Full care order for girl who had 13 admissions to voluntary care – judge “very, very cross” about case – 2020vol1#19

A full care order was granted by the District Court in a rural town for a girl [A] who had been in and out of voluntary care on numerous occasions, and had spent the previous four and a half years in care under interim care orders.

Granting the order, the judge said: “I’m very, very cross about this case, and the delays. I want all of that looked into before the review date.” A review date was set for two and a half months later.

Both parents were present in court and neither was legally represented, though the mother had been represented previously. The couple had been separated for a considerable time and the father lived in another country. He supported the care order application, and a close relative of his, who also lived in that country, was seeking assessment as the foster carer for the child. The relative, who was present, was not permitted to remain in court for the hearing. The judge said that the issue of her assessment as a foster carer would only arise if and when a care order was made.

The mother was opposing the care order application.

The CFA team leader and two social workers gave evidence on behalf of the CFA. The team leader said he had briefly been the social worker for the girl (A). She had been in and out of voluntary care eight or nine times, sometimes following Section 12 (emergency care order) applications from the Garda Siochana. In June 2015 the Gardai again contacted the social work department concerned about the mother’s suicidal ideation on social media, followed by her admission to A and E suffering from severe alcohol abuse. The child was placed in voluntary care again, but the mother withdrew her consent and an interim care order was sought.

The mother and daughter had come to the attention of social services when living in Dublin. The mother attempted suicide there at one stage, and frequently expressed suicidal ideation. There were a number of incidents where the child came into voluntary care for a number of days or weeks, usually at the time of the mother’s suicidal ideation. The girl had 13 admissions to care and had had huge trauma in her life. She had been referred for psychological assessment. She now had not seen her mother for a long time.

The team leader continued that there were referrals from the girl’s creche when she was four, following a suicide attempt by her mother. The child demonstrated sexualised behaviour in the creche. The pattern of admissions to voluntary care, returns home, further crises and admissions to voluntary care, continued. Age-inappropriate information regarding sexual matters was shared with the girl when she was still a young child.

The family moved to a small rural town in January 2015. The girl missed a number of days in school following this move. There were further concerns about the mother’s suicidal ideation, which were expressed on social media. She lacked family support. She presented to A and E in June that year and the child again entered voluntary care. The mother withdrew her consent and an interim care order was sought. The child lived with foster parents and attended school.

Asked by the CFA barrister if there had been any improvement in the mother’s situation, the team leader said there was not. She moved back to Dublin for a while, and was homeless. There was a lack of stability in her life. He acknowledged that she stopped drinking for a while, but said they had received reports she was drinking again and she was not attending her GP. There had been little contact between her and the social work department for the past year.

A had told the team leader she was happy in care and spoke about her wish to be adopted. She was desperate to be wanted, to be part of a family. She was now in secondary school and had been due to receive the HPV vaccine, which she wanted as she “didn’t want to get cancer”. However, she believed her mother would not sign the form. Her mother had proved difficult to contact, the social work department did not have an address for her, and to date the girl had not received the vaccine. She did not want any further contact with her mother, whom she referred to by her first name, rather than “Mother”.

She spoke very positively of her father, whom she had only got to know recently. He had visited once a year for a number of years and they spent time together the previous summer. They were in touch via video-link.

The team leader said there had been problems in the foster placement. The girl was unhappy with restrictions on her mobile phone use. The foster parents were afraid of the mother. They had told A they could not afford the music lessons she wanted until the fostering allowance came in, which was not appropriate. There was a deficiency on the part of the foster parents in their dealings with the social worker and the guardian ad litem, which they saw as an inconvenience. There had also been a bullying incident in the school, and the sharing of inappropriate photographs.

The team leader said the social work team had been trying to avoid changing the placement if possible, especially because of the girl’s history of being in and out of care. She said she was happy there, and wanted to be adopted.

The foster parents said that the girl had become very secretive and very protective of her mobile phone, refusing the foster carers access to it. It they tried to restrict her access to the phone there was huge conflict, which had not happened before.

The judge asked if this was not an ongoing issue with children moving from primary to secondary school. “There are different views on the age at which it is appropriate to have a mobile phone. Conflict over a phone is not unusual.”

She asked who had given the child the phone, and the father confirmed that he had so that she could contact him.

The team leader then described an incident a few months previously. A had said she was going to an overnight with a friend who was not known to the foster parents. She was very resistant to any checks being made on this friend or the friend’s family. The foster parents contacted the team leader, who felt it was better if she did not go and visited the foster home to tell her. She was very unhappy about this, and said she and the friend just wanted to eat pizza and watch TV. She negotiated with the foster parents and it was agreed that she visit her friend for a couple of hours in the evening. She was dropped close to the friend’s house.

In the early hours of the following morning the team leader received a phone call from the Gardai in a town about 85 miles away saying the girl was in the Garda station. The team leader went to collect her. She was very tired and did not want to talk. He spoke to the foster carers who said the family she had said she was visiting had no knowledge of plans for an overnight visit. They had then contacted the Gardai.

A boy was mentioned but it was never really established who he was. She sent photos to the boy but they were deleted by Snapchat and the recipient could not be identified. The foster parents were very concerned. The incident was very worrying given her age and vulnerability. The foster parents found the situation very difficult to manage and the placement broke down. The girl was now with other foster parents, who were very experienced, but she was saying she was very unhappy in school and was experiencing panic attacks. She had been referred to a psychologist.

Asked by the CFA barrister why the agency was seeking a Section 18 care order until the child was 18, the team leader said A had been in care since 2015. She had been exposed to homelessness and addiction, she needed a home and consistent parenting. Asked if she had sufficient understanding to have a conversation with the judge, the team leader said she did.

The mother, who was not legally represented, asked the team leader if he had photos to substantiate his allegations about the conditions of her house, and he said the social worker had them.

He told the solicitor for the GAL that the mother spent a lot of time arguing with the social workers and seemed to think they were not facilitating her relationship with her daughter, rather than that the girl did not want to see her.

Asked if he accepted that the care provided by the previous foster parents fell far short of what the girl needed, the team leader said they had tried to get it to the level required, but had failed. There was a shortage of foster carers. This placement had not ended as it should.

The GAL solicitor asked him if he accepted that in February 2018 the GAL had told the CFA of the need to educate the foster carers about the impact of trauma on a child like this. He replied that he had raised those concerns and educational work was arranged for the foster parents but it was not sufficient.

“In successive reports throughout 2018 and 2019, over a dozen, [the GAL] raised the need for education on the impact of trauma. There are lengthy sections in these reports for almost two years. She is extremely concerned that there is a lack of understanding of the impact of trauma in early years, and the need for therapeutic support. The GAL identified a lack of understanding of the impact of trauma on [the girl’s] functioning,” said the GAL solicitor.

The team leader said a report would be available in four to six weeks.

He said the breakdown of the placement was matter of very serious concern. An allegation of emotional abuse was being examined. He said he accepted the recommendations in the GAL’s most recent report.

The social worker who had worked with the child from 2017 to 2019 told the court that out of the blue the girl had made an allegation of sexual abuse by another child in an earlier foster home. She also made allegations about exposure to inappropriate sexual activity by the mother [which was described in court] when living with her. She was extremely upset when describing it. This was reported to the Gardai, and the social worker attempted to discuss it with the mother, but did not succeed. It caused difficulties in the social worker’s relationship with the mother.

At the time access was twice weekly, then A wrote to her mother and said she did not want to see her any more. At the following access the mother brought the girl to the social work office and left her there, calling her abusive names. The girl was very upset. Access was suspended and following this there was difficulty in contacting the mother.

There was weekly video contact with the father and A was very happy about this. She understood her relationship with her extended family, and that her paternal grandmother is of another ethnicity. She had become very interested in the culture and identity of her grandmother.

The mother interjected: “Would you have objections if I furnished the court with copies of phone conversations?”

Judge: “No. That’s not the way this works. You would have to get transcripts and circulate them, get permission from everyone you had a conversation with. It’s not really a runner.”

The mother than asked if the CFA had encouraged the girl’s wish to be adopted, and the social worker said it had not. The mother also questioned the manner in which the sexual disclosures were discussed.

The social worker explained that a protocol was followed. The foster liaison social worker and the foster carer met the social worker. The girl suggested talking in the bedroom. “I told her I would take notes and she was happy about it. I checked with her they were accurate. I discussed with the foster carers and notified the Gardai. I completed a Garda notification form. When I finished up [as her social worker] the investigations were ongoing.”

Replying to the GAL solicitor, the social worker said that communication with the mother had been very difficult. Asked about agreeing with the mother a narrative for the girl as to why she was in care, the social worker said the mother was refusing to acknowledge why A was in care, and this was imperative for the girl.

When dealing with the mother the social work department had urged her to get counselling to address her own early experiences, and to deal with her alcohol and drug abuse. It was also a condition of the girl living at home that the social workers have access to the house. The mother’s response was that she did not see the need for such measures.

GAL solicitor: “[A] told the GAL she would be able to see her mother if someone else was there, so she would feel safe inside and out. In the GAL report she says she is in care because the mother is not able to look after her. She does not know why her mother is not able. Is that not the crux of the matter?”

Social worker: “Yes.”

Asked about the GAL’s concerns that the foster carers were not attuned to the girl’s needs, even after educational work, the social worker said: “Yes, at the outset there was a lack of understanding of the impact of trauma on the child.”

The second social worker, who took over from the first in January 2019, described the breakdown of the girl’s placement. She had been taken to an emergency placement following the breakdown and met the GAL. She settled in to her new foster home, but she found it difficult to make friends, especially after the bullying. Asked if there were any plans to change the school, the social worker said she wanted to stay in the school in the town, near friends. The social worker also said the girl had panic attacks and expressed suicidal ideation. She had been referred to a GP.

The social worker outlined the girl’s issues: “She had early trauma, frequent moves in and out of care, then the breakdown of her placement in what she thought was her forever family, there is nowhere she feels safe and secure.” She was being encouraged to engage in physical activities.

The CFA barrister put it to the social worker that the mother said she found it difficult to contact her.

“I don’t understand that. She has my mobile, email, landline. She says she wants a relationship with her daughter and is being obstructed by social workers. I’ve talked to [A] and she said absolutely does not want to see her. The mother is very concerned about her daughter going to [the father’s country], and that that would ruin any chance of a relationship. I explained that no decision or plan had been made, the girl would remain where she is.”

The GAL solicitor said the girl wished to speak to the judge, and the judge replied she would arrange this for the morning. She also asked for a diary of complaints made and a copy of the report made to the Gardai.

The mother questioned the social worker and asked her if the daughter felt she had failed her. “She feels it is wrong she saw her mother engaging in alcohol abuse,” the social worker replied. “But children who have experienced trauma in the past have re-established a relationship with their parents. They can.”

Responding to the GAL solicitor, the social worker said that A had no-where she felt safe and secure, she had hoped to be adopted by her foster carers, then the placement broke down. Following the incident where she had been located many miles away, the social worker visited her in the foster home. She said she was happy in the placement and wanted to stay, but this had not been not possible. The second time the social worker visited her there was when she moved out and she was upset that there was no-one there to say goodbye to her.

GAL solicitor: “That lack of interaction was replicated at Christmas?”

Social worker: “Yes. She was so upset. No-one from that family texted her or contacted her to wish her a Happy Christmas”. The social worker agreed with the GAL’s hope that with work her relationship with her mother could be developed.

A psychologist who conducted a parenting capacity assessment of the mother said she had met her four times and examined the files. The mother spoke openly about her issues. However, she did not see any issues with her alcohol use, and said she only drank socially. She did say she attended for addiction counselling.

When she moved from Dublin to the country the mother was isolated and did not know anyone. There was no transport to take the girl to school or to school activities. The mother felt people were talking about her and not accepting her into the community. She was reluctant to engage with the services pointed to, like family support.

She had a tendency to constantly change plans. She moved from this house in the country to another house closer to town. She had lots of different plans in relation to work, but never stuck to one plan.

She said she was suicidal and said she had been brought to hospital and admitted to a psychiatric unit in 2016. She felt she used alcohol to deal with stressful situations.

Summarising the mother’s parenting capacity, she said she was not in a position to provide her daughter with a stable environment. She did not engage with services and did not maintain any change. She could demonstrate parenting capacity in the short term, for example, during supervised visits, but not over the long term, and the girl needed stability over the long term.

The girl was worried about her mother and what was happening in her life.

The mother entered the witness box and said: “I don’t have a report.”

Judge: “This is very difficult, I know. You don’t have a report, you don’t have legal representation, you’re in a roomful of strangers. What I would ask you to do is take a deep breath and tell me your story.”

Mother: “I had [A] when I was very young. My mother is [not Irish]. We moved a lot. She vanished with my younger siblings. I had [A] when I was 17. I never finished school. I was involved with the social work department in Dublin. [A’s] father was not supportive, he left when she was two. I didn’t get anything from him. He didn’t want [A]. I never wanted [A] not to have a father. I wanted to co-parent. They didn’t connect. I tried to foster that relationship.

“I decided to move away from Dublin. I moved to [the small rural town]. There were problems with alcohol at that time. I got a lot of insight into that. I tried to work in restaurants. We were poor. Because I had so many problems I wanted to protect [A]. She tricked me on various occasions, about Santa and the tooth fairy and things. Recently she has not been talking to me. I trying to keep contact with my daughter. She has this idea she’s going to [her father’s country].”

Judge: “I talked to [A] this morning. She is absolutely clear there are no plans for her to go to [her father’s country]. I was very specific. I need you to know this, as I see this was your concern from the papers.”

Asked about her current accommodation, the mother said she was sharing an apartment with a friend. “I feel long-term care would be a game-changer.” She said she was working in catering on a freelance basis. She acknowledged that alcohol had been a feature of her life.

She also said she was very concerned about the incident where her daughter had ended up far from the area. “Was it a boy? Was it someone older? I never found out.”

The barrister for the CFA said that this had been investigated, but the investigation had run into the ground.

“I asked her about it this morning,” the judge said. “My impression from her answer was that she was just acting out because her foster parents were not allowing her do anything. I think she frightened herself more than anyone else. I don’t think there was anything more sinister about it. Is there anything else?”

Mother: “Just give me a bit of time to be with my child.”

The CFA asked her for her address and she gave it. He asked her if she understand the application was for a full care order, and she said she did. Asked if she understood the CFA would work towards improving her relationship with her child, and possible reunification, she said she did.

The judge then asked the father to tell the court his story.

He said he was concerned that if there was a full care order there would be no pressure on the state to bring about reunification.

Judge: “There is a statutory obligation on the CFA in every child-in-care review to consider reunification if circumstances change. There is always a possibility to discharge a care order. An application can be made at any time on the basis circumstances change. There are books on the Child Care Act. Rest assured those avenues are available and doors don’t close.

“I want to make clear also the question of access and contact can be explored. Either of you can make an application for access at any time. Those things are available. You can get your own advice.”

The father said he did have concerns about his daughter. When her placement changed he contacted her every few days. He was concerned there were inappropriate characterisations of A. “My wish is that my daughter can come to live with me and my [relative]. My financial position is weak and I was advised by my lawyers my chances of obtaining custody were zero.

“When she went into care with a family she seemed to be doing well, she was doing well in school, grooming herself well, she seemed happy. Now that that placement has broken down it is a devastating situation. She became very attached to that family. I feel this has hurt her a lot.

“Social workers come and go. Lawyers come and go. Family members don’t ever quit that role. I’ve been a consistent figure in her life as best I can. I’ve been in her life every step of the way. Social workers form relationships and then move on. I would like to get custody.”

The judge said that it was her fear that the girl would think it was her problem that she had been in different homes.

“This is not a contest. It’s not about who’s the best parent. It’s a difficult job. Let’s call a spade a spade, it doesn’t suit everyone.

“No child understands this. No child is responsible for what happens. My fear is she thinks she’s the problem. I don’t want that. No-one doubts you love your daughter. She loves you too. No-one is criticising anyone, we are trying to find a structure for [A].”

The father said he had been very careful not to promise her she was coming to live with him. “I have tried to very fair and respectful towards her mother. But I would have very grave reservations about her going to live with her mother.”

The GAL told the court she had been in the case since 2016 and had written 35 reports to date. Summarising her final report, she said physically one could see the stress in the girl’s body. However, she had no particular concerns about her health. Since the placement breakdown she complained a lot about tummy aches, which the GAL felt reflected her emotional state.

She said emotionally her welfare was of very great concern. The breakdown of the previous placement was very, very distressing for her. She would welcome psychological support when she was in a stable environment.

In relation to the breakdown of access, this ended abruptly when she asked her mother to stop fighting for her in court.

She had a lot of troubling memories about her time with her mother. She was unable to sleep at night with things coming into her head. She said she was worried about her mother getting in the way of other relationships. She had been referred to CAMHS, but this service said she had no mental health difficulty.

In school she presented as highly articulate. She could talk knowledgeably about subjects she was interested in. Peer relationships had been difficult.

Judge: “She is a beautiful girl. She is very bright. She knows she had no problem academically. She understands it is better to hang in there [in school] this year.”

The GAL continued that the girl did have social support from a church group she attended, to which her mother was very opposed. When she asked her mother not to fight any more in court she said her mother called her a bitch and said she was going to kill herself. Since then she did not want to see her mother alone as she was very scared of what her mother would say to her. She was asking to stay in care.

She reported inappropriate sharing of sexual information by her mother when she was very young, and said: “I know all that stuff and I can’t not know it. I didn’t want to know it. She told me the best way to take drugs. I never want to do that.”

When she was about six something happened with a boy in foster care. Her mother told her that what had happened was rape. Her mother also told her that her father was a bad man. When she got to know him she realised this was not true.

In relation to the incident where she had ended up a distance away, she said she had gone to meet a boy, and did not accept this was dangerous. She had wanted to stay with her foster carers before the placement breakdown. After this “abscond event” her foster mother would not speak to her for two days. She needed support to deal with what was an embarrassing event.

In January she was very upset about the lack of contact from these foster carers over Christmas. After three years living with them they did not ask how she was.

Asked by her solicitor if her experience in foster care would impact negatively on her engagement with therapy, the GAL said: “Yes. Her difficulties with therapy paralleled her difficulties in foster care.”

She said she had flagged these difficulties in 2018 and continued to do so in successive reports up to November 2019. She had stressed that the foster carers needed to be supported in understanding the level of care A needed, and said this “fell far short of the child’s needs based on the information available.”

Referring to the father, she said he had contacted A very regularly and sent her equipment to help her pursue her leisure interests. He had visited Ireland on a number of occasions and spent time with her. He expressed a wish to be considered as her carer in 2016, then stood back when he realised she was settled in foster care and he did not want to disrupt that.

There was a lack of stability in her mother’s life. In her circumstances it would have been very difficult to see the world through A’s eyes. Her own history was troubled and she had no support from her extended family. The mother loved her daughter and wanted to parent her, but the connection between that and her ability to parent was not understood by her. “The mother needs to acknowledge [A’s] experience and feelings to improve the relationship in the future.”

The girl had had 11 admissions to care before the last one. The mother did not understand the impact of this. The child was highly anxious about adults in her world. She had some post-trauma symptoms.

“It would be helpful if the mother would engage with the CFA to help create a life story for [A], to understand her family.” The GAL’s conclusion was that A should remain in the care of the CFA until she was 18.

The CFA should conduct a comprehensive psychological assessment to assess her long-term care needs. The investigation into her experiences in care needed to be concluded. She needed to be provided with an appropriate life story.

Giving her decision, the judge said she was not going to give a complete rehash of the evidence.

“This is one of the most serious cases I’ve seen for quite a while. [A] has been let down by a lot of people, including the CFA and the courts. I don’t make the system, I apologise for it, but that is my view.

“She presents as a girl who is lost at the moment. I am making an order under Section 18 (b) and (c). In relation to access, it should continue to be at the discretion of the CFA, taking into account the views of [A]. She does not want to see her mother at the moment. She is a teenage girl, she has a lot of issues. I hope in the fullness of time relationships can be rebuilt.

“She is more positive towards her father.

“Assessments should be carried out as per the GAL report.

“There is a priority for a suitable long-term placement, but it is perhaps a little less important than it was, as she has considerable ability and resources herself. I want a [local boarding school] plan looked at and the CFA to consider paying for it, if she’d like to go in September.

“I’m very, very cross about this case, and all the delays. I want all that looked into before the review date.”

She also stressed to the mother that there should be no publication of anything to do with the case on social media, stating that the CCLRP reporter present understood the parameters within which reporting was permitted.