A judge in a provincial town extended the interim care orders for pre-school girls and by his own motion directed a referral be made to a specialist trauma therapy centre. This application was heard immediately after a section 47 application made by the mother for the court to direct that the girls’ move foster placement had been refused.
The mother remained in court with her solicitor and barrister, the mother had consented to the application to extend the order. The father was not in court but was represented by a solicitor and barrister, he also consented to the application.
Section 47 application
The mother had instructed her legal team to bring a section 47 application for the girls to move their foster placement because of her concerns. Section 47 of the Child Care Act 1991 permits any interested party to make an application to the court for the court to give directions on the child’s welfare.
The Child and Family Agency (CFA), contesting the Section 47 application, said they had addressed the mother’s concerns about the placement and believed the placement was a good placement for the girls which met their needs. The CFA was fully contesting the application.
She said that she had concerns about the girls which centred on their appearance at access. Their hair looked greasy and unwashed. Their clothes looked unkempt and dirty. The girls were lifeless, quiet, and withdrawn. The girls had not thrived at this placement and she had reported these concerns to the social worker.
The mother said the social worker had said that the foster mother had been using an oil in the girls’ hair as they had a dry scalp and this had made their hair look greasy. The mother had replied to the social worker that she had had several children, she [the mother] knew about rashes and dry skin. She said the social worker had said the girls had been dysregulated and had fretful sleep the night before access it was this that had made them look tired the next day at access. The mother said she had not accepted these reassurances.
She said at an access visit when she took one of the girls A, to the bathroom, A had said to her that another child in the foster placement, a boy, had hurt her bottom. When A had said this, she [A] dropped her head and covered her genital area with her hands. The mother said she reported this concern to the social worker immediately on her way home from access.
She said the social worker told her she had no concerns about the placement, and she would investigate the matter fully on Monday morning. The mother said the social worker had not taken her concerns seriously, it was a matter that could not have waited until Monday and the social worker had not investigated the matter properly.
At the next extension of the interim care orders the judge directed that the matter be formally investigated. The girl, A, was referred to a specialist unit. The mother said it was the foster mother who accompanied A to this assessment. The mother stressed in her evidence that she had made it clear to the social worker that she was not accusing anyone of anything. She said she wanted the matter investigated to be sure there was nothing wrong.
The mother said: “I grew up in care, I was molested, children do not tell lies, they do not say things like this without a reason, I am not accusing anyone of anything I just wanted it investigated and wanted the social worker to take it seriously.”
In a further access, the mother reported that A had said that her sister, B, was playing in a tent with her foster father and A was not allowed in the tent with the foster father and B. The mother had been concerned that it was after she had raised this concern with the social worker that the foster father stopped dropping or collecting the girls from access.
The mother said that she had a better relationship with the foster father than the foster mother, as at a meeting the foster mother had said to her that it was her [the foster mother’s] house and her [the foster mother’s] family.
The solicitor for the CFA objected to this, saying this comment was hearsay and could not be admitted in evidence as the foster mother was not in court. The judge said it was the mother giving evidence of what she had heard. He said the mother had not offered the statement as the truth of what was said only that was what she had heard. The mother was entitled to give in evidence of what she had heard.
There had been other incidents which had included an incident when a toy purchased for A by her elder sister had been thrown in the bin. The mother said when A had protested about this she had been slapped. The mother said that A had told her she had been told to keep secrets. She said the girls had not been permitted to go to or use the bathroom at night.
A had told her she had moved into the bedroom of [X] a boy at the foster home. She had heard A use foul and inappropriate language at access. When A became frustrated at access A said, ‘shut the f…g door and shut your f…g mouth.’ The mother said she was shocked to hear such language and wanted to know where the girls had heard it.
She said that while the incidents in and of themselves might have seemed innocuous, taken together they were of such concern to her she had repeatedly told the social worker that she wanted the girls moved from the foster home. The mother said children do not make things like this up. Children of A and B’s age do not know how to tell lies, “they told me because I am their mother.”
She told her solicitors to make a section 47 application to have the children removed from the foster placement. The solicitor for the mother had written a letter to the CFA which had documented all her concerns in nine major areas. One concern stated that A had arrived at access in the autumn of 2021 with two black eyes. The mother clarified that this had been a misunderstanding between her and her solicitor. The mother said that A had arrived with a bruise to her forehead and eye as she had had a tumble. She said she accepted that children have bumps, trips, and falls. However, A had arrived at another access in early 2023 with another black eye and it concerned her that she had had another injury.
The mother’s barrister asked her if the court did not move the girls from their foster placement was there an alternative that would reassure her. The mother replied she would like there to be an independent assessment of the foster placement. She said she accepted that when the social worker had addressed her concerns with A and B, the girls had never said anything to the social worker. The mother said that A and B would be unlikely to do that, and an independent assessment of the placement would assure her that there was nothing amiss.
The judge said: “So if an independent assessor examined the foster placement and said it was a good foster placement for the girls you would be OK with that.”
The mother replied: “Yes.”
The judge: “Could not the GAL do that?”
The mother: “No, the GAL is not independent, they know too much.”
The mother was cross-examined extensively by the barrister for the CFA. The barrister said the social worker had written a letter in response to the mother’s solicitor that was over 50 paragraphs long, which formed the basis of the CFA’s response to the mother’s concerns. The barrister said that A had never arrived at access with two black eyes, the mother agreed and repeated this had been a miscommunication. A had had bruising to her forehead and eye, where she had fallen and there had been a further, later incident where A and B had fought, where A had been accidently hit by B’s elbow which had caused another separate black eye. The mother said she accepted that the girls would fight, have bumps and bruises but she had never been told about them. The girls arrived at access with black eyes, and it was A who had to tell her what happened when it should have been the social worker or the foster mother.
The barrister said A had not moved into the bedroom of another boy in the foster placement. The family had changed rooms around and the girls now had their own separate rooms. A had moved into the old room of the boy, the boy was not in that room. The mother said this had been explained to her later only after A had said to her I have moved into [X]’s room. The mother accepted that A and B had their own rooms at the foster placement.
The barrister said that the allegations she had made that something untoward had happened to the girl when A had told her the boy in the foster placement hurt her in the bottom were fully investigated. The barrister said that A had never made any allegations about this or any of the mother’s other complaints to anyone.
The mother replied: “They were not investigated by the social workers, it was only investigated after the judge in the care order application said to investigate it.”
The CFA barrister: “And when they were investigated, nothing untoward had happened, there was nothing to see, do you accept that?”
The mother: “The why would A say that and act like that.”
The CFA barrister: “But A never said this to anyone else and an independent investigation said nothing untoward happened, does that not reassure you.”
The mother: “No.”
The CFA barrister: “What would reassure you?”
The mother: “That the girls are moved from the placement or that there is an independent assessment of the placement.”
The CFA barrister: “You are making some very serious allegations about the foster family.”
The mother: “No that is not true I am not saying or accusing anyone of anything.”
The CFA barrister: “I am sorry, but you are saying that when the foster father was playing in a tent with the children something untoward happened in fact you are accusing him of the most egregious behaviour.”
The mother: “I am not. I never said anything about him, I just want to know why A was not allowed in the tent.”
The CFA barrister said that the foster family had been assessed for over one year in 38 different domains of competency. The CFA could be assured that all due diligence and checks had been completed. The social workers had raised the concerns of the mother with the foster family who had been duly shocked and upset. As a result of these allegation or insinuations they had decided that it would be best that the foster mother bring and collect the girls to and from access.
The CFA barrister continued that all the concerns of the mother had been fully investigated at length by the social workers. The toy that had been disposed of was a broken vanity set. The slap had related to an argument between the girls and had not involved any adult or any other child. The secrets had related to a comment an older sibling had made at a sibling access. The allegations that the girls were not permitted to use the bathroom at night had been investigated and were denied by the foster carers.
She said the social workers had started to become exasperated at the concerns of the mother. She said it appeared as if the only thing that would satisfy this mother would be if A retracted everything she had said.
The mother said that A had told her these things. She repeated that a child of A’s age was too innocent and young to know how to lie. She said that the girls had not settled with this family. The CFA barrister responded that A and B had never mentioned any of the comments or allegations to anyone else. All the concerns had been fully investigated and the GAL had no concerns.
The CFA barrister: “Do you accept that the GAL has no concerns of this placement and thinks it is a good placement for the girls?”
The mother: “No.”
The barrister for the father asked no questions of the mother.
Neither the social worker nor the GAL gave any evidence, but both had submitted lengthy affidavits for the court.
Submissions by the CFA barrister
The CFA barrister said there was no case to answer. She said that an application under section 47 permitted the court to make directions for the welfare of the child that were in the child’s best interests. For the court to make such a direction there had to be a finding by the court as a matter of fact there was a welfare issue and in this case the court could not find that factual welfare issue. None of the allegations or statements made by A to her mother had been made to anyone else. All the allegations had been fully investigated by the social workers and they could find no evidence of the allegations or insinuations made.
She said that mere suspicions were not enough to find as a fact that there had been ill treatment or anything else untoward. The basis for the court’s decision was objective fact not subjective feeling. If a factual welfare issue was found then the court could determine if a change of placement could or should be directed. The case law had stated that it was extremely rare for a court to authorise a change of placement and extreme caution had to be exercised. The threshold the court must reach to authorise a change of placement had not been reached.
It was accepted that the girls had become more dysregulated and recent difficulties had arisen such as sleeping difficulties or emotional outbursts. These were welfare concerns. However, the reason was that this placement was the longest placement the girls had had. They had begun to settle and as a result of that had started to display signs of past trauma. She said the social workers, the CFA and the GAL had no child protections concerns for the placement. They believed the placement was a good placement for the girls.
Submissions by the mother’s barrister
The mother’s barrister said that A had made the statements to her mother, and the mother had reported them. She said the mother had genuine concerns and had not made any allegations and was clear in the evidence to the court she had not accused anyone of anything. The mother considered it was not one single fact that gave rise to welfare concerns, but when all events were taken together a finding of fact could be made that a welfare issue existed. A welfare issue could be found even if the court decided not to direct a change of placement. She asked the court for there to be an independent assessment of the placement to assuage the mother’s concerns.
The judge rose for a brief period to consider the evidence.
Section 47 decision
The judge said he had heard the evidence of the mother and had read the reports and the affidavits. The issue in this application was one of communication. The application by the mother was the inference that her children were not properly cared for in their current foster placement.
He said he understood the mother’s sensitivity and addressed the issues one by one. The issue of the girl’s hair had been resolved with the change of hair oil. The issue of A sleeping in the boy’s bedroom had been resolved, it was not that she had been moved into a bedroom with the boy but that she had moved into the boy’s old bedroom. The issue that she had attended access with two black eyes had been a miscommunication. It was accepted children have trips and falls. It was accepted A did have bruising and black eyes but not two together and on the same day.
The judge said: “Indeed, it would be more than remiss of a social worker not to fully investigate any child in the care of the CFA with two black eyes, the mother should have been told of the injuries.” Referring to the allegation that the boy had hurt A’s bottom, he said that on the direction of the court this had been fully and independently investigated. The judge said he hoped the mother would find some comfort from that.
With regard to the slap the judge said that the mother was correct that young children rarely told lies. However, we, all of us have added our own bias and embellishment to a story. When children had been hurt, slighted, or injured they often retold the story to anyone who would listen. He said that he accepted this was not a slap by an adult but by her sister in a disagreement.
He accepted that the mother could not put her finger on one particular issue, and it was the general regression of her children that had caused her concern. He had had the benefit of reading the reports of the social worker and GAL for the interim care orders that were to be heard after this application. It appeared that the children had settled in the placement and that the honeymoon was over. The children were now confident to display what they truly felt. This had contributed to the outbursts and the sleeping difficulties.
He said he was aware of the case law and noted that it was rare that a court would direct a change in placement. The threshold for him to direct a change in placement in this case had not been reached. He recommended a clear communication pathway between the mother and the social workers. Neither would he direct that an independent assessment of the placement be undertaken as had been requested by the mother’s barrister. He was satisfied that the GAL was appointed by the court to represent the children independently of the CFA and the parents. The GAL had not recommended a change in placement and in her reports to the court she had stated the placement was meeting the needs of the girls.
The judge refused the section 47 application and immediately heard the applications for the extension of the interim care orders.
Evidence of the social worker for extension of the interim care order
The social worker said the threshold for the interim care orders continued to exist. The mother engaged well with professionals. The mother had access for one and a half hours every fortnight, which went well. The girls were delighted to see their mother and vice versa, though there had been difficulties prior to and after access such as disturbed sleep and tummy upsets. The father still had not had access with the girls, but photographs had been exchanged and the social worker said she was to meet with the father to progress this. This was to be done cautiously.
She said the placement was meeting the needs of the girls. She said: “If you want to call it a regression there had been a slight regression with the girls, but this was often so, a placement gets worse before it gets better. The girls had started to show signs of trust, this had manifested itself in outbursts of behaviour.” She said this placement was the girls’ fourth placement and it was their longest placement. The reasons for the girls coming into care had only just begun to manifest in the girls’ behaviour.
The foster carers had asked for more support and guidance. They were first time foster carers and more support had been provided. The suggestions of impropriety on the part of the foster father that had been made had seriously dented their confidence. She said that there were on-going discussions and meetings to ensure that the foster carers had been fully supported. The foster carers had been referred for Marte Meo parenting therapy.
(Marte Meo was a method of parenting with a specialist who videos interactions between parents and children. The parent and therapist then review these videos together. This enabled the therapist to suggest, guide and equip the parent with techniques to manage similar situations in the future.)
She said a referral had been made for the girls for a trauma attachment assessment and if necessary, therapy. This referral had not been forwarded yet, as it was necessary for the CFA to ascertain if the CFA could provide this first before it went to an outside agency.
The GAL’s barrister said that it was in the report of the GAL that the referral to this specialist centre was urgent and asked the social worker if she could expedite it. The GAL accepted that it might be more expensive, but the CFA currently did not have the resources to undertake this specialist work.
The social worker said she was bound by the policies that she must try to provide the service from the CFA first. The GAL’s barrister said she had been instructed by the GAL to ask the court by its own motion to direct the CFA to make this referral.
The judge asked to hear from the GAL.
The GAL said that the consistent care-giving the girls had started to receive had led to emotional outbursts and breakdowns. It was only now that the girls had been in a foster placement that was secure and stable that they had started to trust. She said the needs of the girls had to be assessed so therapy could be started immediately. The CFA had only just appointed a new psychologist and occupational therapist. The multidisciplinary team had not been fully established.
This specialist centre used the gold standard approach and offered a total therapeutic package. She said the girls had started to display behaviour that was indicative of trauma they had experienced, and speed was of the essence. It was not in their interests to wait to ascertain if the CFA could or might be able to at some point offer something similar.
The judge extended the interim care orders for the girls for 29 days on the consent of the parents. He directed of his own motion that the CFA make the referral for both girls to this specialist therapy centre.