision dysfunction and limited ability to learn and the length of the relationship with Dad, the situation is static.” However, she did accept the mother had made progress.

The barrister asked: “Were you aware the mother had overheard you talking to the social worker about this report before you had discussed it with her?” “Yes, I was aware, it was not usual to discuss the preliminary findings of a report with the person who commissioned it, prior to the findings being discussed with the subject of the report but I accept this happened and it was unfortunate.”

Evidence of the social worker

The social worker had been allocated to the boy for three years and described him as sweet, endearing, affectionate and loving the outdoors. She said he had been with the same foster parents since he was taken into care. He attended preschool and the early intervention service. The foster family had a 12-year-old child with whom he got on very well. Since he had been in care, he had made rapid progress in a very short space of time in relation to developmental milestones and basic skills.

She told the court that prior to being taken into care, the boy had lived in a residential unit with his mother and his younger sibling. This residential unit had concerns about the boy, such as his lack of achievement of developmental milestones and the mother’s general parenting skills. Although the mother had been aware of the concerns of the staff in the residential unit, she did not demonstrate any capacity to implement and sustain any changes or recommendations. The assessment from the residential unit had been that the mother needed a high level of support and they had concerns regarding her move from the residential unit into the community.

The mother had moved from the residential unit into a homeless unit in the community with a comprehensive plan to support her. The mother had refused help from the residential unit on discharge. The comprehensive plan had included assistance from a social worker, a public health nurse, a family support service, support services from a domestic violence charity, an out-of-hours support service and a key worker. However, there had been no engagement from the mother, and it had come to light the mother had left the homeless unit to return to the father.

A welfare conference had been organised with the mother’s family which included her sisters, aunts, great aunts, and grandparents. This conference devised a plan which included a timetable of visits from family and/or professionals each day. She said because of this, court proceedings had been adjourned to allow this plan to be implemented. The mother had been committed to the plan and for a short time had no contact with the boy’s father and had gone on holidays in summer with her family.

In late summer the mother’s younger child had been admitted to hospital and the plan started to deteriorate whereby the mother had started to stay with the boy’s father, the mother had told the homeless unit she was staying in the hospital. She said the creche that the boy attended had reported to her that he was missing days, his behaviour had deteriorated in that he was lashing out and hitting. The creche had employed extra staff in order to give him one-to-one care. The social worker told the court it had become apparent that the mother had moved from the homeless unit in the city to a rural area to be with his father taking him [the boy] with her and had removed him from all the extra supports of the early learning intervention team.

She said on learning about this move she had immediate child protection concerns because of the history of domestic violence which stretched back to 2003. There had been allegations and disclosures of physical abuse from the couple’s other children, the mother had also disclosed domestic violence to professionals. She informed the court that domestic violence proceedings had been taken by the mother against the father and the mother had the benefit of safety and barring orders.

She said because of these concerns a safety plan was presented to the mother and father, this plan had stated the boy was not to be left unsupervised in the care of his father but they [the mother and father] would not sign this safety plan though they did agree to professional visits. As part of the plan there had been unannounced visits and it was noted that he [the boy] was inappropriately dressed and clingy and the father was aggressive.

She said she spoke with the mother alone and had tried to prevail upon her to go back to the city, but the mother refused and so proceedings were initiated in the city and in the rural area as the unannounced visits showed a deterioration in the engagement of the parents with the professionals. A Garda welfare check had reported that the boy was alone with his father whilst the mother visited her other child in hospital and because of that an interim care order was sought and granted. She said the threshold for the ICO was the nature of the concerns, the delays in reaching milestones, the inability to meet the child’s needs or respond to his cues, neglect, the poor attendance and then removal from the crèche and the removal from the early learning intervention team.

She said the boy had been placed with a foster family in another county and the mother had refused to sign the consent form to transfer his files from the early learning unit in the city to the area where he was being fostered. She believed even with continuous extensive support the mother would be unable to be a good enough parent. She said the boy needed a care order until he was 18 years old, he needed stability and security. The foster carers were totally committed to him and hoped to provide a long-term foster placement. She said the mother’s proposal that she now had an apartment was not the answer as his needs were much more than accommodation.

The social worker stated the mother had the benefit of almost a year in a residential unit, and a fully supported comprehensive plan on discharge to a homeless unit that involved professionals and family but even then she had been unable to implement the changes needed. She said even if there had been a temporary improvement it was marked by an inability for that to be sustained. She said that the relationship between the mother and father was unhealthy, characterised by coercive control, threats and aggression. She said that the father had raised his hand to hit her [the social worker] and had assaulted another social worker colleague. She told the court that currently any access with the father must be supervised by two social workers, one of whom had to be male.

She said the mother was open to communication with social workers, access could and would be reviewed, currently there was video access and once restrictions were lifted face to face access would hopefully be resumed. Access had been reviewed after each access visit. The mother had attended six of 12 planned access visits and the father had attended one of 12. She stated the inconsistency of the access did affect the boy and it had been reported that his behaviour would regress, and she therefore suggested reducing access for a while. The boy had established a good relationship with his maternal family who were keen to have access with him and it was hoped that access with his mother could be incorporated with access with his maternal family.

The social worker told the court that the current plan for the boy included engagement with the early learning unit in the area where he was being fostered and he continued to make progress. There were concerns, although these were not serious at present, but once restrictions were lifted an assessment would be done prior to his starting school in September. He had been enrolled in a local school.  She said she was satisfied with the placement and it would be planned to be a long-term placement. Given the history and the need for long term security a care order until he was 18 years of age was appropriate and proportionate.

She confirmed she had a good relationship with the mother and verified that the mother would always take calls or return any missed calls. She acknowledged the mother had a mistrust of many professionals, but the social worker said she felt their relationship was a trusting one. The barrister asked if she accepted that the accommodation the mother had with two small children was not suitable and difficult. She agreed but stated this was not the only issue, there were many more.

She said her concerns were of the mother’s ability to meet the needs of the children and the dysfunctional relationship she had with the boy’s father. She stated the first step to reunification would be accommodation, but that was the first step. The barrister asked if there had been any plans for reunification. She said she had devised a plan for reunification and that there was a step-by-step plan, the first step being securing accommodation which the mother had only now achieved.

“Why, armed with the knowledge of the failure of the residential unit, that he [the boy] had not achieved his developmental milestones and knowing that the parental capacity assessor and the GAL were in support of a full care order and not one but several assessments said it was unlikely A’s mother would be able to manage, you still made a reunification plan. You made a step-by-step plan with his mother, didn’t you?” the barrister asked.

“The plan was made to help his mother know what she would need and would have to do for [the boy] to be reunited,” replied the social worker.

“But you went ahead with this plan, telling his mother she needed to secure accommodation, which she did, look into parenting courses, which she did. You just led his mother up the garden path, didn’t you, you had no intention of reunification, did you? You were just going through the motions, weren’t you?”

“No, [the boy’s] mother for the last couple of years has had chance after chance to care for him and she has not done it. If she cannot care for him with all the supports that had been put in place it was unlikely she would be able to do it independently.”

The barrister for the mother said the plan the social worker had given to the boy’s mother was very different from what she was now saying in court. The social worker had gone ahead with the plan of reunification when she knew she had no intention of reunification and was seeking a care order until the boy was 18 years old. The social worker repeated all the chances the mother had, that the mother would not disassociate from the father and took the boy back to that father and away from early learning supports.

The mother’s barrister asked about the access the mother had with the boy. The social worker conceded that all accesses missed by the mother were for legitimate reasons, such as a second bus had not arrived, connections had not operated, the bus capacity was reduced to 25 percent during the restrictions of Covid, and that the mother had contacted the social worker as soon as possible to inform her of these difficulties.

The social worker accepted that the mother now had an advocate, had financial independence and was in the process of acquiring the services of a disability social worker. The barrister suggested that the progress made in his foster placement had been aided by the preparatory work his mother had done. However, the social worker would not concede that the preparatory work done by his mother had helped achieve these.

The solicitor for the guardian ad litem (GAL) asked if the social worker had been aware of the circumstances in the initial stages of the relationship between the boys’ parents. She replied she was aware that the mother’s first pregnancy, which ended in miscarriage, had been in order for the father to secure a visa and avoid deportation. She said the mother became pregnant again very soon after that and went on to have seven children with the father including the subject of this application. She said all the children were either in care or adopted.

She said that there had been a dominion type relationship, a dominance, an alliance, and interdependence, that the mother was reliant on him and he would often accuse her of infidelity. She said the safety plans put in place in 2015 and again in 2018 were predicated upon the father not being a feature and a pre-birth conference was based on the father being away yet still in 2021 the issues were the same. The social worker was asked if a supervision order as the mother had suggested was appropriate and she said no. She said the next access review was due summer 2021.

She repeated her belief that a care order was appropriate and proportionate as it was in the boy’s best interest to have long term certainty. She said the mother had had four years to separate from his father, to commit to interventions but she had always gone back, and no significant lasting changes had been made.

Evidence of the guardian ad litem

The guardian ad litem GAL said he had been appointed in 2019. The GAL said he thought the mother saw him [the GAL] in a positive light. The GAL said he had frank and clear conversations with the mother about what she would need to do in order the keep the children. He had clearly told her what would happen if she did not adhere to the recommendations.

The GAL said that the relationship between the mother and father was toxic and had been ongoing for 20 years. He said that in 2019 he had not supported the initial ICO because he had not believed all other avenues, such as family supports, had been exhausted. He told the court a family welfare conference had put together a safety plan which had failed. The father had not been party to the family welfare conference, but the father had an overarching influence on the mother. He said that she had called him [the GAL] several times to ask what she should do about him. The GAL said his opinion was that the mother was in fear of the father. The father had a disposition to violence and despite all supports and all efforts the mother still returned to him.

The GAL said: “It cannot be overstated, the influence the father had. Mom was lovely but was vulnerable, had challenges and his influence cannot be overcome.” The GAL repeated observations made by the parental capacity assessor, that there was a warm relationship between the mother and the boy. It was obvious the mother loved him and vice versa but the mother was not able to free herself of the father in 20 years, the GAL stated it was his opinion that she would not in the future.

The GAL repeated comments of the social worker that the mother had left a robust, supported plan and threw them off in order to return to the father, but accepted that the homeless accommodation was cramped and had not been suitable. The GAL said the mother knew what she was doing when she did this and what the consequences would be.

She had not shown the capacity to live independently from the father.

He said: “The first base would be to leave and stay away. She had not got to first base I could speculate if it were to happen, but it was unlikely, improbable.” He said she could not demonstrate severability and his professional opinion was that she never would.

The GAL said that the mother’s complaints about the accommodation and that she was being constantly monitored by professionals did have some merit. However, he said the mother had ample people to call for help and a robust plan, but she still went back to the father. The mother had difficulty tolerating the level of intrusion from professionals that was necessary for her without the father. She did not have the capacity to tolerate such intrusion and he believed this had contributed to her decision to leave and return to the father.

The GAL said he had tried to engage with the father, but it was difficult. He said there was no trust and he could not establish trust. The father consistently reported he had done nothing wrong, had no culpability and no responsibility. The GAL said he demonstrated no insight in any way.

The GAL told the court that the boy had been diagnosed with developmental delay and there was no organic reason for this. He had been referred to a paediatrician and was waiting for an appointment. Within months of the foster placement the boy had developed, reached milestones, and made huge improvements in all domains. When the boy had been with his mother in the homeless accommodation he was often in a push chair all day and his gait was unsteady. Since the placement in foster care with more room and a garden he had made great progress. The GAL said he did not believe it was just timing nor groundwork that the mother had done as he had not made that progress with his mother.

The GAL described the boy as endearing, he had a mixed heritage and was attached to his foster parents. His behaviour had demonstrated he was more secure and more socially friendly. The boy was enrolled for school and the initial early learning unit intervention had recommended speech and language therapy, but they were hopeful he might catch up. He said this school had an assessment unit and would be able to provide assessment and evaluation of his needs. The school also had an autism unit and if he needed extra help the school would be able to provide it but given the progress he had made it might not be necessary. He said the foster carers had a very respectful relationship with the mother and hoped this would continue.

The GAL said the access was good and he would recommend robust access with his mother, with professional support which he hoped would ultimately be phased out, depending on how access progressed and the relationship between the parents. He also recommended access with the boy’s maternal family.

The GAL was asked by his solicitor if he thought a supervision order suggested by the mother was suitable and he replied it was not because of the history of domestic violence that the mother had not broken from. Since birth extensive engagements had not worked and certainty was now needed. He also did not believe a care order for a shorter period would be of benefit. He believed it was in the boy’s best interest to be free of the stress and that the care order was proportionate. The GAL also stated that he did not think a review was necessary. The judge interrupted the GAL and firmly reminded him that the decisions for reviews were her domain and not his.

The mother’s barrister questioned the GAL regarding his comments that there was no organic reason for the boy’s lack of developmental progress. The GAL accepted that an organic reason had not been completely ruled out. The GAL said that the boy had started from a low place and difficulties were accelerated in homeless accommodation. The barrister said: “It is easy for a child to make progress when they are living in a four-bedroomed house with a large garden and field at the back compared to one room.”

The GAL said: “Yes, the room would have made some effect on the boy’s progress, but it was not down to accommodation alone, language was not dependent on space.”  He did acknowledge the cramped conditions of the homeless unit would not have helped.

He said he had recognised the steps the mother had taken to secure accommodation, the advocate, the financial independence, and the disability social worker. He believed these might be a tremendous help to her and might help her break free of the father, but he did not believe it would happen. He stated the mother had put herself back in a position where she was dependent on finances from the father. He said she had missed access because the father would not give her the bus fare. He said the father remained in a controlling position over her.

The mother’s barrister asked him why he told the court a review was not necessary. The GAL retracted from this position, he said he recommended no review on the basis that he did not believe the relationship between the mother and father would change. The GAL stated he thought a review might put pressure on the mother which might not be appropriate.

The mother did not give evidence.

The judge retired to make her decision when she returned said she knew the father was not present but she had been happy to proceed as she was satisfied he was aware of the hearing. She stated she had listened very carefully to the all evidence and was satisfied the threshold for an order under section 18 1 (a) and (b) of the Child Care Act 1991 had been met.

She said the reasons for her decision were as follows: firstly the parenting capacity assessments –  parents only have to be good enough, the primary role is safety and the parenting capacity assessor, the social worker and the GAL, gave no evidence that the mother could keep the boy safe. Secondly the mother walked away from a very comprehensive care plan which included numerous supports and interventions which were beneficial to him the boy. Thirdly by removing him she exposed him to his father again which was unsafe. Fourthly the progress that he had made in his foster placement.

She said the order was appropriate and proportionate she had to be cognisant of section 24 and a child’s wishes had to be considered, but he was too young at this stage to express his wishes. She reminded the mother of her rights under section 22 of the Child Care Act, namely that she could apply to vary or discharge the order at any time.

She said she heard what the GAL had said about the review, but she did not agree with him and ordered a review for early Autumn 2022. Under section 47 of the Act she asked the CFA to help the mother as much as possible. She said the boy was to have the supports of the early intervention unit and if necessary, speech and language therapy. She ordered that the foster carers were to have any supports they may require. She directed the CFA to plan to work with the boy for his life story, being aware of his cultural heritage. The judge thanked all the parties for their work and said she would forward the final orders via email.