Full care order granted on consent for troubled teenager – 2019vol2#33

The District Court granted a section 18 care order for a teenage boy by consent, until the boy reaches the age of 18. The mother and stepfather were not present in court but indicated their consent to the care order as, in their view, it provided the support and structure required by the teenager.

Evidence was presented that the teenager had very complex needs and had previously met the criteria for a secure care order but that no beds were available at the time. The court was told that he has had a very turbulent time but that he had significantly improved in the last six months. The teenager was currently residing in a residential unit and had been out of formal education since 2017 but he had recently re-engaged with education with the hope of sitting his Junior Certificate.

The court was satisfied that the criteria under section 18 had been met, that the risks of the teenager returning home at that point were still present and that the care order was necessary. The judge also accepted the view of the current guardian ad litem (GAL) that the teenager would benefit from the appointment of a new GAL when the matter comes back before the court for aftercare review and this direction was made by the court.

Counsel for the mother told the court that the mother was consenting to the care order on the basis that the young man required a lot of support, which was available through the care order. Counsel for the stepfather told the court that he was also consenting to the order as he felt the supports were what was best for the teenager in the future. The father of the teenager was not involved and had not participated in the proceedings. The court was informed that the father had not been in locus parentis at any point.

The GAL told the court that he was also supporting the application. The GAL said that he had a difficult role as the teenager had disengaged at times.

Judge: “Are you confident you can give evidence today as to the teenager’s wishes?”

GAL: “Yes.”

The social worker from the Child and Family Agency (CFA) had prepared a report and gave oral evidence to the court. The social worker had been assigned since August 2018. The social worker told the court that his role has been very challenging due to a combination of emotional difficulties experienced by the teenager and also the influence of others in the residential unit at the time.

Evidence was given that from November 2018 to March 2019 the teenager was a troubled young man. The teenager came to the attention of Gardaí very regularly for offences and appeared in the Children’s [criminal] Court on many occasions. The teenager had struggled to engage with the social worker, the GAL and staff at the residential unit. However, the social worker told the court, since that period things had improved significantly for the teenager.

Social worker: “It is difficult to put a finger on the reason for that but I believe it is as a result of strong contact with family and support from the agency and [the residential unit].”

The social worker told the court that engagement with education should not be underestimated and that the structure has been very positive for the teenager.

Social worker: “He seems to have reacted well to the structures put in place for him.”

The (male) social worker gave an example as to how the teenager had improved. He had wanted to move bedroom in the residential unit but he was told that it was not practicable for a number of reasons.

Social worker: “In November, he would have lost his top so to speak, but on this occasion he asked if it could be explored or done on a trial basis. He was upset and frustrated but able to get himself down.”

The social worker and the judge discussed some of the challenges that the teenager faced.

Social worker: “He wants to belong, he wants to be one of the lads, so to speak.”

The judge said that the teenager seemed to have a difficult relationship with his mother but that when his mother attended court in the Children’s Court with him, he was grateful for that and appreciated it, but he blamed her. The social worker told the court that his relationship with his mother was very complex and that although he had not had a lot of one on one contact with the teenager, he was aware that he was very angry at the mother and that the psychologists would say the same thing, that he had ambivalent feelings towards her.

Judge: “It is a pity mum isn’t here as I would have liked to speak to her about that as he really needs her.”

Social worker: “She is giving [the teenager] mixed messages about the future but cares very deeply about him.”

The social worker told the court that the teenager is now attending a non-profit educational centre funded by charitable donations to re-establish education for the boy moving towards the Junior certificate and he is taught by qualified teachers. There had been a concern that this was not going to get funding but they have now got the funding.

For emotional support the teenager was attending one-on-one sessions with a psychologist. The mother and stepfather are also attending, and the social worker told the court that the broader plan is for them all to attend for “family therapy” in shared sessions. The social worker told the court that the teenager’s placement in the residential centre had been a very turbulent time but that the staff were very committed to him and it could be a long-term placement.

The judge asked the social worker about the threshold for the order and the risks present if the teenager were to return home at this time. The social worker replied that the mother did not feel ready to look after the boy on a full-time basis. She felt the buffer provided by the residential unit was good for both him and for her. At the moment, if they had an argument, she could call the centre to get him picked up to bring him back to the residential centre. She did not feel that it would be possible to take a break. The social worker told the court that he agreed with the mother’s assessment of the situation.

The judge asked if the social worker was satisfied that the threshold for the care order had been met and the social worker indicated that he was satisfied that the teenager required the care order until 18. He said that the teenager was having flexible contact with his family, the family contact had helped him and that the primary focus of social work was to promote contact with family. The social worker told the court that he had made a referral for after care.

The barrister for the mother commented that the social worker had fairly said that the mother did love her son very much but that his behaviour at times had been very challenging. The barrister for the mother told the court that the teenager had previously required secure care but that no bed was available at the time. The teenager had met the criteria for secure care at the time but had since made progress.

The social worker was asked about an incident in July which involved the physical assault on the teenager by two other residents in the residential centre and was told that the mother had questions about the incident. The social worker told the court that he had met with the mother and teenager to discuss the incident and that it was difficult to know how the altercation started. The barrister said that the mother was concerned that one of the residents was over 18 and should not have been in the unit, but the social worker said that he did not believe this to be the case.

The mother’s barrister told the court that the teenager had been out of education since 2017. He was currently attending education classes for six hours per week but the mother was concerned that this time is very minimal for five subjects for the Junior Certificate. Counsel for the mother asked if an individual education plan had been prepared and the social worker said that no such plan had been prepared.

The court was told that the mother welcomed the ongoing support of the agency and that the mother’s ultimate wish was for the teenager to return home if it was safe for her and for her other children for him to do so. The social worker said that if circumstances changed this could be assessed. Counsel for the mother also raised the possibility of a new social worker for a fresh start with the mother’s relationship with social workers. The social worker said that the CFA would consider this request but that he was of the view that the relationship was generally good other than some disagreements and he was sorry to hear that the mother disagreed and suggested that a meeting to discuss the social worker’s report could be appropriate. Counsel for the mother asked the social worker his view on a review of the situation again in three to four weeks to assess progress if the court granted the order to the age of 18. The social worker said he was open to that.

Evidence was given that the teenager had a difficult relationship with his stepfather. The previous allegations made by the teenager against the stepfather had been withdrawn and the teenager had chosen to amend his statements to the Gardaí as to what he alleged happened. The relationship had been difficult but had grown and it was improving with the assistance of the residential unit and the CFA.

Counsel for the stepfather asked the social worker about the assault incident in the unit and how would they ensure that it did not occur again. The social worker said it was difficult to ensure that it would never happen again. The teenager had expressed a desire to move bedroom which would mean that he would be on the same landing and in close proximity to the other two residents. If issues arose this would be challenging and the social worker was of the opinion that this consideration by the residential unit was evidence that they were considering the risks.

The social worker was asked if the teenager was allowed to leave the residential unit to go on a trip or to an event. The social worker said that this could be assessed on a trip by trip basis and as long as it was in the teenager’s best interest to go to the events.

The judge also raised an issue with the social worker in relation to the time the teenager was spending in education.

Judge: “In respect of education, six hours appears very little. I would have thought that this could be increased over time?”

The social worker replied that he could explore this with the education officer.

The GAL then gave oral evidence to the court alongside his report. He has been the court appointed GAL to the teenager since 2017. The GAL said that he has seen “all the shifts and changes and ups and downs of the teenager,” as outlined in his report.

The GAL said that the teenager was very complex and that he had rarely seen such a trajectory over a short period of time where the teenager had gone from one extreme and in the last six months had gone to the opposite behaviours.

GAL: “Here I think there is a lack of understanding from him on why people are trying to support him… A lot of anger from him to parents and parents to him and parents to professionals.”

The GAL said that there had never been a robust psychological assessment of the teenager. The harm had already been done to him before coming into care and a lot that had gone on in his life had come with him. The GAL told the court that the teenager had evolved beyond the norm and that education was always going to be difficult with him.

GAL: “Tusla did everything to provide support and he rejected it and did everything not to do it.”

The GAL said that the boy was trying to get consistency in care and that he engaged very well with the education centre but the GAL’s expectation was that as he had had no formal education for a long period of time and there needed to be some reality checking. The teenager had tried other education centres previously and made his own decision to disengage.

In relation to the mother’s expectations, the GAL said that she is fabulous and adores the boy but that their relationship is quite fragmented with a history of arguing. The GAL said that the stepfather’s expectation was “way off the mark”, he came in with a bone to pick with the CFA which had nothing to do with the teenager but more about his views of the CFA.

GAL: “It was toxic and spilled over into relationships with professionals… Tusla can throw everything to support him but it is outside parties such as step-dad and mum who need to make the effort.”

The GAL told the court that he met last month with the teenager and the mother. The boy wanted to go home but he liked the residential unit.

Judge: “What is his view today?”

GAL: “I can’t get his precise view. He does not like people interfering with his life. He has settled and not come to the attention of the guards.”

The GAL said it was best to keep the status quo going. The judge had a discussion with the GAL about whether the teenager would like to meet with the judge but the GAL was of the view that as he had met with a previous judge this was not something he would like to do.

The judge asked if what has been done was appropriate and asked was there was nothing more to be done to support him. The GAL said that one service that would help would be if the mother and stepfather would continue to attend with the psychologist. The GAL also expressed the view that having a bit more freedom would benefit the teenager. If more trips were available and the teenager had a bit of self-advocacy so that he could determine if he wanted to go or not, it would also benefit him.

In terms of aftercare review the GAL recommended that when the matter did come back for review perhaps a fresh GAL should be considered by the court. The GAL expressed the view that given the experience of the last six months the teenager would benefit from a fresh face but that it was a matter for the court to decide.

The barrister commented that the GAL was very committed to the teenager and had previously brought High Court secure care proceedings. The barrister for the mother asked the GAL about the possibility of an individual education plan. The GAL said that this could also happen naturally and the first step was for him settling in and if he liked it he would work on it. The GAL said that he did question the teenager sitting the Junior Certificate and thought that it was an unrealistic expectation. The GAL said that they could work with him on a tailored level as the CFA had said that the boy had an interest in craftwork and he might find a craft as it was the first he heard of anything the teenager was interested in. When asked about the time frame for this to be developed, the GAL said that when the matter was next before the court and he managed to stay in that programme, that would be the time to look at a more realistic plan.

When questioned by the barrister for the stepfather, the GAL told the court that the teenager was enjoying access at home with his mother and siblings and the siblings enjoyed having him there. The GAL had interviewed the other siblings about a year ago as he had concerns but that had all changed and he said that they definitely have a good relationship.

The judge commented that the evidence was very fair and that she had read the reports in detail.

Judge: “My sense in respect of a review, I think he is somewhat exhausted at this point in time from professionals … I think there should be a right to re-enter but I think he needs a breather and space and to engage in education and move forward with the relationship with mum. If you are all coming back in eight months’ time with an after-care plan that will be enough for him.”

The judge also said that she understood from the detailed report the application that a new GAL should be appointed and she understood why the GAL made that decision.

The judge set out the criteria for section 18 of the Child Care Act 1991 and said that the issue to be determined is whether the threshold in section 18(1) (b) and (c) has been met. The judge noted the consent of the mother and stepfather to the application by the CFA. She said that she was satisfied to make findings that the teenager had suffered while in the care of the mother and stepfather and it was sufficient to determine a real and substantial risk to the teenager if he was returned to the care of each of the parents at this time. The judge was satisfied to make the care order pursuant to section 18 until the age of majority.

The court made a number of section 47 directions, including that if the matter was re-entered by the applicant, it is to be on notice to the mother, stepfather and the GAL. The judge directed the matter to be re-entered in the event of a planned or unplanned change of placement for the child.

The judge granted the application for a new GAL to be appointed for the teenager under section 26 of the 1991 act. The judge directed that after care planning for the child should begin in six months’ time and an after-care worker would be reallocated. The judge directed the matter to be entered on a date in six months’ time to assess the after-care service needs. The judge specified the date for the current GAL to be discharged.

The legal representative for the CFA asked the judge not to make the order in relation to the after-care worker on the basis that the social worker had no power to allocate the after-care worker and the legislation did not give a specific time to appoint an after-care worker. The CFA said that it hoped one would be appointed by that time but asked the court not to make the direction but to re-enter.

Judge: “The evidence the court heard is that the child is of a complex nature and my view by making the direction focuses minds and it should be allocated on that date. Liberty to apply.”

The judge expressed the view that the GAL played a pivotal role and commended him for his work done and the report. The judge said that the social worker had a very challenging role and had done Trojan work and wished him the very best.