A judge in a rural town granted an interim care order for a teenage girl who had recently arrived in Ireland as an unaccompanied minor. Her parents, who were from an African country, had lived in Ireland for the past 12 years. The parents had legal representation and were not objecting to the application. The mother had limited understanding of English while the father’s English was better. They had attended the court in the morning but had left before the case was called.
The court heard that when the married couple came to Ireland, they left their oldest two children in their country of origin in the care of a grandmother. They had three younger children, each of which were born in Ireland.
The two oldest children had lived in their country of origin in the care of a grandmother. However, when the grandmother died the children left this country and arrived in Ireland unaccompanied in 2021.
When the children arrived in Ireland An Garda Siochana reunited them with their parents. Their eldest child was over the age of 18 years but the child of this application, a teenage girl, came to the attention of the Child and Family Agency (CFA). The CFA helped the family to secure a school placement and integrate the teenager into family life and Irish society. However, significant problems became apparent and an application under section 17 of the Child Care Act 1991 was made for an interim care order.
The social worker said that this girl had been referred to disability services and the parents had no insight into her needs. The social worker said in his opinion she would need life-long care and he did not think she would be capable of independent living. He said she did not have a formal diagnosis but considered her to have moderate learning difficulties.
The social worker said he felt the parents could not be bothered with this girl and that the father said the girl did not respect him and was arrogant. He was unsure if this was cultural or a lack of insight of her needs. He said he had been trying to arrange to undertake work with the father to ascertain where this child fitted in the family. The father was hard to work with and was not cooperative, for instance he did not inform the social worker the child had been offered a place in a school. He said when the girl had access with the family she went upstairs to her siblings and not to her parents.
He said further assessments were needed and wanted the court to appoint a guardian ad litem (GAL) for the child.
The judge granted an interim care order for 28 days.
In a subsequent hearing, two months later, the judge extended the interim care order for the teenage girl who had significant needs, and gave a direction to issue a subpoena to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) if the teenager’s psychiatric assessment was not completed in a timely manner.
Each parent had separate legal representation. The mother was not in court but her legal representative was and said the mother was not consenting to the application. The mother’s English was described as poor and a translator was essential. The father was in court and had been granted legal aid, but no solicitor had been appointed and he represented himself. The father’s English was better than the mother’s but was still limited and he requested and was granted an interpreter.
Evidence from the social work team leader
The social work team leader told the court that apart from the very sad circumstances surrounding the arrival of the teenager into the country, the girl also had very significant needs. He said she spoke little English and had to communicate through a Google translate App.
The initial foster placement had broken down because of the teenager’s behaviour. An emergency foster placement had been secured with an experienced foster carer and this was going well. However, he said when he approached this foster carer about the possibility of making this arrangement a long-term foster placement the foster carer indicated she would not be able to meet the needs of the teenager long term.
A residential placement for the girl had been secured and she would be moving there within the next month. He said she had many challenges which included mental health, school, learning difficulties, low mood and mostly likely some form of learning disability in addition to the language difficulties. There had been weekly meetings between the professionals involved to manage the teenager’s needs. She was waiting for a psychiatric assessment. Her immigration status in the country had not been formalised.
He said the mother and father had attended a Barnardos parenting course specifically designed to be culturally sensitive. There would be a need for a parenting capacity assessment as the parents had little or no insight into the needs of this teenager. The parents were concerned and anxious that the teenager attend school and did well so that she would be able to support herself.
They had demonstrated no insight into the fact that the girl had learning difficulties and mental health difficulties and he said they believed her behaviour was just badness on her part. There appeared to be a significant lack of acceptance by the parents that this girl had difficulties and would most likely be disabled. He said he had very little information of the teenager’s life prior to her arrival in Ireland.
He said the parents with the best will wanted the teenager at home and could not understand why she was in care. At this stage reunification was not being discussed and access was difficult as the teenager went upstairs and spent no time with her parents when she did have access. When he discussed access with the girl she stated that she did not want to go home.
There were no concerns regarding the other children in the home.
The social work team leader was told by the mother’s barrister that the girl had a quiet and serious personality and that she was struggling in foster care. The social work team leader replied that she had struggled in foster care, but the girl had said that she did not want to go home. The barrister said the mother was willing to co-operate in any way for the return of her daughter and that the language difficulty was particularly significant as her daughter had no-one to talk to. The social worker said the parents lacked insight into the high level of need their daughter had. He said in the current foster placement she was calm and since her arrival there had exhibited no self-harm behaviours and her compulsive obsessive behaviour had reduced from three hours to thirty minutes, but a high level of need remained.
The judge invited the father to question the social worker and the father said when the girl had run away from home she was taken into care, but she also ran away from the foster carer’s and why did she remain in care? He said: “You punished us for that, why have you not punished the foster carers?”
The social worker said it was not about punishing anyone. The teenager had incredibly significant needs and they were not being met at home or in the initial foster carers. In the current placement she was more settled and was making progress. The social work team leader hoped the residential unit would be more suited to her and she would continue to make progress.
The father replied that in that unit no-one spoke her language. The social worker replied that the staff had been taking some basic online language class and had recently employed someone who did speak the same language as the teenager. The social work team leader said it was not that she just ran away but that she had self-harmed at home, was confused and disorientated, presented with exceptionally high levels of anxiety, compulsive obsessive behaviours and had many struggles.
Evidence of the guardian ad litem
The GAL said that it was essential that the teenager had a mental health assessment. She had been referred to Child and Mental Health Services (CAMHS). She said it was a travesty that the teenager had not yet been assessed given the level of her need.
The residential unit where the teenager was going has an Autistic Spectrum Disorder unit and would be a quiet space. The building was an old office block and whilst that was very much not ideal, the staff had made it as homely as they could. She said the staff at this placement were consistent and did not have a high turnover, which would be beneficial for the teenager. Ideally the teenager would be placed in a family environment, but given her needs and the fact that a very experienced foster carer said she did not think she could meet them, a residential unit was the preferred option rather than have another family placement breaking down.
She said the staff were already invested in the teenager and had been taking online language classes and had started to make plans for her arrival. She said the foster carer was exhausted given the repetition of the teenager’s behaviour and she had said she could not do that long term. An example she gave was the teenager washing her hands for up to three hours and the foster carer having to remove her gently from the sink repeatedly, only to find that the teenager was back washing her hands within five minutes.
The foster carer had said the level of care the teenager required was not sustainable for one person. She said the foster carer and the teenager had developed a kind and affectionate relationship and communicated through a translation App. The foster carer said she had seen improvements but little by the way of progress.
The GAL said that education was now targeted at a more appropriate level and this had also helped.
She said there was no doubt in her mind the parents wanted what was best for the girl, but they had no awareness of the level of her need. She said she worried about the parents’ level of insight and the difficulties this presented. She had witnessed an access between the teenager and the parents when the girl went upstairs to play with her younger siblings and spent no time with her parents. The girl did not want access and did not like coming and going from the parent’s house.
She maintained contact with her elder sibling through social media. She was worried about moving to the residential placement. She preferred peace and quiet and this residential unit, even with the limitations it had, would offer that peace and quiet. The GAL said the teenager would be 18 within the next 18 months and it was vital that aftercare planning started now. She said the immigration status of the teenager was also an issue but that she had been told by the father that he had been addressing this issue.
The GAL was cross examined by the barrister for the mother, who asked further questions about the new residential unit and specifically the language barrier. The GAL replied that a new member of staff did speak the teenager’s native language. There were only three other residents in the unit, and it offered a high resident-to-staff ratio, so the unit was attentive to her needs.
The mother’s barrister said it sounded like an institution. The GAL acknowledged that it was not a house but a converted office building and physically it was not ideal, adding there was a plan to transfer to a house when a suitable building was found. However, the staff had tried to create a homely environment and there was green space, and it seemed the best place to meet the teenager’s needs.
The GAL said it was just not sustainable for her to continue in foster care when the foster carer, who was very experienced, had said she could not manage this girl’s needs. She required a team of people to care for her.
The barrister for the mother asked if it would be possible for her to return to her mother’s care if the mother was given the correct supports. The GAL replied no, the mother would not be able to meet the needs of the teenager. She said she worried about what would happen if the teenager returned home, about the conflict it would create for the girl, the other children, and the parents. She said the parents’ lack of insight into the girl’s needs was something of an understatement.
The GAL was also cross examined by the solicitor for the CFA and repeated her assertions that she did not believe that one single person or two people even with support would cope with the needs the girl had. She would take three-hour showers three times a day and still believe she was not clean. She would repeat obsessive behaviours constantly and needed constant attention to draw her away from those behaviours. The parents would not be able to manage these whilst working and caring for three smaller children. She said she hoped the teenager would in time manage some form of shared residential supported living but she was not confident the girl would ever manage independent living.
The GAL said the interaction between Barnardos and the parents was positive but felt the parents had considerable work to accomplish before they gained any insight into the teenager’s needs. She said this may be for cultural reasons and the way they viewed disability, especially mental disability. She said she would keep monitoring and assessing the situation.
The judge said the threshold had been reached and extended the interim care order by 28 days. She said she was disappointed the psychiatric assessment had not been completed and it was obvious this was essential to the teenager’s future care and planning. She gave leave to the CFA if they thought it necessary to subpoena CAMHS to ascertain why the psychiatric assessment for the teenager had not yet been completed.