GAL permitted by court to bring complaint to Ombudsman for Children about abrupt change in placement for young boy – 2023vol1#44

A judge in Dublin District Court extended an interim care order (ICO) and ordered that the in-camera rule be lifted to allow the guardian ad litem (GAL) to bring a complaint regarding an abrupt change of residential placement for a primary-school-aged boy who had been under an interim care order since summer 2022. The court was notified that this matter had been before the court on a number of occasions previously. The boy, aged 9 years, was from Dublin city but had been placed in a rural location in the North West, then with only days’ notice in an unplanned move he was moved to a rural location in the South East.

The court was told that the there was agreement to extend the ICO on a without-prejudice basis. The court heard that the GAL’s section 47 application had also been adjourned previously. The purpose of the section 47 application was to ask the court to lift the in-camera rule to allow the GAL to make a complaint to the Ombudsman for Children.

The solicitor for the GAL informed the court that the child’s placement in a privately-run residential centre in a rural area in the North West could not be continued and that a place in the South East had been made available and the child had been moved very quickly to the South East. This followed a decision of the residential placement that the boy could not stay in the same room as another boy, and the court heard that the GAL suspected that another social work team were paying a higher rate for the other boy in the placement, who had been due to be transferred.

The GAL’s solicitor said that the swiftness of the transfer was not ideal but that the child was settling in well. He said he seemed to be happy with the placement despite the very quick transition in that he was now only 20 minutes away from his brother who lived in the same county.

In terms of schooling, the court was told that behavioural schools were being transitioned out in favour of mainstream schools. The child was now off the formal priority list for placement as he had been placed. In terms of access, the court was told that access between the child and his family would be more accessible for those visiting in that the area had a better bus and train service.

The boy’s mother was fully supportive of the GAL’s section 47 application, as she had been concerned about the speed of the change in placement. She had enjoyed good access in the previous placement.

The solicitor for the father, who was currently incarcerated, said a consultation was due to take place with the father but that had not yet taken place. However, there was consent to extend the ICO and the father was anxious that the Child and Family Agency (CFA) assess him.

It was agreed that both the social worker and the GAL would update the father in relation to the child’s care plan. The father had access with his son via video link. The GAL supported the ICO application but had concerns in relation to the termination of the placement and had concerns in relation to the manner of the transfer.

The social worker had been saying that he wanted the right move for the child and that this change of placement might turn out to be a good move as the child wanted to be closer to home.

The solicitor for the GAL indicated that the GAL’s formal section 47 application was to lift the in camera rule and that all of the parties consented to it. The solicitor said that the GAL wanted to raise a complaint with the Children’s Ombudsman, with the report to go to the Ombudsman and perhaps a report to the Child Law Project. In addition, discussions were had that there may be a committee in the Dáil relating to children’s equality that it might be necessary to contact.

It was noted that there was a distinct lack of foster placements, of residential placements and of special care placements.

The social worker gave evidence to the court, based on a report handed into the court. The social worker said that the transition had been very quick, that there had just been a couple of days’ notice given. He said that the child had not being flagged for transition and there was due to be a special arrangement in place for this child.

The social worker said that previous foster care placements had broken down due to the child’s behaviour. The social worker indicated that there were available services in the area where the child had been moved to and that this move was the least impactful option available. The child’s sibling was also in the region. The child had said that he wished to participate in a specific activity and the social worker had already been in contact with an outdoor pursuits centre and several sports clubs had been identified which the child was looking forward to getting involved in.

When asked about services in the South East region compared to the North West, the social worker said that there were more services available. The social worker was also asked about schooling and he said that there were a lot of schools in the area where the child was now placed, but a tutor had been identified as an interim measure as the child needed supports. The social worker said a specific behavioural school was not available, but in any event the school system seemed to be moving away from that sort of environment.

The social worker acknowledged that it was still quite a distance for the mother to travel to access but it was significantly less travel time for her than if she had to go to the North West. The social worker felt that there would be more opportunities for the child and his sibling to meet up given that they were now in the same county. The social worker confirmed that while he had not seen the child, he had spoken with him and he seemed happier than he was. He said that in the placement in the North West the child did not have a place he could call his own bedroom, he shared a room.

The social worker confirmed that a meeting had taken place with the previous placement and with the GAL and that concerns were shared in relation to schools.

The GAL said that a transition would usually happen over a few weeks. When asked about why it had happened so quickly the GAL said he had had a meeting with the manager of the placement, who was looking to discharge the child and they had had a few meetings. The GAL said that the social work team were given two days’ notice that they were discharging the child in favour of another child who was sharing a room with this child. The other child had been making homemade weapons.

The social worker was asked had there been a breach in terms of the emergency discharge. The social worker said he did not know. He was asked about the procedure for complaints and whether a complaint would be progressed due to the inappropriateness of the child’s discharge. He was asked to comment on what the child’s needs were and he said he needed stability, predictability and schooling. He was asked about what location would suit the child best and he said that consistency and the availability of services was paramount.

The social worker said he was satisfied that the place in the South East had potential but ideally the child should be closer to home and nearer to the city. In terms of schooling, he was asked about the services that would be required and he said that the child would need a one-on-one special needs assistant and a nurture group. He said in the interim a private tutor had been identified and they were also waiting for a school to say it had a place for the boy. The social worker was asked about the lack of services and placements for this boy and the social worker said it had been hugely challenging.

The GAL was asked to give evidence and he confirmed that while he supported the interim care order application, he had concerns in relation to the transition.

The GAL said they had been in court just the previous week and just before coming to court they had been notified that there were issues for the coming weekend in that there were staffing issues in the residential placement. He said that the two boys could not be together and that the other boy had been preparing homemade weapons from razor blades.

The GAL said that he had spoken to the residential manager and the other boy was due to be on the discharge list from early 2023. The residential manager told the GAL that they had looked at the possibility of enhanced single occupancy. The GAL said that the actual reason this child was discharged might be due to the fact that another social work team were paying a higher rate for the other boy in the placement.

The GAL said that there were grievances in relation to the way the child had been treated. He said that minimum notice had been given to the child in relation to the move to the South East from the North West. The social work team had done a lot of work and had tried to identify services. The placement was still two hours away from where the boy’s mother was living and was still in a rural location. The GAL said that a child-in-care review was needed and he understood that there was a psychologist based in the midlands. The social work team confirmed that they had contacted the therapeutic service in the midlands.

The Gal continued that school would be a big issue and the child would need a full time SNA. In relation to the unit in the North West, he said the unit had been offered a higher rate of pay but had said that they could not have the two boys in the same room.

The GAL said that there had been no previous indication that the child was going to be discharged and it had always been the case that the other child was to be discharged. When asked about what the transition plan usually was, the GAL said that usually pictures (of the new placement) would be provided in advance; that there would be an overnight visit and that pictures of the room and staff would be provided. The child had got notice on a Wednesday and he moved on a Friday. The GAL said he had tried to ring at the weekend to speak to the child and could not.

The judge said that he had read the social work report and noted the difficulties the agencies had. He said that the court had anecdotal information about the situation and his own perception was that things had got worse. He asked what were the micro effects of the CFA’s difficulties on children. Having read the report without understanding what happens on the ground, he said the question was, where does the child go to bed? One needed to look at the micro versus the macro position.

The judge said that this case was a good care to highlight systemic deficiencies and failings. He said that this was a nine-year-old boy who had developmental trauma, who had been expelled from school at the age of nine, who could not get access to services and had been exposed to another aggressive boy. He said that the child had been picked up and moved from Dublin to the North West and now to the South East and he said that it had a knock-on effect due to the location of the placement. The judge said it was not a question of blame but what could be done and what could be looked at. He questioned the recruitment issues in the CFA.

In terms of reporting it was agreed that a report was to be prepared and the contents of it to be agreed between the parties and then for it to be decided who was to receive the report. Report one should outline the efforts to source residential placements and report two should outline the staffing challenges. It was agreed that the GAL would prepare the report and that perhaps a report would be sent to the Child Law Project and to the relevant Dáil committee. Accompanying the reports would be both the GAL report and the social work report.

The solicitor for the mother voiced concerns in terms of the contents of the report that it should not contain information in relation to other matters outside of this issue.

The head of residential placements in the CFA had been called to court on a previous occasion in relation to this case to give evidence about residential placements.

The judge made the section 47 order to lift the in-camera rule to allow the reports to be prepared and circulated. The case was listed again for mention later in the month.

On the adjourned date the judge who had heard the previous application was not listed to hear the case. In any event the parties agreed to adjourn the case as the draft report had just been circulated to all on the morning the case was listed. It was further adjourned to allow the parties to consider the contents and for a final version to be agreed.

When the case came back before the courts the case was adjourned again as the solicitors for each of the parties were still reviewing and discussing the draft report prepared by the GAL.

The solicitor for the GAL indicated that the report was on its third version and that it was hoped that it could be finalised within the next week.

The parties agreed that the case should be adjourned and that it should be listed before the judge who had heard the matter in depth before.

On 17 May, a finalised set of reports were sent, along with a letter from the judge, to various Ministers, public bodies and the Child Law Project.