A judge in Dublin District Court granted a full care order for three children, directing that the mother was to be given every assistance and perhaps an advocate to help her understand the needs of the children in relation to access.
The Child and Family Agency (CFA) sought full care orders for three girls from one family. Child A, was primary school age, girls B and C were pre-school age. The mother was in court and represented by a solicitor. The father of A, who had expressed a wish for access with the child, was consenting to the application. He was not in court and was not legally represented. The father of B and C was deceased.
The CFA had been involved with this family for a considerable period as B and C had both been taken into the care under a voluntary care agreement when each was only a few days old. The CFA now wished to formalise this arrangement to give certainty and security to all three children by securing a full care order.
The mother’s solicitor said that she was contesting the application as, although the mother had had significant addiction issues, she had been clean for the last four years. She had the care of her youngest child without any involvement from the CFA. She said the mother was not seeking immediate reunification but hoped over the next two to three years to have all three girls returned to her care. The voluntary care arrangement had worked well to this point and was sufficient to protect the children. The full care order was neither necessary nor proportionate.
The guardian ad litem (GAL) to the girls was supporting the application of the CFA. The GAL felt at present the mother was not in a position to parent the girls. Evidence was heard from the access supervisor, the social worker, the mother and the GAL.
Evidence of the access worker
The access worker gave a resume of her qualifications which included a degree in applied social care and play therapy. She had worked with the family since 2012. She had supervised access for the three girls since their infancy. She said the only time she had not been the supervisor at access was when she had been on leave.
She had submitted a report for the hearing which had detailed the access the mother had had with all three children. She said that access during the pandemic had been difficult. It had been cancelled a number of times by the mother and the foster families because either one or both had been unwell or there had been a close contact of Covid 19.
She said there was an access schedule for the girls with their mother individually and collectively. With regards to B and C, 15 access visits had been offered, six had been attended, seven had been cancelled by the mother, and two had been cancelled by the foster carers because one of the girls had been unwell. In 2022, five visits had been offered and two had been attended. With regards to A, in 2022 nine access visits had been offered, five had been cancelled by the mother, three had been cancelled by A and one had been attended. She said in 2021 five access visits had been offered for all three girls together with the mother but only one had been attended.
Access had only been face-to-face. There had been no other access such as telephone calls, FaceTime, or letters. The mother had never sought any further access and had never sought to make up any access that had been missed. The access worker acknowledged in cross-examination that the mother had never been offered any further access for the access visits that had been missed.
She said overall the access went well and was a positive experience for the girls. The issue had been the consistency of access as it was so frequently cancelled. When access did take place it was in a mixture of venues such as playgrounds or parks which the younger girls especially enjoyed. Access was more difficult in a confined space.
She said she felt the quality of the access was good, but the foster carers had reported some anxiety in the girls prior to and after access. Initially the foster carers would stay, as B and C would be shy and reticent but then came out of their shell and it would go well. The foster carers would leave but would remain close by as B and C were still pre-school aged.
Access had often been cancelled at short notice after the girls had been prepared. The girls had the memory of having been let down and this would contribute to the girls not wanting to attend access on the next occasion. This had damaged the relationship and widened the gap between the girls and their mother.
Child A who was older and would be approaching her teenage years soon was described as an assertive, spirited child and had made her views known. If she did not want access she could not be persuaded to change her mind. The lack of consistency had contributed to A not wanting to have access with her mother.
She said she did not think access could be improved or made more frequent until there was consistency. She said there had been only one occasion where access had been attended consecutively. The engagement at access was not secure because of the lack of consistency.
Before access could be increased there would need to be a six-month period where it was attended consecutively and consistently so the girls could establish a routine.
She said she felt the mother was indifferent to access and the mother’s own needs had been the priority. This was challenged in cross examination by the mother’s solicitor and the access worker accepted that not all of the cancelled access visits were the mother’s fault.
Evidence of allocated social worker
The social worker confirmed she was the allocated social worker since September 2020.
She did not dispute the fact that the issues that had caused the girls to come into the care of the CFA, addiction problems and domestic violence, were no longer present. They had been addressed and resolved.
She said these historical issues were not the basis for the application. The basis for the application was to give security and certainty to the girls and to plan for their future, especially A who had made her views very clear that she wanted to stay with her foster family.
She confirmed a nine-point reunification plan and document had been made in April 2022. This nine-point plan had included the provision that the mother was to attend the child in care reviews. The mother had partly attended the child in care reviews in 2020 but had failed to attend these reviews in 2021 and 2022. She said effective care planning could not be made if the mother did not attend these.
The mother had not provided a safety network. The mother had not attended access consistently. The mother’s accommodation was not suitable. The parenting capacity assessment had not been progressed. There was to be a meeting four times per year to discuss progress, but no meetings had happened.
The social worker said the mother can be contacted and will engage with her, but this was sporadic and passive. Her [the mother’s] attitude was not progressive and she had not been proactively seeking reunification with her children. She said reunification will always be open and can be explored at any stage but there had to be full and proactive engagement from the mother to move reunification forward.
There had been difficulties obtaining the mother’s consent for certain items such as passports and as a result the children had not gone on holidays with their foster family. There had also been difficulties with the registration of the births of B and C. Eventually the social worker had had to obtain a High Court order to register their births. She said these difficulties had contributed to the reasons why the CFA had sought a full care order.
B and C fully identified with their respective foster families. They had lived with them since they were a few days old [C] and a few months old [B] they had never known any other family. Child A was older and had more memories of her mother as an infant, but A was very clear in her views that she was to stay where she was. She had fully assimilated into her foster family.
She said in her professional opinion the care order was in the best interests of the girls. The voluntary care order no longer met their needs. The mother could remove the girls at any stage.
She said the girls needed the security of a full care order and the care order was needed for future planning and stability. She said: “A full care order permits and leaves the door to reunification wide open to mother at any stage. The mother can come back to court for this at any time.”
In cross examination the social worker acknowledged that the mother was caring for her youngest child without any involvement from the CFA and there were no concerns for his welfare. She also acknowledged that the difficulties in registering the births of B and C centred on the fact that the mother was still legally married to a man who was not their father. The actual father of B and C had denied paternity and had wanted DNA testing. This had meant the time frame for the registration of the births passed and had led to the difficulties the CFA encountered. She accepted these difficulties were not purposely done by the mother.
She was also asked to explain the circumstances in which the mother had been asked for her consent to a passport. The social worker accepted that the mother had been asked for her consent for a passport during the pandemic restrictions and the mother had raised questions as to why the children needed passports when travel was not possible. She said that the mother had eventually provided her consent for the passports.
The social worker was asked: “If a full care order is granted will the mother’s consent be necessary for a passport?” The social worker answered: “No.” The social worker told the court the mother had consented to all vaccinations and any medical treatment for all the girls. The social worker was asked by the mother’s solicitor if the mother had ever threatened to remove the girls or if she had any concerns that the mother would remove the children. The social worker replied that she had no such concerns.
Evidence of the mother
The mother said she had had difficulties in the past with addiction and had been in abusive relationships. She said she had not taken drugs for four years and now lived a clean and healthy life. She attended regular meetings and was well supported by local services. She had a young son who lived with her and with regards to this son there was no involvement from the CFA.
She said that she had given voluntary care of her children to the CFA when they were very young. This had worked very well, and she believed there was no need for change. She said she had not refused consent to the passport but failed to understand why the children needed passports in the pandemic, when travel was not recommended. She said the passport was not urgent and she did not want the children to travel until it was safe, but she had eventually given her consent.
She said at the time her consent had been requested, she had been unwell with Covid herself and her partner had died, it was not a priority as travel was not recommended. She said she had given her consent to everything else; all the children had been fully vaccinated, and she had given consent for all medical treatment that had been requested.
She said the difficulties of the registration of the birth of B and C had not been her fault. She had been legally married to someone else at the time of the birth and that presupposed that her husband was the father of the child, when he was not. The father of the child had denied paternity and wanted DNA testing, and this had caused the delay.
The mother said she had not attended the child in care reviews because she had not received the dates. She acknowledged that if the social worker had said she had sent a text and the link she must have received it.
She acknowledged she had missed some accesses but was now working and would rearrange her work schedule to ensure she would be free for access. The mother said she was not seeking immediate reunification but hoped the girls would be returned to her care over the next two to three years. She said she would not withhold her consent to anything that the girls needed and would not revoke her consent to voluntary care. She had no intentions of removing the children.
Evidence of the guardian ad litem (GAL)
The GAL said she was supporting the application of a full care order until the children were 18 years of age, and she did so for several reasons. She had two reports for the court. She said there was the practical side of things where the mother had not regularised the birth registrations and it had taken almost two years for a child to obtain a passport. She said the mother had not prioritised the needs of the children above her own and the children had missed holidays because the passports had not been sorted.
Access with mother had been disrupted for various reasons and this had had an impact on their security and certainty. It had caused unnecessary anxiety. She said the girls were very young but for relationships to be developed, secure and stable, access needed to be consistent. Access could be adjusted over time but there had to be at least six months of consistent and consecutive access.
She said the needs of the three girls were very different. A was much older than B and C and so had far more memories of her mother and had a greater understanding of her life story. A was adamant that she wanted to remain with her foster family. She was embedded with her foster family and with the local community. She had a sense of belonging and her wishes could not have been made more clear.
She did not object to having access with her mother and had been disappointed when an access was cancelled. The GAL believed this cancellation had caused A not to go on other planned access visits. The GAL said she tirelessly repeated she wanted to stay with her foster family.
She described B and C as full of beans, both loved dance and music. They had been enrolled in Irish speaking schools. B and C were very young when they had been received into the care of the CFA. They had known no other carers and again they had been completely embedded and enmeshed into their foster families. They were too young to express a view, but B and C were wholly reliant on their foster carers and would often seek security from them on access visits. Given the young age of B and C life story work had not yet commenced.
To remove the girls would have a detrimental effect on their emotional well-being. The girls required the certainty and security that a full care order would give. She said that reunification was examined each year at the child in care review as it was a statutory obligation of the CFA to reunite families.
She said before reunification could be considered three assessments would need to be completed, a parenting capacity assessment, a psychological assessment of the mother and an attachment assessment. She said she had recommended these prior to any reunification.
She had recommended access to be continued and to be at the discretion of the CFA. Access between the foster families had evolved naturally and informally. The families had become friends, so the sisters had regular access with each other. The GAL said she believed everything was in place for the girls to achieve their full potential and for these reasons she supported the application.
The GAL said the mother recognised there had been gaps in access and would like it to increase but she had demonstrated very little insight of the effect that missing an access could have on the girls. The mother needed help to reflect on the impact of missed access from the girls’ view. It would be important that the mother committed to access and to attending all the child in care reviews and perhaps to be more proactive in seeking access.
The mother had never asked for missed access time to be replaced. In cross examination the GAL confirmed the mother had always been available to her and very compliant and willing to engage with her. The mother had never made any rash decisions or done anything that had compromised the girls’ placement. The GAL acknowledged she had no reasons to believe that the mother would act rashly in the future or revoke the voluntary care agreement.
The GAL repeated that reunification would always be open to the mother, but A had made her views very clear, B and C had known no other carers than their foster carers and to removed from them could have a significant detrimental effect. However, she said she supported the life story work that was to be done and access to be supported and reviewed. Access had gone very well, and it had been a positive experience for all the girls. She had no concerns for the mother’s mental health and repeated her recommendations for the three assessments before any reunification took place. She said the mother did require greater understanding of the girls’ needs and the mother needed to develop an ability to reflect on issues from the girls’ view.
The judge asked the GAL: “Would the mother benefit from some kind of advocacy or advocate who would be able to assist her develop this understanding?”
The GAL replied: “Yes in these circumstances I think this would be good for the mother to connect with someone outside the CFA who could assist her.”
The judge: “I [the judge] have concerns that if I make a section 18 order until these girls are 18 the mother will be abandoned. The CFA must have a duty to this mother who, has by the evidence of the social worker and the GAL, worked with the agency and developed good relationships with both and yet is in this adversarial position.”
The GAL agreed with the judge and did not want to mother to be abandoned and to be provided with some support to help her plan and develop the insight needed for reunification.
The judge left the court to make his decision and on return said that he had considered the evidence very carefully. He said that the threshold for a care order under section 18 of the Child Care Act 1991 had been reached and it was necessary and proportionate for all three girls.
However, under section 47 of the Child Care Act 1991 by his own motion he directed that the CFA make available to the mother an advocate to work with her and examine reunification and to establish an access routine that would work for the girls and the mother and develop their relationship. He listed the case for review in three months’ time for an update from the CFA on this direction.