Full care order granted for baby whose mother unable to consent due to mental health difficulties – 2020vol2#18

A District Court in a rural town granted a full care order in relation to a baby whose mother was unable to consent fully due to mental health difficulties and drug use. The mother had come to the attention of the Child and Family Agency (CFA) when she tried to take her own life in the earlier stages of her pregnancy. The mother also used psychoactive drugs and her engagement with the mental health service had been sporadic. The baby had been in care under interim care orders since birth and the mother was now resident in a mental health rehabilitation facility.

The mother, who had a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, was legally represented and had a court appointed guardian ad litem (GAL) to convey her wishes and views. The court also heard from a CFA social worker, a psychiatrist, a GAL for the baby, a Garda and the mother. The father was unknown. The mother’s counsel told the court, while the mother was not consenting to a full care order, she was not contesting the application of the CFA.

Due to the vulnerability of the mother the CFA solicitor, with the consent of the mother’s legal representatives, applied to have the CFA social work report, the garda and the psychiatrist reports tendered to the court. This meant the witnesses could swear as to the truth of their reports and the court could adopt the reports as evidence. The reports were entered on the court file and all parties received a copy, including this reporter. The witnesses were available for cross examination.

The report referred to the involvement of the CFA with the mother during her pregnancy and since the birth of her baby. The mother did not want her parents to care for the baby and alleged they were abusing her and possessed by demons. There had been close liaison between mental health services and legal practitioners and a pre-birth child protection conference had made the decision to take the child into interim care at birth. The mother agreed with the placement, but there was concern as to her understanding of the proceedings. There was no cross-examination of the social worker when invited by the judge.

The judge said to the social worker: “Your evidence took little time, but this is no reflection on all the efforts you have put into the case.”

The Garda witness’s report was similarly tendered and was a compilation of interactions with the mother at times when she was distressed and needed assistance and there were no questions on it from the legal practitioners.

The GAL for the mother told the court she had met the mother on five occasions previously, each time for an hour. “The mother’s long-term wishes are for the baby to remain in the care of her foster carers and when she is five she might wish to take care of her,” she told the court. The mother found herself unable to care for the baby until then, the GAL said. She had discussed the CFA care plan for the baby with the mother who found it difficult to consider adoption. “Most recently [she said] she wished to give the baby to the foster carers, but this was over the phone,” the GAL said. She understood her baby was in foster care and the judge had to make a decision, but it was difficult for the mother to look beyond five years, the GAL said. The mother visited the baby monthly, appreciated the change to contact during Covid-19 restrictions and felt the CFA social worker understood she loved her baby. The GAL told the court the mother did not fully understand what was being said at care plan meetings, she had spoken to an advocacy service and recommended the CFA support this.

All of the mother’s accesses with the baby were supported by a family member, but as the mother was now residing independently at a rehabilitation service facility, the GAL recommended the CFA secure funds to support the mother to attend access. The mother found it difficult to cope with the baby at access and visits were short at the mother’s request.

The GAL for the baby confirmed with the court the baby was doing very well and meeting her milestones. In terms of her care, the carers were experienced carers who were approved for fostering and adoption and they had another child who was adopted. She recommended a review when the baby was four years old prior to starting school and considered access should remain at the discretion of the CFA and be considered at child in care reviews. The CFA agreed with her recommendations. The GAL supported the CFA application.

The previously treating psychiatrist confirmed her diagnosis in her letter to the court. The letter referred to the mother having a history of stopping her medication and disengaging from the mental health service and as a result the mother had an unpredictable diagnosis. The judge said this seemed a very formal way of taking evidence but no less weighty and invited cross examination of the psychiatrist. There was no cross-examination.

The judge welcomed the mother who wished to give evidence. He asked what she would like to happen in relation to her child.

The mother told the court she found herself unfit to care for the baby. She alleged her parents had abused her and she did not want to talk about them. She said she had “suffered pain, prejudice and injustice in life.” She said she had had cancerous tumours removed. She told the court she had asked God what she should do and he had told her to abandon her child; she loved her child and would not harm her; she wanted to see her child once a year and to have pictures. The mother said she had a moral code and expected to be in heaven in 12 years where she could watch over her child.

Later that day, the judge read out his judgment to the court and circulated a typed copy to the parties and this reporter.

He said: “The court has enormous sympathy for this particular Respondent but cannot allow that sympathy to cloud its judgement regarding the legal test to be applied in this case.”

He said he was satisfied the statutory threshold had been met to grant a full care order and outlined the legal considerations including those of the child’s and mother’s rights. He included the GAL’s recommendations and directed the CFA to make appropriate referrals for the mother regarding advocacy and to seek funding for her to attend any access with the child.