Full care order for infant affected by drug use in pregnancy – 2021vol2#20

The District Court granted a full care order to the age of 18 in respect an infant born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), owing to his mother’s drug use during the pregnancy.

The court was told the infant had been in a foster placement since his birth and the parents had never meaningfully engaged with the Child and Family Agency (CFA) in relation to the baby’s welfare. The CFA solicitor said the child had been born “suffering withdrawals,” which required immediate intervention and treatment.

The solicitor said there had been limited communication with the parents following the child’s birth, and although some access had taken place at the beginning, all contact had quickly ceased. The solicitor said it was understood the parents were both “in the grips of their addiction.”

The mother’s barrister said she had not spoken with the mother and had no formal instruction, but she had been advised that she was making her way to court. She said she understood it was the mother’s position that she wanted full care of the child, but the barrister accepted that “the weight of the evidence was against her.” The father’s barrister said he had no instruction on behalf of his client.

The judge said he would not allow the matter to be let stand to facilitate the mother’s attendance, as there was no clear indication that she would in fact turn up. The judge further noted that the matter was already starting one hour late, and in those circumstances he said he was satisfied to proceed.

The allocated social worker gave evidence that the family had been known to the CFA both in Ireland and in the United Kingdom for a number of years. She said the infant was the youngest of six children, and the other five were all in the care of their maternal grandmother. She said the grandmother was not in a position to care for the infant given the weight of her current responsibilities.

When asked about the initial concerns at the time of the child’s birth, the social worker said that as soon as he was born “there was a concern that he was suffering withdrawals.” She said the baby stayed in the hospital for a month after his birth so that he could be closely monitored.

The social worker said the parents both suffered from addiction issues, mainly in relation to both heroin and cocaine usage. She said the CFA had not been informed of the mother’s pregnancy until a month before the child’s birth, and at that time, it was clear there had been “no substantial gathering of resources” in respect of his welfare.

Social worker: “There was no crib, no clothes for him, and no plan at all for after his birth. We were hugely concerned about his basic needs.”

The social worker told the court that it was also worrying that the mother was “not honest” in relation to her struggle with addiction. “She said she was clean, but her own urines and [the child’s] urines tested positive for drugs.”

She said a trajectory had been set out for what the parents needed to do, but they “almost never” showed up to any of the appointments with the social work team. She said they had also failed to engage in any meaningful way with any addiction services.

Social worker: “They were attending [a drug treatment clinic] at one point, but we were informed by the service that they would turn up five minutes before closing just to collect their methadone.”

She said the couple refused to engage with any counselling services offered to them and had “very little insight” into the level of their addiction.

In relation to access, the social worker said it had been “spotty at best.” She said “sometimes they would show up, and other times not.” She said quite frequently they would tell the access worker that they would be in attendance at the access scheduled for 9am, “but then at 11.30am, when [the child] was waiting, they would call with different excuses… they often cited the bus or other issues which prevented them from coming.” The social worker said that no access had taken place in six months.

When asked about sibling access, the social worker said she had attempted to arrange access with the grandmother on a number of occasions, but it had proved difficult as she had multiple children in her care. She said she would continue to do her best in this regard and agreed that it was very important.

The social worker said she had made many attempts to contact the parents “through letters, calls and texts.” She said she had arrived unannounced at the house on one occasion and had managed to speak with the father. She said the mother was not there at the time, but the father agreed they would both come to a meeting to discuss the plan going forward, but neither did so. The witness said she would continue to do her best to engage with the parents, but in her view, there had been a “significant deterioration” in their stability over the past number of months.

The social worker was asked about the child’s foster placement and said he was getting on very well. “He is a brilliant child and [the foster parents] are a good match for him.” She said the infant was “meeting all of his milestones” and was a very happy baby boy. The social worker confirmed it was her view that the order to 18 was proportionate and necessary in the circumstances.

The guardian ad litem (GAL) said she was supporting the application. She said the infant had never been in his parents’ care, and had had “a very difficult start in life.” She said he required immediate medical intervention and treatment from birth, when tests showed he was suffering from NAS. She said the baby spent one month in hospital undergoing treatment, and was then discharged to his foster carers.

The GAL said she had met the parents soon after the child’s birth, and at that time they were “open and honest and knew they needed to engage with services.” She said she believed the parents had good intentions, so it was “in very sad circumstances how we find them now.”

GAL: “From my own observations at early accesses, it was clear the parents were trying and it was clear [the mother] loved [the infant] very much, but it was very difficult for her to sustain the access and I could see it was getting too much for her at times.”

In terms of the foster placement, the GAL said the child’s needs were being met there. She said he was placed with a couple who did not have any children of their own, so it was a suitable match, and the child had developed a good attachment to them. She said, “They are 100 per cent committed to him and this is what he absolutely needs long term.” The GAL said she also believed the mother knew the child was being well cared for.

The judge queried whether the foster carers had been long-term matched. The GAL said the Covid-19 pandemic had got in the way of the assessment in this regard, but the intention was for long-term matching to take place as soon as possible.

Having heard evidence from the allocated social worker and the GAL, the judge said it was clear the parents were “in the grips of their own difficulties with substance abuse,” and that their absence at the hearing “speaks to their inability to care for the child.” He said it was fortunate that the infant was in the care of good foster parents and was doing well there.

Judge: “It appears to this court that [the infant] can’t be expected to wait for his parents to engage. It is fair to say that they have failed or otherwise neglected to provide him with the certainty, stability and safety he requires in life.”

In the circumstances, the judge said it was both necessary and proportionate to make the full care order to age 18, with a review to take place prior to the infant starting primary school. The judge also indicated that sibling access should take place as soon as possible.