Interim care order extended; unsupervised access directed; reunification planned – 2023vol2#16

The judge in a rural town granted an extension of an interim care order for a pre-school boy but directed the Child and Family Agency to increase the access the mother had with her son and that it could be unsupervised.

An interim care order had been made 14 months previously and had been extended each month since that time. The mother had always previously consented to the extension applications but on this occasion she had instructed her solicitor to contest the application. The father was incarcerated, and his legal team had sent an email to the court which stated they would not be able to attend and that he neither consented not objected to the extension of the order.

The mother had experienced significant difficulties in her life which had included domestic violence and substance abuse. She had undertaken an addiction treatment programme and had been sober for the last two years. She had provided twice weekly urine samples to the Child and Family Agency (CFA) for the previous 14 months. She had completed a parenting capacity assessment (PCA) which had recommended a specific therapy, known as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy.


EMDR therapy

The court heard that Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is a relatively new therapy method that involved moving eyes in a specific way while traumatic memories are processed. This therapy was recommended for the mother by the parenting capacity assessor. As the therapy was very specialised it had taken some time to find a qualified therapist, and this had involved significant travel for the mother. The mother had commenced the therapy and a report would be furnished by the therapist after the mother had completed the first block of therapy.

(EMDR relies on the Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) model, which is a theory about how the brain stores memories. During normal events, the brain stores memories smoothly, it also networks them, so they connect to other things that are remembered. During disturbing, traumatic, or upsetting events, that networking does not occur correctly. The brain can go “offline” and there is a disconnect between what is experienced (felt, heard, seen) and what the brain stores in memory through language. Often, the brain stores traumatic memories in a way that does not allow for healthy healing. Trauma is like a wound that the brain has not allowed to heal, the court heard. As there is no chance to heal, the brain does not receive the message that the danger is over.

Newer experiences can link up to earlier trauma experiences and reinforce a negative experience over and over again. EMDR has been used in treating a wide range of disorders. There have been dozens of controlled trials and research studies which have analysed EMDR and demonstrated that it is effective.)

Evidence of the social worker

The social worker had said that the mother had made great progress, remained sober and continued to provide twice weekly urines. She had commenced the EMDR therapy and had recently received positive news in regard to her accommodation. It was hoped the mother would be able to move to local authority accommodation within the next month. The mother had engaged positively with all professionals, including those from the mental health team. She said that the mental health team has recently changed their diagnosis which had been a significant development. The change of diagnosis had meant the social worker needed to liaise with the parenting capacity assessor to ascertain if this meant any changes to the recommendations the parenting capacity assessment had made.

The mother had been homeless and had been living with her mother. Their relationship had been difficult at times and it was not a suitable environment for a child. However, as the mother had been allocated a council house, this had resolved the concerns the social worker had over the mother’s accommodation.

The social worker said the mother had had a barring order against the father of the child and the mother had told her their relationship had ended. The mother had access with the infant twice weekly for two hours and this was supervised.

She said that since the last court date she had not had contact with the father, but it was her understanding that he remained incarcerated and had commenced a detoxification programme.

The social worker said the mother had made great progress and hoped this would continue. However, she said the concerns of the CFA remained, which included a chaotic lifestyle, substance abuse, homelessness, mental health difficulties and domestic violence. As the mother had not completed all the recommendations of the parenting capacity assessment, the recent change in her mental health diagnosis and her housing situation, the threshold for an interim care order remained.

In cross-examination, the mother’s solicitor said: “For the last 14 months the mother has been sober, she has engaged fully with social workers, mental health professionals, the parenting capacity assessment and has secured a council house. How can that be described as chaotic?”

The social worker replied: “Yes, the mother has made great progress, I am not denying that, but there is still some way to go.”

Mother’s solicitor: “Do you have concerns about the mother’s sobriety? “

Social worker: “No.”

The mother’s solicitor: “Do you have concerns about the mother’s ability to engage with professionals?”

The social worker: “No.”

Solicitor: “Do you have concerns about the mother’s interaction with the infant?”

Social worker: “No.”

Solicitor: “So what is the problem? You do know you have to have reasons for an interim care order.”

The social worker replied that there had been major concerns of addiction and mental health. There had been associated concerns of domestic violence and homelessness. She said the mother had engaged with services, with treatment and therapies which had commenced but they had not finished. There had also been a recent change in her mental health diagnosis and the social worker wanted to ascertain from the parenting capacity assessor if this would change any of the recommendations made.

Mother’s solicitor: “I have to say you are just dragging your feet.”

The social worker replied: “No, we are not, we have to be careful.”

The mother’s solicitor said that circumstances had changed significantly. The mother had produced clean urines for the last 14 months, she had engaged productively with all professionals and was in a different place compared to when the interim care order was first granted. He said that a supervision order was now the appropriate order to make.

The judge said she wanted to hear from the guardian ad litem (GAL).

Evidence of the GAL

The GAL said she supported the CFA’s application for an extension of the interim care order as she felt it was not the right time to return the infant to the mother full time. She said the infant knows his mother and they have a wonderful relationship. The progress the mother had made had been a privilege to watch. The mother had done all she could do to be reunited with her child. She said she had watched an access and it could not have been better. The GAL said she had spoken to the access worker about the access and the access worker had replied she had no concerns about the mother’s ability to interact with the infant and respond appropriately to the infant’s needs.

The GAL said: “In fact, the access worker told me that she [the access worker] had left the access to use the bathroom and when she returned, she saw the mother singing a lullaby to the infant which she would not have done in the presence of the access worker.” The GAL said it was essential that access be increased and that the mother have some unsupervised access. This would permit a timely and smooth transition back to the mother’s care.

The GAL was asked about a supervision order by the mother’s solicitor. The GAL replied that she would not recommend a supervision order at this time. She said the fact the mother was receiving such specialised therapy, which had obviously helped, meant she wanted the mother to have the ability to complete this without the stress of caring for a very young child. She also said it was important that access be built up to facilitate a smooth transition. The GAL said that she would have liked to have seen a roadmap and schedule for this.

The mother did not give evidence.

The judge said she would extend the interim care order but by her own motion directed the social workers to increase access immediately and to provide the mother with periods of unsupervised access in addition to the increased access. She directed the social workers to develop a schedule of access which would facilitate the return of the infant.

The judge spoke directly to the mother and said: “This is not a failure or a loss, this is to encourage you to keep going, your child has been in care for some time, we cannot change things overnight, that would not be good for the child. You must have more access and unsupervised access and that is what I have ordered, and I will keep it under review.”

The interim care order was extended for 28 days.

Subsequent hearing

At a subsequent hearing the court heard a reunification plan was in place.

The social worker said the infant continued to do well and had met all his developmental milestones. Since the matter had last been in court there had been no significant developments or changes with the infant, who continued to thrive.

The social worker said the mother continued to do well and had secured council housing. The accommodation needed furnishing, but the mother had linked with local charities and social services to help buy necessities. She said the mother continued with her access and now had unsupervised access. Access would move from an access centre to the mother’s home once she had moved in and was settled.

The child-in-care review had been bought forward, a trajectory for reunification had been completed and it was hoped the mother would be reunited with her child in the summer of 2024. The social worker said she would continue to collaborate with the mother to ensure all the steps of the reunification plan were completed. These steps included a safety network and attendance at a parenting programme.

There had been a deterioration in the relationship between the social worker and the father. The father had missed his appointments with the social worker and had missed access visits. She said she hoped that the father would re-engage with her. The social worker confirmed that she would ensure there was extra access for the upcoming holidays.

The parenting capacity assessor gave evidence that since she had completed the parenting capacity assessment there had been a change in the mother’s mental health diagnosis. She said the mother’s psychiatrist had said the mother no longer fulfilled the criteria of any mental health diagnosis or personality disorder and the mother had been discharged from the mental health service.

She said that while she did not agree with this, as she had felt the mother did have some personality disorders, it was not her place to a make a formal diagnosis for legal reasons. She said the mother had some anxiety issues but that was to be expected from the complex trauma from her own life history. She said that the change in the mother’s mental health status had not made any significant changes to her recommendations in the parenting capacity assessment.

She was aware the mother had started some eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. She had completed some sessions, but this therapy was to continue. The parenting capacity assessor had also recommended dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), a type of talking therapy based on cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). DBT was specially adapted for people who felt emotions very intensely, aimed at helping people understand and accept difficult feelings, learn skills to manage those feeling and become able to make positive changes in life. The mother had not engaged with DBT because she had engaged with the EMDR, but this therapist could also offer additional therapy, if needed. She said the mother had done well and had responded positively to the changes and recommendations the parenting capacity assessor had suggested.

The GAL said that she was supportive of the extension. She warmly welcomed the reunification plan. She said that she had nothing to add since she had last been in court. The GAL had visited the infant and he was thriving. She was reassured that access had increased and there was some unsupervised access.

The judge said she was pleased with the progress and on the consent of the parents extended the interim care order for three months.