Girl remains in care amid delays towards promised reunification – 2016vol2#18

A Care Order application scheduled to run for three weeks was adjourned after a number of days due to the unavailability of a key witness. The witness, a clinical psychologist, was scheduled to conclude her cross-examination before departing on planned leave but the hearing was delayed by unforeseen interruptions in the court’s schedule. The judge decided against compelling the witness to remain in Ireland to conclude her cross-examination. Following the adjournment, an Interim Care Order hearing was heard and the court ruled that the child should remain in care until March 2017 or until new dates for a Care Order hearing can be secured.

The case involves a nine year old girl who has been in care for over five years since she was three years of age, having entered care from her mother’s care on grounds of neglect. The child’s mother is not engaged in these proceedings, she is not contactable and so it had not been possible to serve her with a notification of these proceedings. The child’s father, who she has not lived with to date but who is a court-appointed guardian for the child, is seeking his daughter to be returned to his care.

In 2014 a two-year Care Order was made on the consent of the father. That order expired in January 2016. The two-year Care Order was made on consent on the understand that work would take place towards reunification with the father. However, the Child and Family Agency (CFA) is now seeking a Care Order for the child to remain in care until she reaches 18 years on the basis that this is in the child’s best interest. It has raised concerns about the father’s ability to meet the child’s needs. The GAL, who has worked with the girl since 2010, is supporting the CFA’s application. The father is contesting the application and seeking the return of his daughter.

Before the hearing was adjourned, three witnesses gave evidence: a psychologist, the guardian ad litem (GAL) and the social worker. The psychologist has been involved with the case since 2012 and had conducted two home visits during 2016. She provided the court with her professional opinion that the girl is unlikely to cope with a major transition in her home life. She said the child needed permanency. The psychologist relayed details of a conversation she had with the girl during a home visit in which they discussed the fact that the court would decide whether she will remain in foster care or live with her father and more broadly her relationship with her father. She described how the child became stressed on occasion and saw the case as a battle between her foster carers and her father, and wanted to be with both.

During her evidence the psychologist described her methodologies including focusing more on non-verbal and then verbal conversation. In response to the child’s displaying some concerning behaviour, the psychologist advocated a consequence-based intervention promoted by Nancy Thomas who is based in Colorado, USA. She encouraged the foster mother to adopt this approach with the child rather than a more traditional approach such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CTB) approach or a reward and punishment technique.

Counsel for the father queried the appropriateness of the Nancy Thomas methodology. The GAL said she had no concerns about the clinical practice of the psychologist but said some of the practices described to the court did raise concern and committed to follow up on the issue. Referring to one of the practices mentioned, she said: “It wouldn’t be something I would support from a parenting point of view.” The court was informed that concerns regarding the methodologies used by the psychologist are being addressed in correspondence between the parties.

The psychologist expressed concern that some of the girl’s self-regulation had started to disappear. She recommended an urgent psychological appointment with the local psychologist. An appointment was arranged but the child did not attend and the child’s behaviour deteriorated. The girl had since committed to attending in the future.

A different psychologist, psychologist B, was commissioned by the CFA to undertake a report on the father. The GAL said a meeting was needed to go through each recommendation of the plan and create a road map. She welcomed the inclusion in the report of a recommendation that a support plan be put in place to meet the needs of the father, which had been missed before.

She expressed disappointment though that in compiling his report psychologist B had not consulted with her or psychologist A. The GAL and the social worker said they did not accept his opinion on attachment. She said that despite the many different theories on attachment, a general consensus existed that by the time a child reaches about nine years of age the window of opportunity has passed and after that point the child will not form a primary relationship.

The issue of access was raised by counsel for the father who said that over the last two years “I have been working towards a reunification plan agreed by all the parties” but a significant portion of the plan was that access would be increased once the father engaged with a psychologist, which he did. This did not happen.

The GAL agreed that the current level of access is a barrier to reunification with the father and that the child had requested an increase in access. The GAL stated that she agreed with the recommendation of psychologist B about access: the child should be positively encouraged to attend access and it should be moved along. The GAL said the child had been actively encouraged to attend access over the past two years since the 2014 agreement. She said she had no concerns about the interaction between the child and the father or with them going out together during access. The social worker said access had been moving along positively and the CFA would devise a new access plan in the next two weeks. However, she confirmed that there would be no change to the access between now and the next hearing date, which may be six months away.

The GAL noted that an independent advocate has attended each of the multi-disciplinary team meetings to represent the views of the father. She stated that the aim was that access would be increased; the main obstacle to access was the geographical difference between the foster carers and the father.

The GAL said it was her view that access would increase taking the child’s views into account and actively encouraging her. She said reunification “is not an option at this time.” On being asked about the recent delay in moving towards reunification she said that there were delays four or five years ago that were of “far greater significance” than current delays.

The GAL said she would be confident that reunification was possible if all the “status quo supports” the daughter and father needed were put in place. She said that while there are “multiple possible influences” on the child’s presentation, what is known though is that there is a lack of stability in her life.

Counsel for the father questioned the social worker on incidents which occurred within the foster home and queried if these were having a negative impact on the girl.

Counsel for the father also expressed concern that the engagement between the child and the GAL had occurred by phone at the instigation of the foster mother. The GAL admitted she could not be sure the child’s views are without influence from any other party. Counsel also noted that the GAL had not met the child on her own in some time as in many of her meetings she was accompanied by the child’s social worker. She last saw the child on her own in January 2016 and briefly in June 2016.

The GAL informed the court of a planned meeting to explain to the child that the proceedings have been adjourned and to inform the child of a proposed visit to meet with the judge, for her to have a picture of where the decision would take place regarding her future. It was hoped that this would diminish the view that it was a fight between her father and the foster carers.

Counsel for the father objected to this, although he consented in principle to her meeting with the judge. The judge directed that “I am not inviting the child to meet with me if there is no objective to it”. He said he wanted to be “very clear”, the child is welcome to come but the parties must have it out “before the child is told anything”.

The judge noted that this case has had an “extraordinary passage through the courts”, it had been listed for hearing on a number of occasions. He said a number of issues remained unresolved which required a full care hearing. He noted the child had lived with her current foster carers for a number of years and it was not in the child’s interests for her stability to have an unmanaged end. He said the extension of the Care Order was “proportionate in that it is the best way to serve her best interest.”

The court granted the application for an extension of an Interim Care Order until March 1st 2017. The judge informed the court that he would seek dates for a three-week hearing for a special fixture to hear the case either in Dublin or elsewhere. He also noted that the parties were open to apply for an order under section 37 on the issue of access and listed the case for mention again in December.