Full care orders granted for two children following allegations of neglect, sexual abuse and domestic violence – 2019vol2#17

Full care orders were granted for two brothers by a District Court in a rural town. Evidence was heard of allegations of neglect, sexual abuse, domestic violence and problematic sexualised behaviour between the children.

The case ran for eleven days, 11 professional witnesses, the children’s father and maternal grandfather’s partner were heard. The witnesses included three social workers, a guardian ad litem, a psychologist, Dr A, who did a risk assessment with the children, a psychologist, Dr B who did a risk assessment with the parents, a psychologist, Dr C who did a parenting capacity assessment with the parents, a family support worker with the family from a voluntary organisation, a play therapist and a residential worker from A’s placement.

Two interpreters were used for the parents whose first language was not English. Both parents were legally represented. The care proceedings had been before the court since 2015 and the CFA social work concerns went back to 2013. In delivering her judgment the judge said she was satisfied that the threshold of evidence had been met regarding the evidence required for a section 18 (full) care order. The mother, through her solicitor, initially neither consented nor objected to the order but towards the end of the proceedings consented to the order and the father, through his barrister, and in his own evidence sought a shorter two-year care order.

Reviewing the evidence at the end the judge said: “It appears both parents in their own way love and care for their children and it is evident that both came to their relationship with significant adverse backgrounds. [The father] grew up in an orphanage and there he suffered indescribable hurt and pain, his father was violent and [had] issues with alcohol and his mother did her best. [The mother] was only 14 years of age when the relationship [with the father] started and was 16 when A was born, still a child herself. The mother was part of a family that culturally created a dependent and submissive role for women. The evidence confirms that this family was governed by a series of negative dynamics.”

Both parents were members of an ethnic minority within their European country of origin and had lived in Ireland and England with extended family. Shortly after they left their extended family the couple’s relationship broke down. The mother became homeless and lived in a B and B with her children. The father moved to another town. The children came to the attention of the CFA when, aged four and eight years old, they were found wandering around the streets and there were concerns regarding school attendance and lunches.

Initially the children were placed on a voluntary basis with the maternal grandmother, her partner and three children as the CFA considered the children were familiar with their extended family. Following difficulties arising in their extended family placement and the decision to separate the children, as recommended by their risk assessment, they were both placed with interim foster families. A was then placed in a residential placement when a foster placement was found difficult to secure and B was placed in his current foster family.

The court heard from the CFA that securing a foster placement for the older boy, now a young teenager, had proved difficult due to the boy’s profile of problematic sexualised behaviour but that the CFA was trying to secure a foster placement. The court directed that the CFA should continue to source a foster placement and to review the boy’s profile quarterly with all the appropriate professionals including but not limited to Dr A and the guardian ad litem. 

Extended family placement

The father’s barrister drew the social worker’s attention to the fact that before the children’s placement the CFA had child welfare concerns regarding the mother’s extended family and their care of their own children. The social worker acknowledged this but told the court that the child welfare matter had been closed and the placement proceeded. The children had no routine, poor school attendance and poor self-care, using towels instead of toilet paper when they came into care, the court heard.

Initially the children settled, and the CFA put in intensive family supports through a voluntary organisation. Each child had his own key worker and speech and language therapy and educational assessment were provided. A day care placement was found for B and support was given around the transition to starting school. B remained in his existing school and supports were provided through a special needs assistant. The voluntary organisation did a Stay Safe programme with the children around keeping themselves safe and the boys slept in separate bedrooms as recommended.

The maternal grandmother’s partner was the main communicator with the voluntary organisation and was in daily contact. The maternal grandmother and B had little English. However, the court heard the placement broke down and the maternal grandmother’s partner admitted to having difficulty managing the boys and he admitted to hitting A and to the children watching inappropriate videos which he owned. The court heard a fostering assessment had never been completed on the extended family placement.

Neglect, physical abuse, domestic violence, parental self-harm and drug abuse.

Several witnesses gave evidence of the children’s presentation and the disclosures made regarding abuse. A’s social worker said he told her that they could go to bed whenever they wanted, that he often looked after B when his mother was asleep and would take him out of the house when his parents were fighting. A disclosed that his father sold things to buy drugs and they only had food for breakfast. A said he saw his father try to cut off his own hand and when he asked his father why, he said because his mother was cheating on him. A was scared and went to the bedroom to cry, the social worker told the court.

The guardian ad litem (GAL) outlined to the court the behaviour of the boys when they first came into care. “A very graphic picture was painted in regard to how the boys were without food and [regarding] toileting and I accept the guardian ad litem’s opinion that such behaviour is indicative of severe neglect and abuse,” the judge said in her judgment.

The court heard several allegations and disclosures made by the children to various professionals. A alleged that his father hit him with a TV cable and put him in a cold shower as a disciplinary method and B alleged that his mother used a small stick to hit him. A and B alleged they were made to kneel on rice by both parents. The children disclosed domestic violence, their mother attacking their father with a knife, hitting his father with bottles of water and throwing plates at him, and their father hitting their mother. A was aware that his father was using drugs and he had asked him to stop, the court heard. On another occasion, A mistook talcum powder for cocaine at a swimming pool, his residential key worker told the court. The father agreed to undergo drug screening where he tested positive for cannabis, the court heard.

When giving evidence, the father admitted physical abuse and told the court he hit his wife in self-defence. He admitted to being under pressure and losing control. The father told the CFA solicitor in cross examination that he had changed and that he would go to a different room now and walk away in the same situation.

The boys had had three social workers to date, and each gave evidence to the court. “The first important thing to say [is] they are two lovely boys,” one of the boys’ social workers told the court. Both boys had an interest in sports and films, the court heard. She said: “I am fortunate to be the boys’ social worker and I wish them well in the future.”

Problematic sexualised behaviour and disclosures of alleged sexual abuse

The court heard there were concerns regarding the children’s sexualised behaviour and their exposure to sexual behaviour. A told his social worker that he walked in on his parents having sex and that he had seen porn movies and Grand Theft Auto at his extended family’s home with an older child. When A had asked his mother’s relative, also a child, about sex, she had shown him a video on YouTube.

There were social work reports of different men staying at the house with the boys and different men dropping them to school. A told his social worker he was not happy with his mother’s boyfriend staying over and when the social worker visited the man in question, he told her there was an allegation against him by his sister when he was younger which he rejected. The mother agreed with the social worker to ask the man to leave her home, her solicitor told the court.

There were reports from the boys’ mother to the CFA that she witnessed sexual activity between the two boys. There was a report from the maternal grandmother’s partner that B disclosed to him that he had witnessed A in the bathroom with his father’s penis in his mouth. B repeated this to the family support worker on the same visit. The family support worker agreed with the father’s barrister that B’s language development was delayed but had progressed and she could not recall whether the disclosure was said in English or translated by the grandmother’s partner. There was a difficult relationship between the maternal grandmother’s partner and the father alleged that B was being influenced by adults in his allegation against him.

The father denied sexual abuse on his part and told the court: “I want to clear my name.”

The court heard there were concerns regarding alleged child sexual abuse of the boys’ young teenage aunts by another adult outside the extended family home.

Father’s barrister: “Would it concern you that the children were alone with someone where it has been suggested [he] had been involved in a sexual assault with cousins in the same environment?”

Forensic psychologist: “Yes, it would concern me.”

A disclosed to social workers that he raped B and B had said: “A fucked me” to his social worker a number of times. B was aged six at the time of this disclosure. The court heard A was physically aggressive towards B and A was sad when this happened. Following the disclosures, the CFA social worker consulted An Garda Siochana and it was decided to proceed with a Garda specialist interview as it was considered best practice to consider any criminal aspect. No criminal prosecutions resulted from the interviews. Both children were referred to a forensic psychology service for risk assessment and to recommend the type of therapeutic intervention the boys needed. As a result of this assessment, the court heard the boys were placed separately and received therapy.

A had 50 sessions with the forensic psychologist Dr A and when asked by the father’s social worker she acknowledged that A had never indicated that his father or anyone else had touched him sexually. The forensic psychologist went on to say that A may have been exposed to sexual behaviour or his acting out was triggered by domestic violence. Both children had experienced early childhood trauma and a domestic violence background was often present in children who acted out sexually, the court heard. Weight was given to the cultural significance of the children’s background where they were often in the home of their extended family and wider community. The forensic psychologist recommended a risk assessment on both parents and therapeutic intervention for both boys, the court heard. 

Parental risk assessment

The court heard evidence of a parental risk assessment undertaken by a psychologist, Dr B, who had expertise in this area. The outcome of the assessment was that the father was considered at low risk of committing violent offences, family assault and sexual offences in the future. The mother was considered to be at moderate risk of committing those offences.

The psychologist told the court that the father had potential to work on himself but stated that she would be concerned if the children returned to his care. When the CFA solicitor put to her that the parents did not understand the definition of abuse following their parenting course she said: “That was concerning”.

As part of the recommendations of this assessment both parents undertook a parenting and psycho-educational course with another private service which had expertise in the area. Both the assessment and the course were conducted by private services and funded by the CFA and both produced reports and gave evidence in court.

Parenting and psycho-educational course

Both parents underwent a specialist parenting and psycho-educational course and the psychologist, Dr C, delivering the course gave evidence. The court heard there was a theme of blame on each parent’s part. The mother blamed the father for the children coming into care and she was found to have poor reflective function and a real lack of learning following the course. The father had a limited toolbox of skills and when under pressure a parent could revert to more innate parenting styles, the psychologist said.

She concluded that both parents had poor insights into what child abuse is, had minimised the less than optimal blend of care the boys received and had a poor understanding of the long-term impact on A and B. The children were traumatised and had a very poor tolerance for extra stress and what was most concerning, she said, was that both parents continued to demonstrate a lack of understanding of what constitutes child abuse and had a long way to go. When the father’s barrister suggested that the father had enjoyed the course and was starting to make links, she told the court the father had a lot to learn and she did not know whether he could change enough for the boys. 

The father

The father gave evidence of being in care from the age of two with his siblings in an orphanage in his country of origin. He told the court that his father was a violent alcoholic and he had some contact with his parents. He described a cruel environment and physical abuse at the orphanage and he knew of sexual abuse of other children there. He told the court that he suffered discrimination within the orphanage due to his ethnicity. When the political regime changed in his country, some improvements occurred, and he said his teenage years were better and he learned some skills at school there.

The maternal grandmother and her partner encouraged and supported his relationship with the mother and bringing him to join them in Ireland, the father said. He was 19 and she was 14 when they began their relationship. He told the court that the mother’s stepfather organised a job for him but kept his passport and his wages. Difficulties emerged in the relationship and he alleged he was assaulted by the maternal grandmother’s partner. When asked why he travelled back to his home country for the mother to give birth to their first child, he told the court that he was advised by the maternal grandmother and partner there was a risk of him being deported.

The court heard the father had attended counselling and practised meditation and was willing to undergo further parenting courses as recommended by the CFA. The father had a younger child, C with another person from whom he was separated. He had regular access with C, and he told the court he found the parenting course and the parenting advice from C’s mother helpful. The father told the court he now had regular employment in a hotel and he had secured shared accommodation. He was seeking a two-year care order to allow him time to work with the CFA towards reunification with his sons and to secure suitable accommodation, he told the court. At the end of the evidence the father’s barrister made a submission to the court.

Father’s barrister’s submission

“A has five years left in his childhood. B has nine years left in his childhood. The court has heard the evidence of the start of both children’s childhood. [They] were surrounded by extended family as immigrants in Ireland. The father gave evidence of his own background, growing up in an orphanage, and the positive side was his education.

“[The question is] if these two children were parented by a wider community or their mother and father. If the court looks at the time the family was together as a unit and the context: there was poverty, [they] were not familiar with the English language, they had no job. The court heard the father gave care to the best of his ability, which he has acknowledged wasn’t perfect.

“What the court sees going forward, the father is not in receipt of social welfare [and is] working to provide a home. Since 2014 he has learned to converse in the English language and participated through the Irish system to open up his personal life to Dr B and Dr C and social workers in order to get his children back. The court is obliged not to act on suspicion, but solely on [the] evidence before [it].

“First of all, the allegations of sexual abuse perpetrated by the father on A. A never made this allegation and [this] allegation made by B was in the context of a pre-arranged meeting. I say to the court the credibility of the maternal grandmother’s partner has to be questioned. Regarding the sexualised behaviour, look at when the first report of sexualised behaviour [was made], in 2014, and a break of nearly a year. The activity appears to have escalated when the children were in the care of the grandparents.

“The CFA solicitor just indicated in order to give stability and structure a full care order until 18 [is required]. I would say to the court, [there is] no stability in the position A is in. A fostering advert was made on his behalf, but the court heard a foster placement is unlikely. The only possible experience of family life is with this father. I say to the court it is in the best interests of A to have a short order.”

The father’s barrister told the court the father had not had access with B since 2016 and there had been written communications, but the court had heard evidence that it was hoped with supports the father could build a relationship with B. The barrister said: “Under the UN convention, the child had a right to preserve identity and family relationships. Language was part of that and should be encouraged.” The court heard the father was discouraged from speaking in his native tongue with A at access as the staff were unsure of what was being said.

The father’s barrister: “On his own admission, he was not a perfect parent. He had modified some of his disciplining technique and used those. He apologised for giving A rap music with words the court found inappropriate but in my submission [this] was on radio on a daily basis. He should not be penalised. Neither child is likely to be hurt if returned to their father’s care. I would ask the court, in considering submissions, that the court is proportionate in order to ensure the children’s welfare, culture, identity and going forward a short order would be appropriate.”

The mother

The court heard the mother moved between her home country and Ireland and England with her mother, stepfather, three younger half siblings and extended family. Her education was disrupted and she lived in an impoverished background. At the end of the evidence being heard, the mother’s solicitor made a submission to the court.

Mother’s solicitor’s submission

“She accepted responsibility for not protecting her children and keeping them safe. She was not offering an excuse but only by way of explanation – her lack of education, her impoverished background and upbringing, and at a young age when she became pregnant with A, [she was] a child herself and this, coupled with an abusive and controlling relationship, with language and cultural difficulties, she hopes will explain to the court the deep sense of shame at what happened with her two children. Her sorrow, remorse, sadness that the two boys are in such a vulnerable and tragic situation.

“She wishes to outline to the court her deep and sincere love for her two boys. It is her hope in the future with therapeutic intervention and engagement with the CFA and the necessary professionals that she can rebuild a relationship with both boys through access. I would say the mother has made great changes in her life and she is in a stable and loving relationship and has a five-year-old son who is of no concern to the CFA or any professionals. She supports the application made by the CFA is respect of the two boys. “

Access between the brothers and with their parents

The court heard evidence that since the brothers had started individual therapy there had been no access between them for therapeutic reasons and no access for B with either parent for almost three years. B’s play therapist who was also a child psychotherapist was unable to tell the court when this would resume. The mother had no access with A or B for nearly three years and the father had supervised access every six weeks with B.

Need for permanency

The guardian ad litem, through her solicitor, told the court she was supporting the CFA application in respect of A and B until they were 18 years old.

The guardian ad litem’s solicitor said: “Unfortunately, neither the mother or father have developed sufficient skills to understand the children’s needs and respond.”

She told the court there had been a number of assessments and there was no suggestion in these assessments that the mother and father were in a position that the children could be reunified with them. “In fact [they] highlight the lack of insight both have regarding their children and what happened before coming into care. These assessments have put the children’s permanency on hold,” she said.

She added: “As all assessments are completed, [there is a] need to prioritise the children’s needs for the future. [It is] only when permanency, security and stability for the children is achieved [that] true recovery can occur and as the guardian ad litem said, a short-term care order would only undermine the process. Therefore, we are supporting the CFA’s application for a full care order up to 18 and believe a two-year time frame is not a sufficient time frame to achieve change in the children’s lives. “

The children’s placement and progress

The court heard when the children were separated in 2016 following both difficulties in their extended family placement and as a result of the recommendations of their risk assessment and therapeutic intervention, they both went to interim foster placements for a short period. B then moved to his current foster placement which the court was told will remain his long-term placement under the care order. He was very settled in his placement and although his presentation at play therapy was not always as positive as that with his foster carers, he was found to be doing well, the court heard. The guardian ad litem told the court that B was in an excellent placement.

His play therapist who was also qualified in child psychotherapy told the court that B was not yet ready for access with his parents or his brother and more work needed to be done with the foster carers to support B around this. The court directed that this therapy continue to be funded for B and in the event of a breakdown in delivery that the matter should come back to court, the parties to be notified and the CFA to source a suitably qualified therapist within four weeks of any breakdown.

The judge said: “B appears to have made great strides in his current placement, but one line [from a play therapy report] sums up his current emotional status. He is still in a place where he thinks he is bad as opposed to thinking something bad happened to him.”

Following an interim foster care placement, A was placed in a private residential facility funded by the CFA as the CFA found it very difficult to place him in a foster placement and the social worker told the court she tried six different fostering agencies. There were two other children in the facility. A had his own key worker who gave evidence to the court. She told the court that initially A presented as very eager to please and willing to engage and was comfortable around staff members. Over time she said he could present with low mood and he would have found it challenging to engage. She described A as having low mood in the evenings before bedtime.

Father’s barrister: “Do you think tiredness was a trigger?”

A’s key worker: “Perhaps more loneliness going to his room by himself. He did like to spend a lot of time with the staff members. Even if you left the room to go to the bathroom, he would be calling you after a minute to see if you were coming back.”

He had received speech and language therapy to help him express himself and he had a special needs assistant in school, the court heard. At the start of his placement he talked more about returning home to his grandparents. Access was set up for the maternal grandmother and her partner, but they did not want to attend, the key worker said. A wanted to see his father and “I know he worried about his father,” A’s keyworker said. A missed B, the court heard, and spoke about going to see him. When asked by the father’s barrister, the keyworker told the court A spoke about returning home to his mother and father individually.

Judge’s findings and judgment

In her judgment the judge found all the elements of the threshold under s18(1)(a), (b) and (c) of the Child Care Act had been met. The judge said: “Based on the evidence presented to this court I found both boys exposed to sexual behaviour and material while in the care of their parents and to an extent it was one of the constituent factors in their acknowledged problematic sexual behaviour. Dr A cautioned against focusing solely on the problematic sexual behaviour and emphasised the boys should not be defined by this behaviour. In addition to this problematic sexual behaviour, the numerous disclosures made by B and A satisfy me and I find that they were exposed to a general level of harm and neglect while they were in their parents’ care to meet the threshold under section 18(1)(a) and (b)”

Based on the current therapeutic level of therapeutic intervention required by A and B and the assessment of Dr B and Dr C in respect of both parents, the judge said: “I’m satisfied the threshold under s.18(1)(c) has been reached” She said: “A’s own perception to Dr A is very telling. ‘They made me but couldn’t take care of me.’

The judge said: “Balancing all the evidence I am satisfied that the orders should be made until the age of 18 in respect of A and B and [I am] satisfied it is proportionate to make those orders and I am making full care orders until the age of 18 in respect of A and B. However, extensive work needs to be done to continue to restore the father’s relationship with B and the mother’s relationship with A and B and also work needs to be done to look at the possibility of restoring and supporting a sibling relationship between A and B.”

The judge gave a number of directions including the continuation of speech and language therapy for A and play therapy and dyslexia support for B. She directed that A be referred to CAMHS. She directed the parents be supported by the CFA in making passport applications for the boys and to review at a later stage to see if the boys are entitled to Irish passports. Directions were also given to support and supervise access between A and his father and access to be at the discretion of the CFA.

The children’s culture and identity

The judge directed the CFA carry out a review as to what cultural and language supports should be put in pace to promote their culture and identity.