The District Court granted an interim care order for two children of primary school age following allegations of neglect and substance abuse by the mother. The solicitor for the Child and Family Agency (CFA) told the court that the mother and father were separated and the girls were living with their mother, and there were serious concerns that they were not receiving appropriate care or protection.
The solicitor said that the application for an interim care order was being made pursuant to section 17 of the Child Care Act 1991. She said that a further application was being made pursuant to section 23 of the Act to allow written statements made by the children to be introduced in evidence.
The mother was present and was legally represented. Her solicitor told the court that the application for the interim care order was being “vigorously contested.” He said that he was also objecting to the section 23 application in circumstances where the CFA was attempting to introduce “prejudicial hearsay evidence.”
The mother’s solicitor told the court that the father was also present, but was not legally represented. He requested an adjournment to allow the father to obtain legal representation and also to facilitate the appointment of a guardian ad litem (GAL).
The solicitor said he was concerned that the issues identified in the social work reports grounding the application had not been adequately set out and no assessments had been made in respect of the children. He noted that a parental capacity assessment had not been made in respect of the mother. He said the mother was currently engaging with the CFA and was willing to engage with support services going forward and said the order was not necessary in those circumstances.
The father told the court that he had attempted to obtain legal representation but without success. He said that he was “not educated” and was “confused” by the court process. He said that he wanted to be able to speak with a solicitor about the application.
The CFA solicitor said that the father had made “no real effort” to obtain legal representation and had been advised of the date for the application a number of weeks previously. She said that he was not the primary carer of the children and that it was in the girls’ best interests that the matter proceed to ensure that their health and wellbeing did not continue to be affected.
She said that the relevant assessments could not be made until the mother was deemed “stable,” and that she had failed on numerous occasions to engage with the supports offered to her. She said that the mother had addiction issues with which she was still struggling. The CFA was “very concerned” for the welfare of the children and was anxious to proceed.
The judge said the court had to “balance the rights of two young children and the right of the father to be legally represented.” She said that if the matter proceeded and an interim care order was granted, it would be very hard to “roll back” from that position. The judge said that in the circumstances it was appropriate to adjourn the matter to allow the father to obtain legal representation.
The matter was adjourned until the afternoon and the father had the opportunity to meet with and give an instruction to his newly appointed solicitor. The father’s solicitor told the court that she had spoken with him at length and his position was that he was supporting the CFA’s application for an interim care order. She said: “He has not taken the decision lightly, it is done with a very heavy heart, but he believes it is in the best interests of the children.”
The mother’s solicitor said that although that limb of his adjournment application had now fallen away, he was still seeking the appointment of a GAL before the application for the interim care order was heard. He said that it was “vital” that the girls’ wishes were considered as far as possible before the application was heard, in circumstances where the CFA was planning to remove the children from their mother’s care and place them in a foster home outside of Dublin. He said that this entailed “major considerations” in relation to all aspects of the girls’ lives.
The CFA solicitor said that the social worker could adequately deal with the concerns raised by the mother’s solicitor and that the “overriding concern” for the court was to act in the best interests of the children. She said that the threshold had been met and it was “simply not necessary” that a GAL be appointed in advance of the application.
The judge said that the court had to ensure that the child’s voice was heard. She said she was “concerned” by the move to a placement outside of Dublin which would necessitate a change of school. She said that the GAL was “an independent voice who could speak for the children” and in those circumstances she agreed it was necessary to appoint a GAL and adjourn the application until they had the opportunity to meet with the children.
The matter came back before the court on the adjourned date with a different judge presiding. It was noted that a GAL had been appointed and had met with the children and the mother, but the mother’s solicitor said that the GAL had yet to carry out a full family assessment so the mother’s position was that the application should not proceed until that was done.
The GAL’s barrister said that the GAL had carried out a lot of work since his appointment and had recommended that the girls be in an alternative care arrangement. He said that the GAL was supporting the CFA’s application.
The mother’s solicitor said that the mother had made great improvements in recent weeks and there was a “firm commitment” to undertake a full multidisciplinary family assessment. He said that she was entitled to the opportunity to “prove herself” and was willing to consent to a supervision order if the CFA was agreeable to this, but was fully contesting the application for the interim care order.
The CFA solicitor said that a supervision order had been considered but that “on balance” it was not in the children’s best interests. The judge said that he would deal with the application to admit the hearsay statements before proceeding any further.
The CFA solicitor told the court that for the purpose of the section 23 application, she needed to be able to demonstrate that it would not be in the children’s best interests to make them attend to give evidence in person. The allocated social worker for the girls was asked to give evidence in this regard.
Social worker: “I would be very concerned about either of the children having to give evidence directly to the court. Both girls present as very emotional when talking about their home circumstances. They have expressed concerns to numerous adults, including myself and at school. I feel the girls are learning not to trust adults as they have already told me and other people what their worries are but nothing has changed to date for them so their fear is that if they give evidence and the court doesn’t grant the order then they will just think that there is very little hope of any change for them.”
The mother’s solicitor asked the social worker if the girls were incapable of giving evidence in person. The social worker replied that they were “very vulnerable.”
Mother’s solicitor: “You haven’t answered the question. I asked if they were capable of giving evidence?”
Social worker: “Yes, they would be capable.”
The witness was asked if the CFA had considered the use of video-link evidence or intermediaries. The witness said that she was worried about “any level of questioning” in relation to the girls’ experiences at home.
Having considered the application, the judge said he would allow the children’s statements to be admitted in evidence. He said: “The court’s job is to assess the evidence once it is admitted and the court can disagree with the evidence regardless of admitting it.” He said that “admitting it does not mean it is proven.” The judge went on to say that the girls might feel “torn” between their loyalty to their mother and the evidence they would have to give in court. He said they might also feel that they had not been listened to if the order was not granted, which could do “a lot of damage.”
The court went on to hear the substantive application for the interim care order and the CFA called the school principal first.
The CFA solicitor asked the principal what her initial concerns for Child A were. The principal said that it was her appearance that first struck her. She said she was “very withdrawn” and there was a “strong odour” from her. She said she often looked “dishevelled” and her clothes were always dirty. She said her attendance record was “consistently poor.”
Witness: “I see the children every single day, I am very involved with them and I would make it my business to get updates on children I am concerned about. Child protection is a priority for us and we keep a close eye on children who need extra supports and the girls were top of our priority.”
The witness was asked about a particular period when the girls had missed a lot of school and she was advised that they had moved to another county. The principal said she was concerned the girls had not been enrolled in a new school, so she asked the home school liaison teacher to call to the mother’s house. She said that when the teacher called to the house, it seemed the family had not moved.
CFA solicitor: “Can you describe [A’s] presentation when she returned [to school]?”
Witness: “She presented very unclean, she had a strong odour, she was very anxious, very withdrawn. We were very worried about her emotional wellbeing. She had lost a lot of friends by this stage as she had been out of school for so long.”
The witness was asked what steps the school took to address the concerns. The principal said she referred A for a “key worker” in early 2020.
Judge: “What is key worker?”
Witness: “A key worker is someone that provides not quite therapy to children but they work with the children in relation to their emotional needs.”
The principal said she also tried to encourage the mother to bring the girls to the school early so that they could attend “breakfast club,” but the mother never took up the offer.
CFA solicitor: “Was there any particular incident which really concerned you?”
Witness: “Yes. I was extremely concerned in late 2019 when [A] seemed to have developed a sort of tick where she would make a squeaking sound. I wanted her to go to the doctor and I was told that she was referred on to a child psychologist. Her whole body was also constantly moving when she would talk to anyone and she was not able to make eye contact with anyone.”
The witness said that she also spoke with the parents and they agreed to allow her to make a referral to Barnardos. She said that a family support worker was assigned to them after that.
The witness was asked about her concerns for Child B and she said that they were similar to those of A. She said B also had a very poor attendance record and often arrived at school in dirty clothes. She said B regularly complained of being “hungry.”
CFA solicitor: “Has there been any improvement with the girls in recent times?”
Witness: “The situation is very worrying for us. There has been absolutely no improvement for the girls even though we’ve put in place a lot of supports for them over the years.”
The principal was cross-examined by the mother’s solicitor who asked what the girls’ attendance record had been like in the last number of weeks. The witness said that they had not missed any days and agreed that they had also been on time for school every day.
The mother’s solicitor asked the witness about the tick she said she had observed in A’s speech. “You don’t have any medical qualifications in speech and language therapy?”
Witness: “No I don’t.”
When asked about her own observations of the children with their mother, the witness agreed that the relationship was a “loving” one.
Barnardos support worker
The CFA solicitor called the family support worker who said that she began working with
the family following a referral by the school. She said that she initially spoke with the mother and asked her to explain what assistance she needed.
Witness: “School attendance and the presentation of [A and B] were the biggest issues. They weren’t properly clothed. There were times when I couldn’t get in touch with the mother, I couldn’t get her on the phone. The girls’ hair was messy, their shoes were too big, they had a very bad odour, and they were hungry any time I met them.”
The witness said that at the beginning she had weekly sessions with the mother and carried out home visits. She said that she discussed issues of “self-care and routine,” with the mother and that initially she was on board with the sessions.
The witness was asked to describe the family home and said that it was quite presentable at the start, but then “things spiralled” and she noticed the house was very unclean on multiple visits thereafter. She said: “There was rubbish in the kitchen and in the children’s bedroom, there was household waste in the children’s bedroom. The bathroom was very dirty, there were no tooth brushes for the girls or any shower gel or soap.”
She said that she also noticed “paraphernalia” in the sitting room. When asked what sort of paraphernalia she was talking about, she said “hash pipes.”
The witness said the mother began to disengage with the service during the summer. She said the mother stopped answering her calls, so she passed this information to the social worker. She said that she had met the girls recently in school and that A had been “very chatty” but that B was “distant” from her.
The mother’s solicitor asked the witness whether the mother had started to re-engage in recent times and the witness said she had. She said that she had made a very recent visit to the family home and agreed that the house was presentable. She said the girls were also presentable when she visited them at school.
The father’s solicitor asked the witness about a recent shopping trip the girls had gone on with the father which she suggested had been a very positive experience for the girls. The witness said that although the girls might have enjoyed the trip out, she had concerns about the father taking them out alone.
Witness: “For the last five weeks the father has been ringing me on the phone but he’s struggled to string a sentence together. I would have voice messages from him. I was concerned about what way he was presenting and whether it was safe for him to be with the girls out shopping.”
The next witness called by the CFA was a worker with a community-based support service. She said that the service gave “intensive support” to families through a programme provided by the CFA. She said that the social worker for the girls had made a referral to the service for A as she was worried she had “contracted a tick” and it was not known why.
The witness said that after the mother agreed to let her work with A, she called to the family home for the first meeting, but the mother refused to let her in. She said the mother told her she had forgotten about the meeting. The witness said there was a “very strong smell of cannabis” coming from the house at the time.
Witness: “When school started the advocate was supposed to collect [A] on certain dates from school but she wasn’t there on four occasions, so we were concerned with her school attendance. Four weeks later we had a meeting with [the mother] and offered her supports because we really wanted to ensure the girls were going to school and getting breakfast. We were concerned that we had smelled cannabis in the home on a number of occasions. The girls have very little family network and this is a concern for us.”
Judge: “There is the father, though, no? And he took them shopping recently?”
Witness: “Yes, there is the father, but we’ve only had engagement with him once.”
The mother’s solicitor asked the witness if she had observed a “warm relationship” between the mother and the girls and the witness agreed that she had. The witness also agreed that Covid-19 had impacted the intensity of the supports available to A. The witness agreed that the mother was now actively trying to improve the situation and confirmed that the service continued to be available to A.
Previous social worker
The next witness called by the CFA was the social worker formerly allocated to the girls. She said that she had been the children’s social worker between October 2019 and October 2020. She said that when she undertook her initial assessment with the family, she met with the girls and could see straight away that they were not “appropriately dressed.” She said their clothes were dirty and they had “black dirt” underneath their nails. She said the house was very unclean as well.
CFA solicitor: “What did she [the mother] say about the girls presentation?”
Witness: “She said that it was due to financial issues. I gave her contact details for the Saint Vincent de Paul. I also put in a funding request with the social work department. Another issue was that she said that the father wasn’t contributing to the girls’ care.”
Judge: “It is very difficult though, as a single mother effectively?”
Witness: “Absolutely, Judge.”
The witness said that following the initial assessment she recommended that a child protection case conference take place as she felt the threshold had been met. She said the mother was invited to attend by phone, but failed to do so.
Witness: “There was a recommendation made that therapeutic support be put in place for the girls and that they attend a GP. I supported the mother in booking an appointment with the doctor but she advised me that the girls were in good health and didn’t need the appointment, so I made the appointment myself and informed the mother of the date and she didn’t attend. We made a further appointment and the mother again said she didn’t know why the children needed to go. She didn’t bring the girls to the appointment until August. Following that, we made a referral for [B] in respect of an issue with her foot, there was an ingrown toenail.”
The witness said the doctor confirmed the girls were in good overall health, but was concerned by their general appearance. The witness was asked whether the doctor addressed A’s tick and the witness said that at the time of the appointment “she wasn’t ticking any more.”
Judge: “So there was an improvement?”
The witness went on to describe a visit to the family home following on from the appointment with the doctor. “I wasn’t allowed in, [B] was at the top of the stairs and was in dirty clothes. Because of that I decided that I would do another house visit with my team leader at the end of July. The mother let us in and I could see rubbish in the bedrooms and the girls were playing close to the rubbish. I also saw skins and cannabis paraphernalia.”
The witness said that after the house visit she wrote a letter to the mother outlining her concerns and advising her that she intended taking “legal advice”.
Judge: “Did you explain the reasons for taking legal advice in your letter?”
Witness: “I can’t remember my exact words, but I told her that unless improvements were made we would have to seek legal advice to decide on next steps.”
Judge: “So she wasn’t aware at that point, or I should say, you didn’t specifically outline that the children could be taken away from her?”
Witness: “I think she did understand it.”
Judge: “I’ve asked the question a number of times now. What did you think she understood?”
Witness: “I think she understood what could happen based on my conversations with her.”
The witness said she continued to work with the family for the next number of months and completed a number of further house visits. She said there was a referral from the school recently in October because there were concerns that the girls were not being fed at home. She said that she visited the home and saw “remnants of cannabis” in the sitting room.
Judge: “Was there food in the house?”
Witness: “I don’t remember checking.”
Judge: “But is that not why you were called to the house?”
Witness: “I can’t say what food was there, but I addressed the concerns with the mother and asked her about what the girls were eating. The mother asked the girls what they ate but they were reluctant to reply. I told the mother of my ongoing concerns and that I hadn’t seen much improvement.”
The social worker was asked about her concerns if the interim care order was not granted. “I would be concerned about [the mother’s] ability to take on board the recommendations made and the supports available to her. I would be really concerned if the girls were returned to a home where I have previously observed drug paraphernalia.”
She said that it was clear the mother had “huge love” for the girls, but that unfortunately she had not noted any major improvements during her involvement with the family.
The mother’s solicitor asked the witness whether the letter to the mother adequately explained that her children could be removed from her care if improvements were not made. The witness said that the mother was aware “through conversations” she had with her that the CFA intended seeking legal advice if improvements were not made. The mother’s solicitor said that it was never explicitly made clear to her that her children could be taken away from her.
The witness agreed that during her time allocated to the family she never asked the mother to attend any parental capacity assessment. She also agreed that issues around the children’s diet were flagged as concerns without medical input, and that when they visited the doctor, no issues were identified insofar as their general health or development was concerned.
Current social worker
The children’s current social worker described her first visit to the family home in late October. She said that the mother would not allow her to go upstairs. She said that the children were at the top of the stairs “in their bare feet” and were very eager to talk to her. She said the mother told her that the school was “being malicious” by contacting the CFA about the children’s diet. The mother told her that the children were “always complaining they were hungry,” and that “there was something wrong with them.”
The witness said she visited the girls at school the following day and noticed that their uniforms were very dirty. She said the girls were “seeking out my attention,” which she felt was because they were not getting attention at home. She said she completed an exercise with them where she asked them to write down what their “house of dreams” looked like and what their “house of worries” looked like. She said that in their house of dreams, both girls said they “loved seeing their daddy,” but that in A’s house of worries she described a particularly concerning incident.
“She told me that her mother’s cousin had come to the house and had been ‘very mean to mammy’ and that when she tried to stop him, he turned around and hit her.”
The witness said the girls were very forthcoming and spoke about how they both wished their mother would not smoke in the evenings as then she would remember to give them baths and dinner.
The witness said she conducted another home visit the following day and spoke frankly with the mother about the improvements that needed to happen. She said it was very clear that the mother was “strongly affected” and she suspected that she was under the influence of cannabis as there was a strong smell of cannabis and she could see “two rolled joints that looked like they had been lit and then put out.”
Judge: “What time was that at?”
Witness: “About 3 or 3.30pm.”
The witness said she asked the mother about what the girls were eating and was told that they had takeaways three to four times per week. The mother told her that Dunnes Stores was her nearest shop but it was “too expensive.” The witness said she suggested shopping at Lidl or Aldi and reiterated to the mother that the children needed to be fed consistently. She said she told the mother that it was also really important that the girls were washed and cleaned, but in response the mother said she did not have enough money to heat the water to run baths.
Judge: “Is there a shower in the house?”
Witness: “Yes there is but she said that she didn’t like showers.”
The witness said that on her next visit to the home in late October, the mother was again “strongly under the influence” and she smelled cannabis. She said the mother was “very reluctant” to let her in, saying that she had guests. The witness said she was allowed to go upstairs where she spoke with the mother about the impact of her cannabis use.
Witness: “She said that cannabis use doesn’t impact parenting. She told me that she didn’t want to give it up and that it wasn’t an issue. I left that day really concerned that there had been no improvements and that she didn’t understand my concerns at all.”
The witness said a child protection conference took place in early November which the mother was reminded about, but she did not attend. The witness said the mother ignored all of her phone calls. She said the professionals who attended the conference agreed that they had not seen any improvement, but rather the situation had deteriorated. She said it was agreed that they had no choice but to source alternative care for the girls.
Witness: “We called to the house two days later and I explained the outcome of the conference to [the mother]… she became very heightened and squared up to my team leader and it looked like she was going to assault him so we had to run out of the home.”
The witness said she contacted the school after the incident and explained what had happened. The school informed her that the mother had arrived at the school very heightened and had taken the girls.
CFA solicitor: “What did you do then?”
Witness: “We decided to call the Gardai. We went back to the house and saw the mother coming back with the girls and [B] was crying hysterically. The mother had accidentally locked herself out of the house and we were all standing outside and the mother was shouting about the girls being taken away from her. This was in front of the girls.”
The witness was asked whether there had been any improvement in recent times and said that there was some, “but not really.” She said that on her last visit to the family home, she asked the mother what the girls had eaten that day. The mother told her they had had cereal, but when she checked the fridge she noted that there was no milk.
CFA solicitor: “In your view is this situation sustainable?”
Witness: “No, I am really concerned that the mother has let it get to this point before she has done anything. I’m not satisfied she really understands our concerns and how vulnerable the girls are. I’m concerned about their physical needs and emotional wellbeing and the isolation they experience when left in the home while the mother is using drugs.”
The mother’s solicitor asked the witness whether she accepted that an interim care order should be a last resort. The witness agreed that it should, but said that multiple supports had been made available to the mother and she had either not engaged, or not been able to engage with the CFA. She said it was clear from the child protection conference that they had “no choice but to initiate care proceedings.”
The witness agreed that she had made three very recent home visits in which she noted that the home environment had improved significantly, but said that she had visited the house the day before and when the mother answered the door she was “smoking a cannabis joint.”
Mother’s solicitor: “[The mother] has agreed to engage with a service to address her cannabis smoking, isn’t that right?”
Witness: “Yes, but what we have been told is that whilst she is willing to engage with the service, she doesn’t see her cannabis use as an issue.”
The witness was asked about the proposed foster placement for the girls. “Would you agree that to place them in [a provincial area] would cause huge disruption in their lives?” The witness said: “I think it would cause them some disruption in the beginning, but it is in their best interests and it will provide some consistency in their lives.”
The mother’s solicitor asked the witness what level of access was being considered if the interim care order was granted. The witness said that two days per week was the plan, one day for the mother and one day for the father.
Mother’s solicitor: “That’s an extraordinary low amount of access for the mother.”
The father’s solicitor asked the witness about the mother’s cannabis use. “The father instructs me that the mother has been using cannabis for most of her adult life and he wants to know how that affects her parenting?”
Witness: “I would be concerned that she forgets to feed her children when under the influence and that her energy levels would be very low.”
The case was adjourned to the following day.
When the hearing resumed the GAL gave evidence and confirmed his report. He said he had been appointed 13 days ago and his report had been informed by home visits and the meetings he had with the mother. He said he had met with the children on three occasions, the most recent being the morning of the court hearing. He said interactions between the mother and child B were positive and warm, but he had not witnessed interactions between child A and the mother.
The GAL told the court on the first and second visits the children were unkempt, their hair and fingernails were dirty, but their clothes were acceptable. On the second visit there were four refuse sacks on the landing and one refuse sack in the living room. He said he left both visits smelling of refuse.
He said it had been wholly unacceptable for there to be rubbish in the living room given the supports that had been put in place. The children had lived in an unsuitable environment, had been chronically neglected and had not received adequate care and alternative care was required. He said that whilst the mother had engaged with services nothing had changed. He said: “The mother will initially do things but is unable to sustain things.”
He said there had been social work involvement since 2012 regarding concerns about hygiene and the presentation of the children. There had been concerns of domestic violence, drug use and an inability to meet the children’s needs despite the supports that had been put in place. The children had lived in chronic neglect for eight years and had been continuously exposed to a lack of care which had had a detrimental effect on them. He said the mother had accepted his concerns.
Counsel for the mother interrupted and objected to the GAL giving this evidence. Counsel for the mother said that no facts about the state of the house or children since 2012 had been put before the court. He said that facts had to be established before the GAL could give an opinion and facts going back to 2012 had not been established. The judge said the court cannot be ignorant that there had been concerns since 2012 and what was of concern to the court now in 2020 was that there was still rubbish in the house. Counsel restated that facts had to be proven before opinion evidence could be given.
The GAL told the court the mother had spent €50 – €60 per week on cannabis. The mother had started smoking cannabis at 12 years of age and had left home aged 15. He said chronic cannabis use made parents emotionally unavailable and absent, and reduced their ability to attune to their children’s needs. The mother had engaged with a drug service, but this was not enough, this was a weekly service, and the mother needed more support than that if she were to address her drug issues.
The mother had no contact with her own mother and no supports or family. He described at length the need for both parents to be assessed and to engage with addiction services and said the mother was willing to engage in any necessary assessments. He told the court it would be important to address the addiction issues first before parenting assessments were completed. The GAL was asked if it would be possible for the children to remain at home whilst the necessary assessments were undertaken and he said: “No, the children are in a state of chronic neglect.”
He said initially the children were reluctant to interact with him and were aware of the court proceedings. The first meeting had been a meet and greet type meeting. The second meeting the children were more engaged, talked of feelings of what they liked and disliked but he told the court the children were reticent to discuss what had been going on at home.
He said child B had started to engage openly with him, but child A had been reluctant. He said the children knew they had not received the care they should, and he had considered alternatives but that an interim care order was appropriate. He said: “Going forward there should be access and a change of school would be appropriate as it would give the children a new start where they would not be known as the dirty children.”
He said he acknowledged the upheaval and distress that would be caused if an ICO was granted but he was satisfied that it would be in the children’s best interests. The mother had considered changing the children’s school, but the children had become so distraught that she had decided not to. The GAL told the court he had discussed the children moving schools with the school principal and how a fresh start may be positive but acknowledged it might be difficult also. He stated the school would remain open to the children returning there.
He said he had no doubt of the love the parents had for their children, but they lacked any capacity to care for them and meet their needs. He said he recommended access which would need to be supported and be included in the ICO.
On cross examination by the mother’s counsel, the GAL confirmed that the mother had positively engaged with him and facilitated the children’s meeting with him. He had met with the children that morning [of the court hearing] and they were well dressed and clean. He agreed with the mother’s counsel that despite his previous descriptions an emergency care order had never been applied for and the Gardai had never been called to the house. The GAL repeated his concerns and said: “I had a scheduled appointment and there were refuse bags still in the home despite reminders from social workers and support staff.”
The GAL confirmed he had looked at the social work file but said his opinion had been based on what was happening now, from his current and direct observation of the children, the mother and the home. Counsel for the mother asked: “Why then did you look at the file, if you are basing your opinion on what was happening now, why was it necessary to look at the historical file?”
He said he had discussed a supervision order with the social workers and had reviewed the social workers’ file and concluded that a supervision order was not in the children’s best interests The judge said: “The court must look at the least intrusive option.”
The GAL accepted the removal of the children would be traumatic but that the removal had to be balanced against other orders that could be made. He said the children could not be left in an environment where their basic needs were not being met. He said the views and wishes of the children were that they wanted to stay at their home with their mother
The mother’s evidence
The mother described the children as normal children, very happy, brave, who had boundless energy and played all day, she said she had a great bond with them. She said the children only knew their mother and father. She described child A as more distant and quieter, child B was more open and loved all dolls. She said they had friends where they lived and at school. She said they children loved school and liked their teacher.
She told the court she had heard the evidence of the principal on the first day of hearing and accepted the children had a very poor school attendance and a poor routine at home. She said she had lived a 35-45 minutes’ walk from the school, the family support worker had helped her source Leap cards and helped with the routine and because of that the school attendance had significantly improved.
The mother accepted the principal’s and the social workers’ concerns and acknowledged that the children could have had a cleaner appearance, but recently a friend had been helping her with the washing and cleaning. She said that the family support worker and the Barnardo’s worker had made things much better. She said she had been managing the routine much better.
She described the support she had received and described her routines for the court. She said a school morning routine, would be breakfast, school uniforms, checking their backpacks and out the door. She collected the children from school and walked them home or used the bus. Once home, they changed clothes, played or watched TV. She said during lockdown there had been a case conference where the children were assessed but lockdown was difficult as the family support worker could not come and help her and she could not attend the centre.
She said the social workers had only given a snapshot in time and had not covered the entire routine. She had been willing to work with the social workers and going forward she would like more family support services, she said that weekly support was not enough. She confirmed she had given consent for a youth advocate programme (YAP) worker for child B and said B loved the YAP worker. The mother confirmed she worked with the YAP worker from the start. She confirmed B had been upset when the YAP worker was sick as they had been meeting three times per week and the child missed those. She hoped that this would be restored.
The mother agreed that the conditions in the home had not been ideal in the summer but disagreed with the contents of a letter sent by the social worker. The letter had stated if things did not improve, they [the social workers] would consider legal action. The mother adamantly disputed some of the allegations made by the GAL about the refuse bags on his visit. She said: “He [the GAL} did not look into the bags because if he had he would have seen they were full of old toys and paper rubbish.”
She said she had been clearing out, only one refuse sack was full of rubbish, the others were for the charity shop. She said the social worker had secured a skip for her and she had been able to sort and throw away items in the house such as clothes, toys and old furniture. She confirmed she had been given a voucher for paint and the house had been painted top to bottom. The skip had contributed to improving the house and the children had new beds. She said there were not four bags of refuse in the house.
She told the court that she had taken the children to their appointments with their GP. The social worker had made an appointment with the GP in August before school for a general check-up and the doctor had no concerns. The social worker had made a second appointment with the doctor who had said the children had put on weight. A had been referred for a foot problem. The mother told the court she had provided her consent for the social worker to speak to her GP and have access to the children’s health records.
The mother said she had never denied use of cannabis and she had engaged with the drug support services. She confirmed she had had two assessments, one by phone and one in person. She said the purpose of this was to ascertain what type of plan would be best for her to reduce her drug use. She stated that because she had used cannabis for so long it was important she withdraw safely, and it was not recommended she just suddenly stop.
Counsel asked if she was only saying this because she was in court and wanted to make a favourable impression. The mother replied: “Yes, initially yes it was, but now I know the children need me to stop and if I have to choose between the children and cannabis, I will chose my children and I will do whatever it takes.” She confirmed she would attend whatever programme the drug services recommended, she accepted she should have stopped cannabis use much earlier but had not.
She acknowledged she had talked to the children about the court proceedings and perhaps she should not have, she accepted she would do things differently now. She acknowledged she had reacted badly when informed of the case conference and she should not have responded the way she did but she said: “When I was told my kids might be taken away, I became really emotional because how else do you respond?” She accepted there was a more appropriate way of talking.
She said she had sought the advice of the social workers and the GAL. She said she disagreed with them when they said she had no insight into the children’s needs. She said now if the children wanted to talk about what had been happening in court, she told them to talk to the GAL about it.
She said she had thought that it was the job of the social workers to take children away.
She said: “I [the mother] did not understand the last thing the social worker wanted to do was to take children away and that they were there to help.” She accepted that she should have asked for help earlier. She said she had no family and no family supports and only one friend who also smoked cannabis. She said she can be and wants to be a better mother. She said she wanted to work with people to help her do this and would do whatever would be necessary. She acknowledged in the past that she had refused entry to social workers when they had called and gave reassurance to the court, she would not do this again.
She described the effect she thought an ICO would have on the children, she said it would have a terrible effect on them particularly child A. She said A was sensitive, little things hurt and it would have a terrible, terrible impact on her.
In cross examination by the solicitor for the CFA the mother was asked what she thought the children had meant when they said ‘when mommy smokes she forgets to cook dinner’. The mother said she knew that take-way food was not the most nutritious food but denied that the children were not fed or that there had been no food in the house. She said she had always made sure she had food in the house.
The solicitor for the CFA asked why, when the case conference had recommended she took the children for a check-up with the GP, she had not done so, and it was three months from that case conference before the children saw the doctor. The solicitor for the CFA continued the children had only seen him because the social worker had made the appointment. The mother said that it was because of Covid. She said you could only make an appointment by phone and she had not had enough credit. She said the GP was not seeing patients and you could not just walk-in and make an appointment like before.
The judge said: “Appointments were difficult for everyone over the last six months.”
She was asked about the allegations of the rubbish but again reaffirmed her earlier statements that the GAL had not looked into the bags and she denied that there was any odour. She accepted that she should have done better with regards to the children’s appearance.
She did not accept the assertions made by the CFA solicitor that the social worker had no faith she could or would change, there had been chronic neglect and that she continued to use cannabis even smoking a joint in front of the social worker. She said she had not smoked a joint in front of the social worker but had been smoking a cigarette.
She said she had been addicted for such a long time and she was seeking support. She said she had been advised not to just stop and that the social worker had also advised her of the same thing.
The father did not give evidence but asked his representative to make six point to the court:
- He said the mother was a good mother, but she needed support.
- That he had spoken with the children and they were happy about going to a different county.
- The children were not Catholic but born-again Christians.
- He would take any help he could from social services and wanted the social worker to have the phone number of his drug counsellor, who would provide the results of his urine tests.
- He wanted the court to know he was an uneducated man but was doing his best and that he had been saving one euro per day for each child since they were born. This money was in a credit union account and could be used if needed.
- The children needed to sleep together with the light on and the door open as they were afraid of the dark.
Counsel for the mother reminded the court the best interests of the child were the paramount concern of the court. He said removal of these children would not be in their best interests and would be a harm. He said the assertions that had been made by the social worker and the GAL that the trauma and harm done by removing them from their mother would be out-balanced and counteracted by a fresh start were not credible. A new school and clean clothes do not compensate for the loss of a mother.
He said the courts had to accept a wide variation of parenting standards and he opened UK caselaw which stated it was not the court’s business to socially engineer child care or parent children. He cautioned that the court should not remove these children because in the view of the court they would be better off in a cleaner house. He reminded the court of the principles of proportionality. He said that from the evidence given by the mother a supervision order would be the most appropriate order and the best option for the children and urged the court to make this order.
The solicitor for the CFA stated that the UK case referred to an adoption and this case was not an adoption. She also reminded the court the welfare of the children was the court’s first and primary consideration. She opened case law which stated that in exceptional cases the court must intervene.
She also addressed proportionality and said that the only order open to the court was an interim care order as a supervision order would not give the protections these children needed. She said the mother had been provided with services which included a family support worker, a worker from Barnardo’s, a YAP worker, a social worker and assistance with drug services which were all equal to a supervision order and despite all these services the children remained unkempt, uncared for and neglected and the home remains a poor environment for children and improvements had not happened nor had they been sustained. The welfare of the children outweighed the rights of the parents and these children needed to be removed to have their needs met and an interim care order was the only option left.
She opened the case of W v HSE  IEHC 8 in which Justice Peart said that the threshold for an ICO was lower than that of a care order and that the threshold had been met, she urged the court to grant an ICO.
The judge said the case was heard over two days with evidence from three social workers – two social workers and a team leader – the school principal, the family support worker, a Barnardo’s worker, a YAP worker; a GAL, the mother and six submissions by the father.
He said the court had no doubt the parents loved these children very much and the father was attempting to address his addiction issues. The judge said the mother had only now at the eleventh hour attempted to address her issues. He said the children’s welfare was the court’s primary concern. The courts were reluctant to intervene but must do so when there was an inability to meet the needs of the children.
He said there was evidence they had been hungry, dirty and had lived in squalor. Time and time again the mother had been given opportunity after opportunity to address her issues and may have done so temporarily but then reverted. He said there was no doubt the children loved their parents, but they had reached out to anyone who would care for them and they knew they were not cared for.
The judge said he had considered a supervision order but could not see how a supervision order would offer anything more than what had already been received. The amount of support already offered was superior to the amount of support offered in a supervision order and it had not worked. He said the court accepted the evidence of the CFA witnesses.
This was not an occasional use of cannabis but a chronic use, virtually every day and it was obvious the court had to intervene to save these children from chronic neglect. The judge said he was satisfied the case had been made, reasonable grounds that section 18 b and c existed and it was necessary for the health and welfare of the children to issue an interim care order pending a full care order hearing.
The judge said access should occur and be arranged between the parties.
The judge spoke to the mother directly and said: “This is a temporary order. You have the opportunity to make the essential changes and seek the necessary supports to get your act together. I know you only have one friend who also smokes cannabis, but you must make the changes, the social workers cannot be responsible for everything you must help them and they will help you,”