Judge criticises HSE management of case – 2013vol1#26

A District Court judge criticised the HSE for its management of a child care case and directed that senior personnel from the social work department appear before him. He was seeking an explanation as to why there had been so many changes in the allocation of social workers to the case. The judge said there had been “a shocking lack of management” in it.

The court was told that a new social worker and team leader were being assigned to the case and the judge said that this was the fourth or fifth social worker who had been appointed in less than a year. He said he did not see how this could be good for a particularly vulnerable person such as the child in this case.

The child is a teenager who is in a secure care facility and the court was told by the HSE solicitor that it was intended that the new social worker would remain with the case in the future. The solicitor for the Guardian ad Litem said the court had been given similar assurances in the past and there had been two changes of social worker since then.

The GAL’s solicitor said the constant change was not doing the child, who she described as one of the most vulnerable children in the state, any good. It was made more complex by difficulties with the mother’s mental health. Another District Court Judge had previously asked that consideration be given to appointing two social workers to the case.

The HSE solicitor said a crisis situation had arisen in another case concerning a child in special care and the HSE were doing their best to manage the situation in an environment of contracting resources. The GAL’s solicitor said she was not casting any aspersions on the competency of the new social worker but she was concerned with the management by the HSE. “Where is this case in terms of priorities,” she asked.

The judge said he was only concerned with the child in these proceedings. He asked if the team leader was in court and, when told that the principal social worker was in the Children’s Court, commented: “Again this court gets put to the bottom of the priority list.”

The mother’s solicitor was concerned that her client had not been told of the change of social worker. She was suffering from mental health difficulties and she was concerned as to how she would react when told. The GAL solicitor said the child had been told two weeks ago that her team would not be changed. The judge said the court had been assured that the previous social worker and the one before that would stay. He asked: “When is the HSE and the social work department going to get in control of this situation?” The HSE solicitor said the previous social worker had to attend a crisis situation and the judge said he was concerned with the effect these crisis situations were having on the child at the centre of this case.

The court was also told that a different team leader was being appointed to the case. The judge said he had not seen anything in any of the reports to indicate a new team leader was being allocated and it was not clear as to how these changes were going to be communicated to the child and her mother.
The solicitor for the GAL said it presented “a chaotic picture” and the judge said the HSE was not coming across very well. He ask what consideration had been given to ensuring a proper handover to the new social work team and what consideration had been given to a particularly vulnerable child and her family, in particular the mother who had her own vulnerability. When the HSE solicitor again referred to a crisis in another case being the reason for the change of social worker the judge asked: “What about the crisis in this case?”

The child’s Guardian ad Litem gave evidence of changes of social workers in the past and said that in her opinion the management had been incompetent. She said it was frustrating to see the abdication of responsibility by the State and asked how could the State continue without sanction?

The judge said he was loathe to interfere in the management of individual cases but there were certain cases that demanded more intervention than others by this court. He said he was adjourning the matter for three days in order that the principal social worker or team leader attend court to explain the matching process for the team with the child and her mother. He wanted to hear from the HSE as to what consideration was being given to another judge’s suggestion that two social workers be appointed and he also wanted the HSE to put on record the priority that was being given to establish consistent social work in the case.

When the case came back before the judge three days later, the HSE was now represented by a Senior Counsel. He agreed that, on looking at the list of social workers assigned to the child, there had been “quite a few”. It had been “very unfortunate” and looking at it one would “have to ask the question why.”

The barrister told the judge that the child had asked for a more mature/older social worker. This was now being done and he gave an assurance that her appointment and that of the new team leader would be long term. It was intended that the outgoing social worker and the new team would meet with the child in the coming week and also with the child’s mother. He assured the judge that those appointed now are there for the long haul and that it would be “folly in the extreme” to give such assurances if they were not fulfilled. “There would have to be some detailed inquiry by the HSE if they failed in the case. It’s a legally binding undertaking that’s being given,” he said.

The Senior Counsel assured the judge that a very long number of hours had been spent in ensuring that the persons appointed were suitable. Asked by the judge if consideration had been given to the suggestion that two social workers be appointed, he said that had been considered but it was felt that was dealt with by the appointment of the new social worker, given her experience, along with the new team leader.

The barrister outlined the details of a transition plan which had been drawn up by the HSE to introduce the new team to the child and her mother. The GAL solicitor welcomed the fact that some thought had gone into it and the barrister for the HSE said: “It would be deplorable if this did not hold together.”

A senior HSE executive told the court that the child’s case was now held in a long term social team with no agency or temporary workers. “I fully take on board that there were previous changes in the teams and I have no plans to make any changes in the allocation to this case, barring illness or an act of God,” he said. Asked by the mother’s solicitor about having two social workers assigned, he said that if it emerges that further support and assistance was needed then it was something they would look at.

The barrister for the HSE said he hoped all that gave the judge some assurance and that the HSE were seen to have made some meaningful gesture.

The judge concluded by saying that it was very often the case in these courts that it was the parents who had to give assurances about their capacity and ability but the shoe was on the other foot now, but “we can draw a line under this and move along.”

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