Interim care orders extended amid concerns for mother’s mental health – 2021vol1#5

The District Court extended an interim care order for two boys of primary school age where there were continuing concerns in respect of the mother’s mental health, following the making of an emergency care order earlier. The judge said it was clear the children were “bright and happy,” and that the mother had been dealing with “very difficult circumstances” at the time they were taken into care, but the order was necessary in the circumstances.

The solicitor for the Child and Family Agency (CFA) said the mother had a history of mental health concerns and there had been a number of referrals in respect of the case. She said An Garda Siochana had invoked section 12 of the Child Care Act, 1991 (which gives An Garda Siochana the power to take a child to safety) on three occasions since August 2020.

She said the mother had “consistently failed to engage” with the CFA, and there had been “sporadic contact with the father” since the initial interim care order had been made. She said he was not present in court and had not engaged since the last court date.

The mother’s solicitor said the mother was contesting the application to extend the interim care orders. She said she was “a very vulnerable individual” and was the sole carer of the two boys. She said the mother accepted she was struggling when the children were taken into care, but the main issue was lack of suitable accommodation which had caused her significant stress. She said she was “desperate” to have her boys returned to her.

The solicitor for the guardian ad litem (GAL) said the GAL was supporting the CFA’s application, but was also strongly recommending further supports for the mother.

Social worker’s evidence

The social worker gave evidence that she had been allocated to the boys since early 2021. She said there had been a number of “worrying referrals” from the various accommodations the family had been staying in, relating to the mother’s mental health. She said the mother had failed to engage with the CFA “for the most part.”

Witness: “One of the issues has been engagement with the safety assessment. We have made no real progress on this to date. We had a recent meeting with [the mother] to discuss her safety network and she said she would like for the boy’s two older sisters to be involved more with them, and she also mentioned [the father] being included in the safety plan. We would have concerns around [the father] because of violence in the past.”

The witness said the mother had not addressed the concerns the CFA had regarding her mental health and her ability to adequately protect her children “when she becomes overwhelmed.” She clarified that it was clear the boys had been very well cared for, that there were no behavioural issues of note and they had no issues in school.

She said: “They are very friendly boys and have settled in well in school and have already made friends. I spoke with the principal and he has no issues with them. Their foster carer says they are always very eager to go to school and are very happy to be there.”

The witness said she was not recommending reunification at the moment as a number of risk factors had been identified and still needed to be assessed. She said: “The fact that an emergency care order was made in January has to be taken into account.” She said the Gardai were called to the accommodation where the family were staying at the time because one of the children had alleged his mother had struck him on the arm with a knife. She said the Gardai attended the accommodation and took the decision to invoke section 12 of the 1991 Act.

In cross-examination, the witness agreed that at the time the emergency care order was made, the mother was living in one room accommodation with the boys, and was home-schooling them alone during a strict Covid-19 lockdown. She accepted this was a stressful situation for the mother.

The mother’s solicitor said the mother was aware she was not coping and “reached out for help,” initially in August 2020 when she presented to a particular hospital, and again in October 2020, when the CFA was involved. She said the mother felt strongly that she was not getting the support she needed from the CFA.

Witness: “I’m not aware of her attending [a particular hospital] in August.”

Mother’s solicitor: “The details are in the previous social work report.”

Witness: “Well throughout our involvement with [the mother], from the time of the initial referral, she hasn’t engaged with us. We tried to identify supports for her previously, but because she wasn’t willing to engage, it was difficult to take it further.”

The mother’s solicitor said the mother was very anxious to secure appropriate accommodation and suggested this might alleviate a lot of her stress and enable her to focus on “bettering herself.” She said if the mother had a proper home, there was no reason why the boys could not return to her.

The witness said the children were not in care simply because of the circumstances around the mother’s accommodation. She said the mother was still failing to actively engage with the CFA while the boys were in care, so if they were returned, there was a fear she would stop engaging altogether.

The witness was asked about the level of access in place between the mother and the children. The solicitor said that the mother was only getting 30-minute phone calls with the boys twice weekly, which was “just not enough.” The witness accepted that telephone access was “not ideal,” and that the foster carers had reported that the boys had been “upset” following most of the calls. She said face-to-face access had been hampered because of the Covid-19 restrictions, but the intention was to restore physical access in the next week or so.

Mother’s solicitor: “But even before the restrictions were in place, isn’t it the case that [the mother] was only getting one hour face-to-face access per week with the boys? Do you think this was enough?”

Witness: “The boys foster placement is in [a provincial city]. The mother lives in Dublin, so there are some logistics to consider in looking at the access arrangement.”

In terms of the safety assessment, the witness accepted the mother had put forward her two older daughters as part of her safety network and said there was no issue with this. The witness said the mother had also suggested involving the father in the safety plan, but it was “too early to say what part he could play,” and a number of assessments needed to be carried out in this regard.

GAL’s evidence

The GAL said she was supporting the application to extend the interim care order. She said she had met with the mother prior to the meeting in relation to the safety assessment. She said the mother was very clear that she wanted her children returned to her care as soon as possible.

She said: “We talked about her housing situation and how difficult that has been for her. She wants to better herself and is really focused on getting better accommodation. What was evident to me is that she is willing to engage with the department and she did engage with me when I spoke with her.”

The witness said there had been “challenges” for both the mother and the CFA because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but that the CFA needed to work with the mother going forward to help her understand “what she can do differently this time and how the children can be at her centre and feel protected.”

She said it was clear from the safety assessment that the mother was “quite isolated,” with “a limited safety network,” so it was very important for the CFA to identify necessary and appropriate supports for her. She said it had to be borne in mind that the mother was not Irish and had many challenges to overcome in that regard. She said it was necessary to understand how the mother “functions and deals with stress, because it doesn’t appear she was getting the help that she needed beforehand.”

In respect of the boys wishes, the witness said she had met with them in their foster placement and they expressed their wish to return to their mother. She said she did not think the mother was at a point where the children could be returned to her care right now, but was hopeful that progress could be made over a period of time.

She said: “I think there should be a dialogue with [the boys] about the reasons why they are in care. I think this should be included in the care plan. They need some sort of narrative to protect them going forward.”

In respect of access, the witness said it was very important that both the mother and father remained part of the children’s lives while they were in their foster placement.

CFA solicitor: “Just to clarify, with regard to any supports and referrals for [the mother], this will require her to fully engage, and it’s fair to say that this has not happened to date?”

Witness: “From what I have seen, it has been a huge request from her. I think she feels she was wrongly judged last October when she sought help, and this had a negative impact and became a real barrier for her in engaging with the CFA, so it’s important for the department to understand, listen and to help her to do the same. I think a collaborative approach is needed.”

Mother’s evidence

The mother gave evidence that in August 2020 she was aware she was under a lot of stress and presented to a particular hospital in order to get help. She said she made arrangements at the time for her children to be cared for by a friend. The mother described a subsequent incident in October 2020 when she was working in the kitchen of the accommodation she was staying in at the time with her sons.

Mother: “It was a very long day, I was cooking. I came back to the room and then the staff came to my room and told me to go back and clean the toilets. I wasn’t aware that the manager was going to call the police.”

Mother’s solicitor: “I think the Gardai invoked section 12 [of the Child Care Act, 1991] due to your level of intoxication and erratic behaviour. Were you intoxicated?”

Mother: “No, I had drank three glasses of red wine. I told the police the accommodation wasn’t suitable. The police said they would speak with Dublin City Council the following day and see what could be done.”

The mother went on to describe a more recent incident in January 2021, which had led to An Garda Siochana again invoking section 12 of the Child Care Act, 1991. She said the incident occurred while she was staying in new accommodation with her children. She said the room in question was “a little bigger,” and the family had their own bathroom this time, but it still did not meet their needs. The mother said she was preparing the boys to do their online schooling, but one of them wanted to continue playing a game on his tablet. She said that when she refused to allow him to continue the game, “he locked himself into the bathroom and wouldn’t come out.”

Mother: “I had to use a sharp thing to open the door. My son ran down to the reception and said that I hit him with a knife. When I came down to get him, the reception people were just looking at me. I went back to my room and then the police came.”

The mother was asked if she was happy with the level of access in place with her children. She said she barely spoke with her children, and the social worker had advised her in January that he would look into facilitating more access, but this had not occurred. She said she was committed to engaging with the CFA going forward and to any recommendations within the safety plan. She said her two eldest daughters had promised to help her with the boys as well.

Mother: “The school principal says [the boys] come to school every day and are very happy. I will do anything to get them back to me.”

The judge noted that the father had been served with the proceedings but had not appeared. He said that having heard evidence from the GAL and the social worker, he was satisfied the threshold continued to exist to extend the interim care order. He added that it was clear there was “a real difficulty, in that the children are obviously bright and happy and were going to school.” He said the evidence related to stress on the mother’s part and that she had been dealing with very difficult circumstances.

Judge: “So I think it’s a very difficult one. It’s difficult for [the mother] to see this, but from where I sit, the CFA has a statutory duty to deal with children who come to their attention. They must be satisfied that the children are safe, as is their duty. The question is how we can move on from where we are today so that the boys can return to their mother safely I am sure that if [the mother] works with the Agency, she will benefit, but it will take some time.”