A judge in a rural town granted full care orders for two children, a boy (A) who was primary school aged and his younger sister (B) who was of pre-school age. Both children had significant special needs.
The mother was not present in court but was represented by a solicitor and barrister. The father was present in court and was also represented by a solicitor and a barrister.
The mother had consented to a care order for one year for both children and the father had consented to a care order that would last two years. Both parents had agreed that the threshold to grant care orders had been reached. However, the parents did not concede that a full care order until both children had reached the age of 18 was proportionate or necessary.
The solicitor for the Child and Family Agency (CFA) stated as the threshold issue had been accepted, the court would only have to consider and address the issue of duration. It was the evidence of the CFA that a full care order until the children reached the age of 18 was necessary and proportionate. A care order of one or two years was not sufficient and would not meet the needs of the children.
Evidence of the social worker
The social worker said that he had been allocated to both children for the previous 10 months and had a thorough knowledge of their needs and requirements. The children had been admitted into the care of the CFA in the latter part of 2021 when an emergency care order was granted in circumstances of neglect, substance abuse, child safety and non-cooperation with professionals who had tried to help. He said it became known the children had been left alone, and were also left in the presence of adults who were known sex offenders. A safety plan had been put in place but had been breached on many occasions.
The reception of the children into the care of the CFA had been a harrowing experience. The parents had resisted the efforts of the social workers to remove the children. A standoff had ensued and the family had barricaded themselves in the family home. An armed response unit from An Garda Síochána had been called. The children were eventually given over to the care of the social workers in the middle of the night. The children had been traumatised by this experience.
They had been in the care of the CFA since this time. He said as the threshold to meet the requirements of a full care had been accepted by the parents, his evidence would concentrate on why he thought a care order until the children were 18 was necessary and proportionate.
He said as a background the children both had significant and complex needs. The parents had both struggled with substance abuse and addiction. As a result of the parents’ difficulties the children had been neglected. The elder child the boy, A, had developmental delay and had displayed significant self-harm behaviours. Even though A was of primary school age, the only way he could be calmed or soothed was to be placed in his pram. There had been numerous safety plans which attempted to keep the children in the care of their parents but they had all failed.
The social worker said A had the most significant and highest needs of any child he had seen in his work to date. The child now resided in a special residential unit, which was incredibly unusual for a child of his age. He was cared for on a ratio of two to one, that meant two carers for him alone 24 hours per day. He was non-verbal and needed assistance with most activities. He had wide ranging sensory issues and sensitivities. He was not toilet trained. He attended a special school.
When he was first received into the care of the CFA he slept for approximately three hours a night but this had now improved, and he slept between six to eight hours. The social worker said the placement was very good for him, it met all his current needs. He would require specialised care now and into the future. While he had made significant progress, he remained a highly challenged child. The social worker said: “To be fair to the parents any parent would struggle to care for him. Two foster placements broke down because the foster parents could not meet his needs, they could not cope and these were really experienced foster carers, really experienced.”
The decision to place A in a residential unit had not been taken lightly. It was highly unusual to place such a young child in a residential placement. As very experienced foster carers had not been able to cope with his behaviour an alternative had to be found.
The decision to do so had been made between the CFA and representatives from the Health Service Executive (HSE), under the Joint Protocol, a protocol of collaboration between the CFA and the HSE to meet the needs of children with significant or complex needs. The protocol was designed to promote a culture of cooperation between professionals of both agencies to ensure the needs of the child were met. The placement was jointly funded by the CFA and the HSE under this protocol.
When A was first admitted into the care of the CFA, he had significant self-harm behaviours. He was aggressive, would constantly bang his head, fight, throw any object, lash out, bite, and throw his limbs in all directions, his only comfort was if he was strapped into his buggy. The progress that A had made since his arrival into the residential unit had been unbelievable. The work the residential unit had done with him had been remarkable. Now, he rarely self-harmed and he rarely showed aggressive behaviour.
While he was still non-verbal, he had learnt basic communication signs. Now he would take a carer by the hand to point to what he wanted. He was still not toilet trained but it was hoped this would be achieved. He attended a special school that had worked with the residential unit. While initially A would not tolerate the company of other children, he would now tolerate playing side-by-side with other children. The residential unit and the school had devised a programme which had included cognitive behaviour therapy, speech and language therapy and occupational therapy. The social worker said that the boy was doing better than anyone had hoped or expected.
The girl, B, had also shown autistic features, however she had not been formally assessed. She was also non-verbal, even though she would soon be of school age. She had remained in the same foster placement since her reception into care. The social worker said that, like her brother, since coming into the care of the CFA she had made remarkable progress and he believed this was because of her placement. He said the girl had started to babble and form some words. She now fed herself and had been toilet trained.
The social worker said: “The commitment the foster carers have made to B is just unbelievable, particular her foster mother, she has given up her job to care for her and it shows, B has come on leaps and bounds, and I hope that it will continue.” He said that B had formed a strong bond with the foster family. The placement for B had been approved as a long-term match.
The social worker said the parenting of these children had been very difficult for the parents. He said it would have been difficult for the most able parents, but these parents also had their own history of trauma, along with a volatile and turbulent relationship. There had been much stress and angst between the parents which had been further compounded by intra-familial relationships.
The social worker said the father had deep rooted trauma from his own childhood experiences, which had been blighted by domestic violence and substance abuse. He had his own issues of substance abuse.
The father had completed a parenting capacity assessment. This assessment demonstrated that the father had been very easy to work with. It showed he had a low intelligent quotient (IQ), had unrealistic expectations, and found difficulty in accepting his failings. The parenting capacity assessment had made several recommendations which had included various therapies, but the father had not engaged with any of them. For any reunification to be attempted it had been essential that the father engage with the recommendations of the parenting capacity assessment in order to resolve his own experiences. The father had to involve himself with this therapeutic work.
The father attended access regularly. The social worker said there was a connection between him and the children and he could not be faulted at access. He was child-focused, attentive to the needs of the children and able to respond appropriately to the cues of the children. However, access was only one to two hours per week with the assistance of either the foster mother or care staff from the residential unit. The children had significant needs and A needed two carers 24 hours per day. The social worker said the father had reported to him that he was exhausted after access with A. He said the father’s expectations were completely unrealistic and it was his opinion the father’s desire for reunification with his children had been an aspiration, but it was unrealistic given the children’s needs.
The mother had had a turbulent and troubled life. She had been raised in care which had involved over 40 placements. She had survived but had experienced all types of abuse.
The social worker said that he wanted the court to know and acknowledge that when she was sober and engaged in treatment the mother had been very easy to work with. The mother had been appointed advocates and had had three parenting capacity assessments.
The mother had five other children who had all been received into the care of the CFA. He said that for these five children, short orders of maybe one to two years had been made to facilitate the mother resolve her issues and to enable her to engage with the associated therapies recommended from the parenting capacity assessments. The mother had not been able to do this and her issues had not been resolved. There also remained significant substance abuse.
The mother had engaged in access which went well but then she would disengage. There had been no contact with her for the last number of months. The mother had also engaged in episodes of criminality and there were currently several charges against her before the District Court.
The social worker said that he wanted to acknowledge that when the mother was committed and substance-free she was able to attend to her children’s needs and she was very easy to work with. However, her addiction and the cycle of her trauma would catch up with her and the cycle would start again. The CFA had supported residential addiction treatment, parenting capacity assessments and residential placements with the children but they had all failed. The social worker said the mother has made many attempts at sobriety, but these have not been maintained. She was currently homeless.
The social worker said he was against a short order as the children needed stability, certainty and security. Given the needs of these children, especially A, for him to reach and actualise all his potential it was essential for him to have the services the residential unit provided. The girl had become very attached to her foster carers. The foster carers likewise had demonstrated a commitment to her which had been above and beyond what could have been expected.
The foster carer had sought and engaged in every sort of therapy to enable B to reach her milestones and reach her full potential. B had been behind with all her developmental milestones but since she had been in the care of the foster carers she had significantly improved and had started to reach developmental milestones which should have been reached years ago. The children needed full time care with people who could meet their needs. He said children can adapt but these children’s needs were so great that it was important if they were to reach any independence, which was unlikely for A, the care orders were needed until they were 18.
The social worker was cross examined by the barristers for the mother and the father.
The mother’s barrister said the mother wanted to recover and she would need at least five to six months to do this. She had commenced work in a residential unit and had engaged with all therapists. The barrister for the mother said she acknowledged the threshold had been met but it was not necessary or proportionate to make an order until the children reached the age of 18.
The social worker acknowledged the efforts the mother had made. He had been heartened that she had gone into recovery again, but the children could not wait for their mother to recover. This had happened before. He was not blind to the efforts the mother had made but her sobriety had never been maintained. The mother needed to address the traumas of her own childhood.
The social worker said in his opinion the mother may be able to attain sobriety in a few months but addressing the traumas of her own childhood would take years of therapy and this was necessary for her to be able to care for her children. He said he did not want to dismiss the mother’s efforts, but she had not done it previously and he doubted if she would be able to do it now. He said all research had shown that there had been very little evidence that people recover and very few people do.
Mother’s barrister said: “What evidence, there is no expert to give this evidence.”
The judge said: “Are you calling an expert to give evidence?”
Mother’s barrister: “No, but the social worker cannot give evidence of that.”
Judge: “The social worker can give evidence of research that informs his practice.”
The father’s barrister also cross-examined the social worker. He said there had been no referrals to any of the therapists that had been recommended in the parenting capacity assessment. The father would have attended any appointments, but none had been forthcoming.
The social worker said there appeared to have been a miscommunication about these therapies. It had been his understanding that referrals had been made and the father had not attended. He said he would ensure any referral was remade and inform the father accordingly. He said the father regularly attended access and gave 100 per cent to his children. He was extremely committed, and he had no doubt that the father’s intentions were of the highest good.
However, the children had extensive needs, A was most likely to need care for his entire life and B would need significant input if she was to reach any form of independent living. These children needed long term placements that would meet those needs. Despite the best intentions of the parents, they could not now or into the future do that. The social worker said he accepted that full care orders until the children are 18 were the last option and there was no crystal ball, but he believed a full care order until the children were 18 was necessary and proportionate.
Evidence of the GAL
The guardian ad litem (GAL) said she had been appointed to the children when the first interim care orders were made and had watched the children’s progress over that time. What was of note was that both children loved being outdoors in all weather and they both loved nature. She said she would not be able to convey to the court adequately the progress the children had made.
With regards to A, it was unprecedented that so young a child as A would be placed in a residential unit, but it was the best placement for him. The two foster placements had really tried to cope with his behaviour, but it was not possible. These had been very experienced foster carers, but his needs were too great. His residential placement had attended to every single one of his needs, including a boot-maker to help him overcome some walking difficulties.
The GAL repeated she could not impress upon the court how good the placement was and how much A had come on since his arrival. She said: “The placement is just on top of their game.” She said A had stopped the self-harm behaviours, he recognised the staff, and he would take a carer by the hand to show them what he wanted. The school A attended also met all his needs. He loved going to school and going on the bus to school. This was such a change from when he was first received into care.
With regards to B, the GAL said again it was a brilliant placement. She said B had her own difficulties and was to undertake an assessment in the coming months as she had displayed autistic features. She said the foster carers were committed to B and the only time she was not in their care was when they attended a wedding abroad. They had wanted to take her with them, but it had not been possible to organise a passport in time.
She had recommended respite for the foster carers, but the foster carers were not keen on this. She wanted to ensure the foster carers had all the support they needed so the placement was protected. B had started to talk, had started to play in an age-appropriate manner and had made progress in all areas of her development. When B was first received into care she would not make eye contact with anyone and would not look at the foster carers, now she runs to them. She attended creche and it was hoped she would attend mainstream school, but this would be kept under review.
The GAL said she had been involved with the mother’s other five children. The mother had participated in three parenting capacity assessments, and they had all made the same recommendations, which was that the mother needed intensive psychological therapy to address the traumas from her own childhood. Unfortunately, the mother had never been able to engage with this therapeutic work. The mother would have bouts of sobriety, engage for a few months but had been unable to sustain this engagement. The father had also participated in a parenting capacity assessment but had not engaged with the recommendations from that. She said the father needed to engage with the therapeutic work the parenting capacity assessment had recommended.
She said she was supporting the CFA’s application for a full care order until the children were 18 because the children had made such progress. The children were content in their placements, they were secure, and it was in their best interests.
The judge asked: “Do you think a short order is appropriate, it will give the parents time to address their issues.” The GAL replied: “No, the children cannot wait for the parents to address their issues, they have not done so in the past. If things change, if they [the parents] do make progress and address their issues they can always come back to have the orders discharged.”
The father’s barrister said that the threshold had been accepted but the court had to make the least restrictive order. The father had positively engaged with the parenting capacity assessment. He would positively engage with the therapeutic supports. He regularly attended access and at access he could meet the needs of the children. A care order of two years would permit him to address his issues and prepare to care for the children.
The mother’s barrister said that the mother had entered residential treatment and she would need five to six months’ treatment. After that she would engage in therapeutic work to enable her to care for the children. She repeated the assertions of the father’s barrister that the court had to make the least restrictive order.
The solicitor for the CFA said that whilst the parents’ intentions were very good intentions, they were not sufficient to meet the needs of the children. The court had heard the progress the children had made to date and with regards to B she had started to catch up to her peers. He said it was in the best interests of the children to remain in the care of the CFA where their needs could be met now and into the future.
The judge said she wanted to thank the parents for their input into the proceedings. She noted the father had attended on each occasion and that the mother was not in a position to attend that day. The parents were doing their best.
It had not been easy for the parents, but the decision she had to make was what was in the best interests of the child. She said there were two children who both had exceptional challenges now and into the future. A was non-verbal and below his development milestones but had adapted and was now making the most of his world. He had a high level of need that would challenge any parent. B also had her challenges but had developed significantly within her foster placement.
The court had to consider the rights of the children with their needs, the rights of the parents and the rights of the family unit, all of which fall under the provisions of the Irish Constitution. She said she had to balance the rights of all involved. The parents conceded that the threshold for a section 18 full care order had been met. What had to be decided was if it was proportionate and necessary for this order to be made until the children were 18 years.
The judge said it was proportionate and necessary for her to make an order until the children were 18 years of age for the following reasons: the children had unique and exceptional needs that had to be met; they had thrived in their respective placements and had made progress that had surprised everyone; these placements had met the needs of the children in a manner that their parents had not.
She acknowledged the difficulties the parents had faced as children themselves and also as adults, but the children could not be denied safe, secure care that met their needs while the parents addressed their own issues.
A full care order was not the end but the beginning. The CFA had a mandate to conduct child in care reviews every six to 12 months and at each of these reviews reunification had to be considered. The CFA had to give all supports to the parents to enable them to be reunified with their children. If, as the parents had stated to the court through their counsel, they did intend to address their issues, then reunification would be a possibility, but the parents had to decide this for themselves.
She said that she would make all the usual directions associated with a section 18 order but noted that she directed that access between the children and their father be increased. The father was to be invited to school plays, outings, and other milestone events. She also directed that the CFA were to fund A’s boots and any other equipment or appliances that he would need. She wished the father the very best in his recovery and directed that her best wishes be extended to the mother of the children.