A judge in a rural town granted extensions of interim care orders for five children, three teenagers (A), (B) and (C) and two pre-school aged children (D) and (E). Interim care orders had been granted over issues of substance abuse, the lack of supervision of the children and domestic violence. During the proceedings the judge became exasperated with the parties and asked them to leave the court to talk.
The mother had consented to the applications made by the Child and Family Agency (CFA) and was present in court with an advocate. She was represented by a private solicitor. The father was also present in court with an advocate and also represented by a private solicitor. The father had also consented to the applications.
The mother had wanted overnight access with the children over the holiday period but there was no formal access application before the court. Evidence was heard from the social work team leader and the guardian ad litem (GAL).
Evidence of the social work team leader
The social work team leader said the allocated social worker was not available and was on leave, but that she had co-authored the report. The children had been placed with various family members. All of the children were doing well and had settled in those relative care placements.
She said the teenage children had said their parents’ relationship was toxic and they had all asked for therapeutic support. The teenagers needed stability and security to heal from their parents’ relationship. She said the couple were now back together, but the mother shouted from the body of the court that they had separated and were no longer together. The team leader said the mother had entered a residential substance abuse unit, but she would be given three days’ leave from the unit over the holiday period. During this leave period she would be staying with her own mother, the children’s maternal grandmother.
The team leader said both parents wanted increased access especially over the holiday period and both wanted overnight access. She said access was currently supervised.
She was not in favour of overnight access as it was too soon and would be too confusing for the children.
There was a plan for parenting capacity assessments to be undertaken. She said there would also be discussions with the parents for a trajectory for reunification, but that trajectory plan had not been completed. The parents would be written to about the parenting capacity assessments and what would be expected of both. She said there had been issues with timely communication for both parents, but these had now been addressed.
The mother’s solicitor asked: “Have you met the children?”
The social work team leader: “No.”
The mother’s solicitor said the mother had actively engaged with all professionals and entered into the residential treatment unit. He said the mother had wanted access with the teenage children at her mother’s house overnight on Christmas Eve. He asked the social work team leader if that would be possible. The social work team leader said that she did not think it was in the children’s interest to have overnight access with their parents at this point.
The mother’s solicitor asked: “Have you asked the children what they want?”
The social work team leader: “No.”
The mother’s solicitor: “Have you talked to [the allocated social worker]?”
The social work team leader: “No.”
The mother’s solicitor said: “You have never met the children; you have not even talked to the allocated social worker have you.”
The social work team leader replied that there was significant history of trauma for the children and that trauma had had an impact on the children. The children were anxious and had repeatedly spoken of the toxicity of their parents’ relationship.
The mother’s solicitor: “How would you know? You have not talked to the children.”
The solicitor for the father said: “You said the allocated social worker was on leave, but that is not correct, is it, the allocated social worker is not Garda vetted. Isn’t that correct?”
The social worker: “No, he is Garda vetted, the Garda vetting has lapsed.”
The solicitor for the father: “You have not met the children, you meet the parents for the first time today before court, you have not talked to the allocated social worker, you do know you require authority to write reports and ask the court for orders.”
The social work team leader said she did have authority to act in this case. The children had a history of trauma with their parents and the relationship their parents had. The children were stable in their family placements.
The solicitor for the father said the father had started attending Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), was half-way through a men’s developmental network programme, was not in a relationship with the mother, had moved into a four bed-roomed house and one of the teenagers had requested to live with her father. All of these things must alleviate any concerns the social workers had for the welfare of the children.
The social work team leader repeated her previous answer that the children had been traumatised by their parents’ relationship and had settled in their foster placements.
The solicitor for the father said the father had on numerous occasions tried to contact the social workers but there had been no response. The father had received no information or updates on any of the children from the social workers. The previous social worker had left two months ago and there had been no hand over which was why the father had received no information.
He said: “You are here because the allocated social worker cannot be, because he is not Garda vetted, the last social worker left and there was no hand over, the children are upset, the father is upset, the kids are supposed to be supported by social workers, I have a long list of dates and times the father has tried to contact you.”
The judge interrupted the solicitor and said: “What do you want me to do about that?
The judge said: “I am going to rise, and you can all talk about it outside of the court.”
On the return of the parties the judge said: “It takes a lot for me to become exasperated, but I cannot micromanage phone calls or the lack of response to them and the CFA should not be bringing applications without the correct evidence and social workers not correctly vetted. I am going to hear from the GAL.”
The solicitor for the father apologised to the court if there was anything untoward on his part or the part of his client.
Evidence of the GAL
The GAL said that the children were conflicted. There were no concerns about the foster placements of the children in the wider family. He said that the wider family had protective features and emotional safeguards for the children. If the children were allowed overnight access with their parents it would give the children very mixed messages.
He said: “The court would be saying on the one hand you can stay with you parents but here is a court order to say you cannot. The children would find it difficult to understand why, if they could return for one night, could they just not return.” The GAL said that he thought it was very reasonable for the children to have a long access with the parents over the holidays as the family tended to gather at the maternal grandmother’s house. The children’s foster parents would be there which offered additional protection, but the children would not stay overnight with either parent and would return to their foster placements.
The judge said that she noted the consent of the parents and extended the interim care orders for all children for two months. She said that she would allocate extended access for the parents over the holidays and listed the access times and places. She reminded the parents that her primary concern was the welfare of the children. She noted that parenting capacity assessments were to be commenced and lifted the in-camera rule for all reports to be forwarded to the assessors. She directed the CFA to ensure that a plan was put in place to manage this case correctly.