High Court hears of many issues with availability of onward placements – 2021vol2#14

A recurring issue in the special care list is the availability of onward placements for children transitioning out of special care. Observations have been made by the judge who hears the special care list in respect of the location and suitability of a number of placements. Here we publish five examples.

Girl with high risk behaviour

In one case the CFA had identified an onward placement in another county, which the child involved and her mother were not happy about. They wanted a placement closer to the city and family members as it was difficult with public transport to visit the placement. The judge observed that there were some “ongoing problems with the placement of children with problems, some placements are too close to [the city centre] and others are too far… there has to be a degree of compromise”

The young person had issues of extremely high-risk behaviour, drug use, sexual exploitation and there were concerns that she didn’t have any sense of risk or danger and adults had no control over where she was or who she was with or what she was doing. Another placement was identified but concern was expressed that the residential until had been threatened with petrol bombing by individuals that were owed money for drugs supplied to two residents of the unit. The judge was concerned how the CFA could ask the court to approve the young person’s placement in such a unit where “if history repeats itself drugs are available to her.”

Judge: “I appreciate that many onward placements pose challenges because of the very nature of the difficulties which the children in special care present with, but as I have already said it seems to me from what I have read, and in circumstances where it is not suggested that the information is false, concerning the threats and problems within the unit, it seems to me that it is foolish to place a child with a drug habit in that unit where there are already two individuals trying to recover from a similar habit and in circumstances where it appears from what I have read that drugs are readily available in the locality and have been accessed by both of the other two individuals in the unit.”

A further extension to the special care order was required due to the inability to identify an appropriate onward placement. The judge was concerned that the child had been identified for transition out of special care and was no longer in need of it, but the issues in the case was caused by the inability of the CFA to provide a placement and that was what had created the risk.

The judge expressed doubt as to whether the requirements set out in the statute to make an order for special care could be satisfied. The barrister for the CFA told the judge that the young person was the number one priority of the agency and they were working full-time on identifying a placement. The barrister said that the CFA understood that it was not satisfactory for the young person to stay in special care because of the lack of a placement but the only other option would be for the young person to return home or a further application for special care.

Judge: “I am concerned that the special care order regime is being used for a purpose for which it was not intended and the statute was not envisaged… to detain a child who should not be detained because of no suitable residential placement for the child. I have concerns about a recurring problem of suitable placements being unavailable for children who require transition. I appreciate that many of these children present with problems that make it very difficult for residential units to be satisfied that they can cater for their needs, but because it is a recurring problem something needs to be done. There is a case before me that there has been a refusal in excess of 20 residential placements and there have been several refusals for this child.”

The judge made the extension of the order and was subsequently updated that a placement had been identified. The mother was concerned about the location of the placement as she was dependent on public transport and the GAL said that the child had reported that she was “reluctant to be placed down in the sticks as she sees it”. The judge asked for the young person to be encouraged and to try and persuade her to try the placement.

Teenage boy with emotional dysregulation

A teenage boy had first been in special care over a year earlier and presented with continued dysregulation and struggled with emotional regulation which could escalate quickly with property damage. The young person had previously been involved in a serious level of violence and criminality including car-jacking.

The court was told that the young person came from a dysfunctional background that had impacted on his development. The special care order was extended as the young person required a further period of emotional stability to engage with therapeutic supports. The special care order came to an end after six months and the young person was placed in a residential placement.

The matter was re-entered before the court and the judge was told that there was a concern that he was “using pocket money from the State to pay off a drug debt” and there was a concern that he might have been selling drugs to pay off the balance of the debt. The guardian ad litem was concerned with how the young person was presenting since the special came order came to an end.

The judge expressed concern about the residential placement and said that an investigation was required in respect of the concerns legitimately made, and whether it was a suitable placement or if the young person needed to transfer placement. The judge questioned the appropriateness of the placement and said that the young person “appeared to have a bigger drug problem now than since he went in there”.

The judge said that he was alert to the fact that all of the residential units were operating in difficult circumstances with children with serious problems and it would be wrong to expect that difficulties would not arise from time to time. However the judge noted that the particular residential unit had featured in other reports, and noted that there was a drugs environment surrounding the unit.

The young man was to have one-to-one staff care but was not getting the supervision envisaged and had returned to the unit under the influence of substances, drugs had been found in his room which led to “strong support to the view that this child and young man is supplying drugs while in the care of the CFA and in a residential centre provided by them.”

The judge noted that placements “were not lining up to take him from special care” and he was fortunate to obtain the placement. The judge questioned the suitability of the unit as a step-down placement for children with drug abuse problems.

A few weeks later the court was informed that the young person was no longer in the residential placement following a breakdown in the step-down placement and he had spent the previous night in a hotel supported by staff. A referral had been made for him to return to special care having regard to the level of drug use and the guardian ad litem said that it was clear that a new application for special care was now warranted.

The court was subsequently told that the special care committee had met and it was found that the young person did not meet the criteria for special care. The GAL and the mother were surprised by the decision and indicated that they might wish to challenge it by way of judicial review. At that time the young person was living in an adventure centre with staff hired in and the GAL was concerned that it was not clear that the staff were qualified, it was not registered as a residential unit in compliance with the Child Care Act, and that the child was “to some extent effectively homeless”.

Judge: “It is a struggle for the agency and for this court to find suitable step-down placements in situations where the predominant problem the child has is substance abuse and it applies perhaps to the majority of cases in this list. It struck me in reading the papers that [the location of the adventure centre] was providing opportunities that were not available in […] other step-down placements as many are in urban areas where there is easy access to drugs.

“A simplistic approach, but it seems to me the agency needs to look at step-down placements being provided in areas where there isn’t the easy access to drugs that is manifest in respect of a number of the step-down placements which are currently available. The recurring problem in this list is of finding suitable step-down placements. It does seem to be the issue that occupies much of the time and energy of the agency, the GAL and the parents, finding a suitable place and making it work. That needs to be addressed and work needs to be done in finding step down placements that are likely to work.

“If we look at step-down placements objectively it is not a surprise that children placed in some placements run into bother at early stages, when they should be kept out of the situation to give them an opportunity or chance to change the lifestyle that brought them into special care in first place.”


Nearly three months after the breakdown of the onward placement the court was told that no other placement had been identified and the update position was that the child was living in a hotel. The judge expressed extreme concern and that the case highlighted the lack of suitable placements for children in care nationally. He said that “much of the good work done in special care has been unravelled due to the lack of a safe and suitable step-down placement” and it was something that had to be addressed and he was not satisfied that steps were been taken to put in place suitable placements at a national level, it was a recurring problem.

The court was told that the mother had issued judicial review proceedings as the young person was in emergency homeless accommodation for some period of time. The judicial review proceedings were adjourned as a potential placement had been identified. The guardian ad litem wanted clarity as to whether the placement could keep the young person beyond his approaching eighteenth birthday so it could be somewhere “where he can put down roots”.

The court was provided with an update after the young person moved to the new placement and the judge was told that it was “going well so far against the backdrop of a chaotic placement situation.” The judicial review proceedings had been withdrawn when a placement was found by the CFA. The question of after care and whether the young person could stay in the placement after he turned eighteen in the coming months was an issue raised by the guardian ad litem that required clarification.


Boy using drugs, joy-riding and involved in criminal behaviour

A special care order had been made late in 2020 in respect of a teenage boy who had been the subject of a voluntary care arrangement with the CFA. There were concerns in respect of the young person’s drug use, criminal behaviour and joy riding.

At a review hearing of the order the court was told that his attendance at school was 65 er cent “which is OK compared to where we were before special care.” There was a difficulty in identifying an onward placement given the level of risk and the young person was adamant that he did not want a residential placement after special care.

The judge said that he was not aware of the position in the special care list historically, but now there were more cases requiring extensions of the special care orders than not, and that cases running to the second extension was an “undesirable habit”. The judge said that in many cases the first extension or second extension could be avoided if the transition plan started earlier.

The judge said that “three-month orders are three months for a reason” and work needed to be done during that period. He was anxious that work be done on the identification of step-down placements and increasing the availability of step-down placements in appropriate locations. There was an over concentration of such placements in Leinster and places other than Leinster should have suitable placements. After approximately six months in special care a step-down placement was identified for this child and the special care order expired. The matter was removed from the list as it remained under the jurisdiction of the District Court child care courts


Boy with criminal affiliations, drug use and suicidal ideation

Another case involving a teenage boy had issues in respect of identifying a step-down placement. The young person had affiliations with criminal gangs, high risk of absconding, drug use and suicidal ideation.

The court was told that the CFA had exhausted all options internally and the case was referred to the private placement team. The court was told that ACTS was of the view that this child should be encouraged to attend third level education and he had surprised himself how much he had enjoyed school in special care. The court asked for an update in respect of the availability of Youthreach but the emphasis remained on formal education and that with some encouragement the young person might continue to study at third level.

The judge highlighted again the recurring problem of step-down placements and said that although many cases had not stabilised in three months there were several cases that could be transitioned out [of special care] if step-down placements were identified in a timely fashion. The judge emphasised that if children are ready to transition out of special care there should be a step-down placement available for them to do so. The judge said: “There is something wrong with this system at the moment” and that it is “not an issue of funding but logistics, management and organisation and something needs to be done about it.” The court said that it was not possible to make an education plan without an identified step-down placement.

Judge: “What is happening here, and appears to be happening in several cases, is what best can be described as drift. The drift starts in week one of placement. Everyone knows a step-down is required and nothing is done until it is too late. A particular problem is where the discussion is continuing. It has to stop. Step-down placements are as important as the period in special care and they need more management and organising and some sort of networking between placements available, the CFA and private placement team so people know what is going on in placements that might be available.”

A step-down placement was eventually identified for this child and a further extension was required in the case. The guardian ad litem supported the extension and it was said that the young person’s “insight into the dangers of the criminal world is minimal if not zero”. The transition was described as “not going smoothly” and the court heard that the young person was involved in criminality and in particular with drug dealers in his area.

The judge noted that the child had benefited from special care but it was a “perilous position” that required continued provision of special care and a short extension to facilitate the transition. The young person was in special care for approximately six months.

At the post discharge review the court was told that the CFA was not seeking a further review and a District court care order was in place until the age of majority, which had been in place since the young person was aged 4.

The barrister for the guardian ad litem told the court that the child had had a very traumatic childhood, witnessing domestic violence by the father now separated from the mother, there was addiction in the family and the mother suffered from ill health. It was said that “he was very motivated in his time in special  care and he was determined to never go back there again. He was very aware of this High Court review and [the court] continuing to keep an eye on him and it has been powerful motivator to get him to behave well.”


Serious criminal behaviour, drug and alcohol abuse

Another teenage boy was brought into special care as a result of problems with serious criminal behaviour and drug and alcohol abuse. There was suspected involvement in the sale and supply of drugs and there had also been inappropriate sexualised behaviour. The young person came from a dysfunctional background and his father was serving a life sentence for murder.

There was significant detail provided to the court in respect of his involvement in drugs, property damage, assault, robbery, aggression and significant substance misuse. The mother was supportive of the placement in special care but was eager to ensure that any step-down placement was not in Dublin due to the risk of his peer group in the city. Difficulties arose with identifying a step-down placement and it was said that a rural placement at the other side of the country “doesn’t appear to be a runner”.

Judge: “I know I said in the past that [the CFA] should look outside the Dublin area for step-down placements and that is my view but location must also factor in what the child is familiar with and likely to be comfortable in. It seems to me to be courting disaster to move to [the rural county].”

The judge noted that the young person engaged with special care and had been a short time there and there was now an onus on the CFA to identify a placement. The guardian ad litem said that the child has “done the work and everybody agrees he has done the work” and he deserved a placement. The judge said that it was almost “rubber stamping the belief of the CFA that they can come in again seeking an extension of four weeks where a placement has not been identified in a timely fashion”.

A placement was ultimately identified and a short extension was permitted to allow the transition plan to take place. A further extension was sought again as unfortunately due to a Covid outbreak in the onward placement the transition was put on hold.