Interim Care Order where mother had low cognitive ability – 2015vol4#12

An Interim Care Order (ICO) was granted in the District Court for two young Traveller children suffering from neglect. The mother, who had also suffered neglect as a child, had been cognitively assessed and was found to have a low cognitive ability which was just above the cut-off point for disability. The ICO hearing centred around the question of whether or not she had the ability to learn to care for her children properly if the adequate supports were put in place.

Prior to the ICO application, the mother had been in a residential unit with her two children for 11 weeks, with 24-hour supports in place. During that time, however, there were still child protection notifications to the social work department.

The children’s father had passed away one year previously and the court heard that the mother was dealing with a traumatic grief process and was not emotionally available to her children. She had been in a violent relationship with that man and had since commenced a relationship with a new partner. Prior to living in the residential unit for 11 weeks, the mother and children had been living on a halting site with the children’s maternal grandparents. The grandmother was an alcoholic and the court heard that the halting site was a “drop-in [centre] for substance abuse.”

At the time of the hearing, the mother had no alternative accommodation and no references to give to a prospective landlord. The court heard that the only option open to her was private rented accommodation which was extremely difficult to source for members of the Travelling Community and furthermore the mother’s rent allowance would probably not cover the high cost of private accommodation.

The mother’s solicitor sought a direction from the court that adequate support structures be put in place by the CFA to promote and underpin the mother’s parenting skills. She also sought a direction for the CFA to help the mother in securing accommodation.

The hearing:

During the 11 week period in the residential unit, the mother’s cognitive capacity was assessed by a psychologist.

The psychologist told the court that the mother had absolutely no memory of early childhood, which correlated with trauma, parental alcohol misuse and violence. The mother had talked openly about the fact that her parents drank all the time, she said that her father had died at a relatively young age.

Her partner, the father of her children, had died one year previously. “She became quite tearful when she talked about her partner’s death, I asked her what he was like and she told me: ‘He was good to me sometimes, he didn’t beat me every day.’” The mother disclosed that while her deceased partner had been in prison she had been sexually abused by an uncle, but she would not divulge his name.

She was in the mild cognitive disability range which would impact dramatically on her ability to have insight into her situation. “She is vulnerable and cognitively performs at a very poor level, she would need a lot of support and could manage day-to-day tasks with support,” the psychologist said. “She has very little insight into her own needs and the needs of her children.”

The trauma and grief of her partner’s death was also impacting on her ability to care for her children.

The mother’s solicitor asked the psychologist what type of supports she would need in order to be able to parent.

“She would need day-to-day support, (she has no accommodation) she was in a high support unit for the Travelling Community, she wasn’t engaging in the support she was being offered,” the psychologist told her.

The psychologist told the court that a social environment was essential to the development of fine cognition. She said there was no way of establishing whether the mother’s low cognitive ability was innate or due to neglect and trauma as a child. However, neglect in childhood did have a large impact on cognition.

While the mother needed supports, she also needed motivation. “She doesn’t appear motivated to engage, according to the manager of the unit, but they’d need to see was that part of the grief process,” the psychologist said. “She would need visual learning with basic day-to-day care, in terms of attachment I would worry. Number one, there is her own attachment experience as a child. She hasn’t had the positive role modelling that is required.”

She said the mother was adamant she was going home (to the halting site) and had become agitated when they looked at options. “She is naturally drawn back there because it’s all she knows.” Due to a lack of assertion she was vulnerable, she had been sexually abused as an adult and was already in another relationship although she was still grieving.

Judge: “We’re not in the business of perfect parents here, just good enough parents.” Psychologist: “We’re also in the business of managing risk.”

Judge: “I’m being asked to remove these children from the care of their mother which is a draconian measure. Is this an appropriate intervention or is it a situation that with assistance and supervision the risk to the children could be managed by the Agency in line with family rights?”

Psychologist: “She is not in a position yet emotionally where she can look after her children’s emotional needs because she is too deeply entrenched [in her grief].” Judge: “We still need to test her ability to live on her own with support…” The psychologist said her information was that the mother had not engaged with her unit.

CFA solicitor: “From her own physical needs point of view could she improve with art therapy? How long do you think would be required if talking about childhood trauma?

Psychologist: “It might never be resolved.”

CFA solicitor: “If neglect and emotional abuse are the key things impacting on the children’s welfare…”

Psychologist: “The two are in tandem with one another. Neglect is the inability to care for the children on a day-to-day basis, she didn’t get a positive role model, she is bringing her experience of being parented into her own parenting and that is neglect.

“Perhaps with some tutoring she could gain insight, she is in the mild rather than moderate range, she may be able to learn those tasks but they would need to be supervised.

“We can only learn from our own parents and we bring that with us, unless we find a place of safety ourselves we impart what we know, what we have learned to know, she never left that setting really of emotional and physical neglect.

“She needs to learn to be independently assertive, her mother is a drinker, her level of expectation of life is very low; her partner was good to her sometimes because he didn’t beat her every day, this is a fairly stark level of expectation – she is not surprised that somebody would want to beat her.

“She never had herself a place of safety, her parents drank all the time. Yes she loves [her children], cares for them and wants them. I have doubts about her ability in providing a place of safety for her children. Then you are repeating the process again.” CFA solicitor: “On the overall cognitive report, what risks present for the children?” Psychologist: “Lack of insight into abstract reasoning in terms of ability to read need, attachment can be damaged where the mother is preoccupied with her own needs and there is additional complexity to this case. There are historical issues and the additional layer of grief is impacting on concerns.

“There are quite a few layers to this case; violence and neglect created the modelling for herself as a parent. Then there is the cognition, whether the disability was compounded by other things – there may have been an impact from her mother’s drinking in terms of neurological issues, there’s no way of knowing. She has learned to grow up on instinct.” Judge: “With the correct motivation and support she could learn?” CFA solicitor: “If she meets the day-to-day stuff, the task management piece, could she avoid issues of neglect?”

Psychologist: “We haven’t tested her ability to develop insight into the emotional needs of her children.”

Allocated social worker:

The social worker told the court that an aunt had been emergency assessed that week as a foster care placement. Her current accommodation did not pass the fostering requirements because she was living on an illegal halting site. Furthermore, Garda checks had been carried out and the site had been previously raided by Gardaí where pike bombs and fire arms were found. The occupants were all going to be evicted.

“The aunt has advised she would be happy to get accommodation in order to be able to foster the girls.” The department would be willing to emergency assess her again when she had her accommodation. For the moment the placement plan was that the children would remain in their residential unit and then they would move to a foster placement.

The social worker told the court that historically there had been concerns in respect of the mother’s ability to meet the girls’ needs. She was exposing them to the same level of risk she had been exposed to. There was a significant risk of on-going neglect, domestic violence and drug using behaviours. She had been exposed to her mother’s significant alcohol use and her brothers’ drug use as well as violence between neighbours. There was the potential for the girls to come into significant harm both physically and emotionally. They continued to suffer in respect of meeting their milestones and there was on-going medical neglect in failure to go to appointments.

Now the girls were undergoing speech and language therapy, OT, psychological assessments, and the Assessment of Need service.

Their developmental needs had been delayed due to a lack of stimulation. There were issues with mild learning disabilities, gross motor skill delays, dyspraxia and the girls had never formally been toilet trained. They were both still using bottles.

“The report did not state that the dyspraxia was attributable to the mother,” said her solicitor.

“Improvement in care will show if an issue is environmental or not, the reports are there to show the high level of needs the children have,” replied the CFA solicitor.

The social worker told the court that although travel arrangements had been made for the mother to bring her children to speech and language therapy, they were not always brought. This occurred despite living in the supported environment. Furthermore, the children were not always sent to school although the unit would have driven them in for her.

The mother had told the social work department that the children were attending the speech and language therapy, but they were not, the social worker said.

The mother had done a lot of parenting programmes but had shown no response and very little engagement resulted when supports were put in place. She had asked the CFA to help her source accommodation.

Mother’s solicitor: “The psychologist said this lady needs a high level of support to do anything.” What was being done to help her source accommodation?

Social worker: “The application was rejected for Sonas Housing due to her relationship with an abusive partner. It is a domestic violence supportive housing unit and she continued and actively chose to be with her partner which would endanger everybody else that’s living there. They will put in a domestic violence support worker where ever she is living instead.” Mother’s solicitor: “It is difficult for Travellers to obtain private rented accommodation, the only option open to her is to live with her mother.”

Social worker: “There is a homeless crisis so it will be difficult, but we will support her with practical support, by approaching the community welfare officer to see if she qualifies for deposits, she will get rent allowance, she can go through the central referral system, there is the potential for supported accommodation through Dublin City Centre, but they are people with addiction issues so it is not in her best interests, so it would be private rented accommodation that she would be looking at.”

Mother’s solicitor: “It will be impossible for her to get it in the next week, she needs a deposit and needs to start doing viewings.”

Judge: “Is it possible for the aunt to get accommodation?”

Social worker: “That’s what she’s told us. The other option for her [the mother] is with the out-of-hours homeless service, phoning through to the central number to see about accommodation, she would need to be with me when I do that.”

The social worker told the court that he did not think she would co-operate in looking for accommodation because she had not been willing to follow through before. She constantly went back to the halting site where her mother lived. There were emotional and dependency issues with her. She continued to draw back regardless of supports and had been in a 24-hour supported unit for 11 weeks.

“The state is not in a position to support someone who needs 24-support to care for her children,” said the social worker.

Before the 11 weeks of intense 24-hour support there had been significant family intervention with local services, assessment of need services, the medical profession, social work support, there had been “massive support that culminated in 11-week residential period, but she had shown no inclination to accept the supports offered”.

Mother’s solicitor: “Is she just not interested or isn’t able to engage?” Social worker: “She’ll agree to undertake something but she says it’s to get us off her back, she’ll agree but her actions are contrary to that agreement.”

Mother’s solicitor: “Do you not think the children would not prefer to be cared for by their mother?”

Social worker: “There would be on-going implications for their development, from my assessment and the assessment of the psychologist and [their residential unit] it’s not in their best interests and in their safety interests.”

Mother’s solicitor: “What about living in a supportive environment?” Social worker: “In the 11-week period we still got child protection notifications, even though it’s being pointed out to her, she is not identifying the risk.” He told the court that access was going to be reduced in order for the children to settle into a foster home. Their behaviours were regressing at access, during which they were shouting expletives and throwing tantrums. Access under a care order would be around identity and contact with their mother.

In relation to a possible family placement with the aunt, the social worker said that the department were waiting on information from the Guards in respect of the aunt and her husband. There were potential connections with dissident republican activities and pike bombs.

With regards to the halting site where the maternal grandmother lived, the social worker said there was significant heroin and crack cocaine use. “Essentially it’s been used as a dropin for substance abuse.”

Giving evidence, the mother told the court: “I know I messed up in the past, I will go to the Corporation and on the computer and get accommodation. I’m sorry what I did to the two girls.”

She said she would care more for them and that she would try her best. She just wanted a one-on-one parenting course.

Judge: “The two girls have health needs.”

Mother: “I didn’t know when I had my first child how to parent.” The judge said she had to make a decision on the evidence of that day.

Judge: “I have no doubt in my mind that you love your children and there is no substitute for a mother’s love.”

Mother: “I’ve had social workers my whole life.”

Judge: “You’ve had a lot, you need help.”

The judge had been informed earlier by the social worker that a Full Care Order would be sought. She asked the CFA solicitor when one-to-one parenting could start. He told her that it could commence within two to three weeks.

The judge said it wasn’t an easy decision but she was minded to the opinion that the girls had to stay where they were at the moment.

“I want you to do whatever you can,” the judge said to the mother.

“I’ll do my best,” she replied.

“I know you will, you’re not in an easy place, you’re doing good. You’re here every day.” The mother had an advocate in court with her whom she had known since she was a child.

The advocate told the court that there was a huge shortage of accommodation with regards to halting sites and that within the Traveller Community the mother’s family were often looked down upon. She said that the halting sites were tied up within families who sold on spots to the next person who moved in. The better option for the mother was private rented accommodation. However it was extremely difficult for Travellers to get into that sector.

The social worker told the court that the CFA would provide her with a support letter and a deposit, and that Threshold would help with a reference.

“You’ve a bit of work to do there now,” the judge said. “I’m coming to the conclusion that on the basis of the evidence I have heard today that I have no option but to continue the care order for 28 days, access will have to be agreed between you and the Agency if the children are moved from there.

“You sound like a woman who has a mission and a purpose, the CFA will give you every chance to parent your two daughters, you’ll get help with the housing, you’ve nowhere to take them at the moment so we’ve got to take them.”

The judge told the CFA it was their duty to find the mother a therapist who could help her “at her level, it should be looked into as a matter of urgency. She has not had an easy life, she’d had a lot of struggles, she’s had a lot of difficulties to overcome and she’s taking the first step here to address her difficulties.”

She directed the CFA to supply one-on-one parenting skills to the mother as well as assistance in any way possible in securing accommodation.

She concluded that “the courts are not in the function of social engineers mandating and setting down rules on what is the perfect parent, we have to be reasonable and tailor our expectations to the people we find in front of us, but there is a threshold of expectation in the Child Care Act. I am satisfied that the girls need to be in the care of the Agency for a period of time, 28 days.”

A guardian ad litem was appointed to the children.