Full Care Orders for seven children following lengthy hearing – 2015vol3#17

Full Care Orders until the age of 18 were granted for seven children in a rural town, following a case which was heard over more than 20 days spread over an eighteen-month period. The children had already been in care under one-year Care Orders for over a year. The oldest child in the family [child A] had been in care in a residential unit but had recently reached the age of 18 and returned home.

The evidence in this case included evidence from children in another related family, who were already in care following a court finding of fact that they had been sexually abused by their parents and other relatives. One of the children had made allegations against A.

Opening the case for the Child and Family Agency, the agency’s barrister said part of the evidence would concern this young man, A, as his being back at home could impinge on the safety of the other children. An extensive after-care programme of support for him had previously been outlined to the court but he was not making use of it.

The barrister said that he was asking the court to take judicial note of the extensive evidence of neglect given in the Interim Care Order proceedings, rather than repeat it. The parents’ barrister said he did not expect the court to re-hear it, while his clients were not conceding this evidence. He said he was also instructed to say that A would be leaving the family home to live with his grandparents.

A HSE psychologist said he had interviewed both parents and applied psychological tests to them to assess the risk they posed of physical and sexual abuse. The father had previously been assessed by the HSE and found to have borderline intellectual ability, with an IQ in the range of 70-88, and had left school early without any qualification. He did not fall into the category of having a learning disability, but people at this level would have difficulties in dealing with life and would be highly dependent on others for functioning.

He was quite positive about his family situation, but given the number of children he had, some of whom had disabilities, he would find it difficult to cope. The main negatives he reported were interference from his wife’s family, he felt persecuted by them and was very afraid of them. This had an impact on his physical as well as his emotional health. He also accepted his children were adversely affected by the hostility.

They were exposed to an intolerable situation and it would impact on them in the long term. The father down-played a lot of the concerns of the social services and he did not acknowledge the level of neglect revealed in the reports. Extreme acts of violence and serious arson attacks were reported, but he minimised the impact of this on the children.

Child A had been described as a very damaged child with the potential to be a danger to other children, but the father did not acknowledge this at all, and described it as “[A] just messing around”. This was worrying both in relation to his ability to help A with his problems and in relation to the danger he posed to other children.

The father had no criminal convictions for violent or aggressive behaviour and was a passive and timid man. He acknowledged he had reacted badly to a disagreement with his wife on one occasion, and had slapped her, but this had only happened once.

He acknowledged two of his nieces had made allegations against him of sexual abuse, but pointed out that these were reported to the gardai who did not prosecute. He denied these allegations.

In relation to the risk the father posed the psychologist said usually such a risk assessment followed an admission or a conviction. “It is not for me to say a person did or did not abuse.” But given the amount of allegations and who made them, the question was what level of concern should we have? One looked at the family environment and the features that might mitigate or facilitate abusive behaviour and also whether the person had engaged in therapeutic work. Looking at all this, the psychologist said he concluded there would be considerable concern about possible future sexual abuse in this family. He said he would be reluctant to recommend the reunification of the family.

Turning to his assessment of the mother, he said she was a very nervous woman and very embarrassed about her intellectual assessment. She was very guarded about her own family. She had a learning disability and had struggled to cope throughout her whole life. She had had a very hard life.

In relation to her intellectual ability, she had problems in all areas – memory, concentration, processing information – placing her in the bottom one per cent of the population in terms of intellectual ability. “If a person in this position is left to care for eight children, without support, the whole situation would be chaotic, dangerous and damaging for the children physically and emotionally,” the psychologist said.

He said that the mother had no insight into the seriousness of the problem with A and its possible impact on the other children. She exhibited strong dependency on others, very low self-esteem and very poor ability to exist independently. In relation to the possibility she had witnessed or participated in sexual abuse, which she had strongly denied, he said that a learning disability was a factor commonly found in women who participate in sexual abuse.

“If she did, it would have been because of extreme dependency and perhaps because of inter-generational abuse where such behaviour became normalised,” he said. “There are people with severe personality disorders and mental health disorders who offend against children but she did not exhibit any of these.” He added that child A would be difficult for any parent to deal with.

Asked by the parents’ barrister if the parents were willing to engage with support services, he said he accepted they were. Asked if he had had many dealings with Travellers, and whether he accepted a significant proportion left school early, he said he was referring here not to educational attainment, but to the core ability to learn. He had come across many people from a Traveller background who had a low educational level but were very bright. He acknowledged that the father had done a FAS course and was able to learn.

Asked about his assessment of the father as representing a moderate level of risk of sexual abuse, he said that there were reasons for concern, but the allegations needed to be investigated.

Barrister: “Are you aware there was a Garda investigation, which was halted? Two out of the three who made allegations have withdrawn them. Would that reduce your risk assessment from moderate to mild?”

Psychologist: “If allegations are withdrawn, or found not to be valid, that would reduce the risk. I accept there could be a lower level of risk.”

He agreed with the barrister for the guardian ad litem that the fact that the parents continued to deny there was a risk from A was a reason for concern.

Following an adjournment for a number of weeks the case resumed with evidence from several social workers and the guardian ad litem. The first social worker gave evidence of allegations from young children from the other family who had made allegations of abuse concerning the children of this family. These children later said that these allegations were not true.

She said the allegations were very extensive and the conduct of the children was such that it suggested abuse. They described sensory memories, using words like “I felt … I saw … I heard …” which were consistent with experiencing sexual violence.

“Children’s disclosure of sexual abuse emerges over time. The children initially made the disclosures to their carer,” she said. Referring to the fact that the children later withdrew their allegations, she said there are a number of potential reasons why this can happen. It was not coincidental that this arose around the time there was discussion of them moving placement. The carer in their placement at the time found it very difficult to hear the details they were disclosing. “Children can pick up on disgust. They could feel that as a lack of acceptance of them as a person.” In addition, a number of people came to interview them. The effect on children of being asked repeatedly what happened could be: “Nothing, go away.”

In conclusion, considering the nature of the disclosures and the language in which they were described, the social worker said: “There is a high risk these children were exposed to sexual abuse while in the care of their parents.”

These children also said they witnessed sexual activity involving other female children, including children from the family at the centre of these proceedings, where they saw a girl from the family being raped by an adult. “Unfortunately the CFA interviews were not recorded and the children had to be interviewed again by Gardai,” she said. Asked by the parents’ barrister if it was possible the recantations were genuine she said: “In every case we consider if it was possible the children were not sexually abused. In relation to these children I believe they were.”

Counsel for the guardian ad litem asked if the presentation of these young children was consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder, and she agreed it was, and this signified the level of abuse and its emotional impact on them. Asked if one child could have been coached by another to make the disclosures, she said: “I work with children who have been coached. Children will have a by-rote account of the allegations. They will not have corresponding emotions. These children react emotionally to disclosures. The volume of disclosures is very great.”

GAL counsel: “We know the foster carer got physically sick after these disclosures. Could that affect the children [withdrawing the allegations]?” The social worker said all of these things would contribute.

A second social worker said there were concerns about the ability of the parents in the present case to protect their children. Information had emerged to corroborate the abuse of their children by others, which was not available when the case first came before the courts a year earlier.

In this family there was a need for a powerful adult protector and the mother was not able to play this role. There were also doubts about her ability to provide physical care and emotional support for the children. “A person with a limited IQ can provide a reasonable quality of care, but that depends on having a partner who can make up for their deficiencies. That is not the case here,” she said.

The parents always denied any deficiencies in their parenting. When the question of the sexual abuse of their seven-year-old daughter was raised, their answer was: “She was always a good girl.”

The parents always maintained they were good to the children, they were always with them. They refuted any concerns about hygiene. They did not accept any sexually inappropriate behaviour or that Child A posed a risk to any child.

One child in the family said that bad things happened on the site where they lived, including fighting. She said she did not like certain relatives. She was very concerned that her parents would know she had spoken. Following this conversation she turned off her light at night for the first time since coming into care. She said if she remembered anything else she would talk about it, if she knew her mother would not know she had done so. Some months later she said she did not want to go home and she did not want anything to do with Traveller culture. She played the role of carer for her younger sister.

There had been a huge improvement in her cognitive ability since her first assessment. It had improved by 15 per cent, suggesting her first assessment had been due to her non-attendance at school. She drew a picture of herself, her sister and a man. She said a man put something around their necks and they were running away. She said the man was touching her in her privates.

The girl described not being able to move. She stood tight against a wall and said she couldn’t move. She said the thing around her neck was attached to the wall. She said her sister took her down from the hook. She drew a picture which she said was of “a bad man and a bad woman”. They were bad because they tried to touch her in the privates. She drew a picture of a stick with a loop on it, and said the loop tightened around her neck. Some of the details she described accorded with what other children said. Later she said this was a dream.

The parents’ barrister said that the parents had undertaken all the assessments asked of them, and the social worker agreed, but added that there was no acknowledgement of their deficiencies and no motivation to change. They did not see the need to protect children from child A. They were adamant that everything said was all lies.

She agreed with the barrister that the family had been known to the social services since 1999 and received support until 2001. Social services ceased their involvement with the family in 2006. Asked why, she said: “Changes were not sustained over time. The children were a bit older at that stage. In 2006 there were reports the children were not attending school regularly. There was some involvement then. In 2012 there was a report from school that a 12-year-old child was being bullied by Child A.”

Parents’ barrister: “So in 11 years there were two interventions?”

Social worker: “It would not be unusual that social workers would not be involved but other services, like Education and Welfare, would be. In September 2012 the father decided to withdraw his consent for the children going to an after-school club.”

The judge interjected: “There was no question of a sudden deterioration. [A] was abusing for years. The problems were going on long before.”

Pointing out that the social work department seemed to think these were capable parents from 2006 until 2012, the parents’ barrister asked if they could parent now with proper supports.

Social worker: “We’re talking about physical, sexual and emotional abuse that has gone on for a considerable period. The parents need to acknowledge deficits and concerns in order to work with them. The children need a secure future. It is not realistic to work towards them returning home. They are very afraid. The culture on the site was of hiding what was going on.”

Asked about the social work department’s mission statement concerning children in care, the social worker said in many cases they worked towards reunification of the family. But in this case, “how can we make progress if there is no acknowledgement of the problems.”

Asked why weekly access between the parents and children was reduced, she said: “I think the children needed time to settle, to feel secure. We’re talking about children probably subjected to sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse and neglect down through the years. I am not going to recommend children have contact with people who may trigger such trauma. If they have weekly contact how will they be able to work on their experiences in the future?” She said if the Care Order was granted she would be recommending access once a month.

She agreed with the barrister that none of the children had made allegations against their parents.

The judge said that the CFA had presented a case that met the threshold for a Care Order under Section 18 of the Child Care Act. It was for the respondent parents to answer it.

The father said all the allegations were false. Responding to questions from his barrister, he agreed he never witnessed any acts of abuse against his children, he never engaged in any acts of sexual abuse of children. He accepted conditions on the site were bad and that caring for children in such conditions would not reach an appropriate standard. He accepted the need to engage with support services. He said he had no intention of going back to the site. He also said he would encourage his eldest child, A, to engage with services.

CFA barrister: “You disagree with everything?”

Father: “I agree with the description of the conditions on the site.”

CFA barrister: “In relation to [A]’s issues – do you accept his sexual assaults on other children?”

Father: “That’s not proved.”

CFA barrister: “Do you accept he’d a risk to other children?”

Father: “There is no proof of that.”

CFA barrister: “What is your explanation for the allegations from the children?”

Father: “I believe they came from the other families.”

CFA barrister: “You said [A] can’t be left on his own. Why?”

Father: “He needs help with things.”

CFA barrister: “Your attitude is there is nothing wrong with your family?”

Father: “Yes.”

The GAL’s barrister asked him why, if the allegations against A were false, he was moving out of the house, and the father said it was because the CFA said he had to. Asked why four of his seven children had said they did not want to go home, he said he did not know.

The mother also told the court that she and the father had never beaten their children and there were no problems in the family. She also denied the children were sexually abused by other children, or that they had engaged in sexual abuse.

The guardian ad litem told the court that a child in another family said he was abused by Child A over a long period. He also saw the father and mother of this family being physically abusive to other children on the site.

Turning the rest of the children she said the second oldest, B, did not want to be in care but did not want to return to the site. He also wanted to continue in education and acknowledged he would not do this if he was at home. He would have an after-care plan and needed continued support.

The third child, C, had some special needs. He wanted to stay in care until he was 15.

The fourth child, D, wanted to stay in foster care. Her foster parents needed support in dealing with a child who had experienced neglect and physical and sexual abuse, and the CFA had taken that on board. She agreed with the CFA barrister that this child’s behaviour was consistent with the allegations made that she had been abused and she also said that she did not consider the parents could provide the child with safe care.

Her barrister took her through allegations of abuse made by other children, including abuse of the children in this family. Child A in this family had been accused of raping a younger child in another family frequently. Two young children in a different family had described being beaten and sexually abused by children in this family. They told their parents, who told the parents of the accused children [the parents in this case]. They then beat them and told their children to take them outside and “beat the shite out of them”.

These children also said they had seen these children being beaten by their own parents. They had also witnessed sexual abuse of these children by the father of the children making the disclosures, including the rape of the child D, and the young child who made the disclosure said his father had told him to rape her as well. “We were told not to tell in case we get into care. That’s what Mommy told me, not to tell or you’d be put in care.”

The GAL agreed with her barrister that there was independent medical evidence of the rape of the child from another family by A. She also agreed that young children in another family described being abused by A’s siblings.

Asked why she thought these children [from the other family] later withdrew these allegations, she said: “The children would have been aware of the consequences [of the disclosures]. They were withdrawn from school. They wanted to engage in school. They had never been safe. They had fear they would lose the safe place they were in now because of the reaction of their carers, one of them vomited when she heard the details of what had happened to them.

“It was a terrible time for the children and their carers and the children reacted, ‘It didn’t happen. Make it go away’. There was instability in their placement at that time and they were aware of that. There is evidence from other children of the events described by the children who retracted. The depth of contextual description of the events earlier is not reflected in the very sparse retraction. They said: ‘We thought we saw something on TV’. There is nothing on TV that could have given these kinds of details. There’s a wealth of contextual detail – taste, smell, age-appropriate and age relevant details – which would be very difficult to get other than first-hand.”

Asked about access, she said the father sat on a chair and played board games with the children. It was true he didn’t ask them about school, but he had no experience of school himself. The purpose of access was to keep contact between these parents and their children. She said she would be concerned about unsupervised access, but would like to see if there was scope in the future for the father to play football outside with the boys. Access was important for the children’s sense of identity and mental health, especially that of the younger children.

There was substantial evidence that the threshold for taking children into care had been met on neglect. Several of the children were severely malnourished. Medical appointments were missed, they were not attending school. The children could not comprehend what was meant by meal-time.

She said that conditions on the site were extraordinarily bad, but when one considered also the allegations of being tied by their necks and sexually and physically abused, she said she did not think support services would be sufficient to address the risks to the children.

The parents’ barrister said they were opposing the application for a Care Order. No allegation had been made by any child in this family against their parents. There was no medical evidence any child had suffered any physical or sexual abuse, though there was such medical evidence in relation to children in other families.

The GAL barrister said the court had to decide on a proportionate order. There was clearly a lack of parental supervision. The court had already found the threshold was reached to make a one-year Care Order. Other children had described these parents beating them and telling their own children to beat them. Another child in a different family said she was sexually abused by the father.

The children in the other family spoke of being sexually abused “all the time” by the children in this family. “How could the parents not be aware? They must have been aware and let it happen.”

Referring to the lack of disclosures from these children, he said one of the girls, when the question of abuse was put to her, started sobbing uncontrollably and she said she did not want to go home. Another girl said she would not talk in case her mother found out. He asked: “Is it surprising the older boys, against whom allegations have been made, would not disclose?”

Making Care Orders until the age of 18 for all seven children, the judge said he had heard much of the evidence at the previous hearing, where the short-term Care Orders were granted. The conditions in which the children lived were appalling. “Despite many involvements with the Child and Family Agency [the parents] have not displayed any level of understanding of their role in bringing about the situation,” he said.

“The neglect of the children would be sufficient grounds for a Care Order. I am finding as a matter of fact that sexual abuse was going on. There is clear evidence of [A]’s sexual abuse of other children and that he represents a danger to any child. The father denied any problem with A, there is a complete lack of understanding. In relation to the issue of sexual abuse, the response of the respondents of simple denial is incredible. I am compelled to make full Care Orders for each of the children.

“The parents neglected their children to the extent that the children suffered significant harm. There were shortfalls in immunisations, rampant lice infestation, the children were underweight. I also find these parents physically or sexually abused their own and other children.”

See also 2014, Vol 2, report 3