Judge grants care orders, deplores four years’ delay in bringing case and calls for full case management in all child care cases – 2019vol2#27

Care orders until the age of 18 on the grounds of neglect, sexual harm and exposure to alcohol abuse and domestic violence, were granted for four children in a rural town who had spent four years in care under interim care orders. The case, which lasted 17 days, began in March 2019 and the court gave its judgment in the last week of July.

Following a serious domestic violence incident, the children went into care initially on a voluntary basis early in 2015, and interim care orders were granted on consent in September of that year. The interim care orders were renewed every month until the care order proceedings began in March 2019.

Referring to the delay, the judge said: “In the light of the very specific needs of the children in this case the question must be asked as to why they remained in care on interim care orders for a period of four years. All parties to child care proceedings have a duty to minimise delay in bringing a case to a conclusion as soon as is possible in the best interests of children, the subject matter of any such proceedings.”

She pointed out that the therapeutic work everyone agreed the children needed could not begin until their care status was finalised.

While stating that the court was not making a finding of where the fault, if any, lay for the delay, the judge added: “This is a case which clearly evidences the absolute necessity for full and proper case management from the outset in all child care cases.”

The guardians ad litem for the children had expressed their concerns about the delay, and the judge concurred, stating: “An interim care order is, of its nature, of a temporary duration and is granted to ensure safety of children until such time as the Child and Family Agency are in a position to proceed with an application for a full care order if that is required. It is implicit in the temporary duration of an interim care order than a full care order be brought before the court.”

She also commented that the parents had contributed to the delay by revoking their consent to certain proposals made by the CFA, citing legal advice. “I am satisfied that the respondents’ behaviour in this regard, coupled with their poor insight, their, at times, indifference and hostility towards social workers and professionals has contributed to the delay in bringing this case to a conclusion.”

The four children in the case (A, B, C and D) ranged in age from six to 17 and were all in foster care. A younger child, E, remained at home under a supervision order. The four youngest children were the children of the father in the case, while he was step-father to the oldest child, A. The mother also had older children, now adults. Both parents had cognitive issues and had advocates as well as legal representation.

One of the issues in the case was that B and C had allegedly been sexually abused by two older siblings, and that the parents had failed to protect them. This arose in a context of severe neglect, domestic violence and alcohol abuse.

When the case resumed after the 17-day hearing to hear a care order application for E, the CFA barrister said that nothing had happened in the previous number of months to give rise to concern about E, and the CFA was recommending leaving the supervision order in place and adjourning an application for a care order. The parents had engaged, the barrister said, and E had a very strong attachment to them. There was no evidence E had been abused.

The solicitor for the guardian ad litem for the four younger children (A had a different GAL) said that none of the discussions took place with the GAL in relation to the views and interests of the child. There were a lot of unknowns. The CFA should not wait until something serious happened [to E] before acting. There had been no engagement between the parents and social workers on four out of the ten visits that had taken place.

The barrister for the mother said that her client had limited intellectual ability and found it difficult to absorb advice. When she understood it she followed it. She wanted to work with the CFA. There was an opportunity here to re-build the relationship with the agency. “We owe it to everyone to try.”

The CFA barrister said the case had had a long and a sad history. “If things had been done differently we might not be where we are now. These parents are very vulnerable.” She said that because of previous legal advice, which treated this like a criminal case, the parents decided not to say or do anything. This had now changed. “We had very frank conversations about what needed to happen. I don’t believe the CFA would be contemplating [adjourning the care order application for E] unless it believed there was a marked change.”

The judge said that the GAL should be an active participant in the care plan for E.

After the brief adjournment the judge delivered her judgment, which was written, on the care order applications for A, B, C and D.

She listed the 15 witnesses who had given evidence for the CFA, along with the two guardians ad litem. The parents had not given evidence during the hearing.

Summarising the background to the case, she said the family had a long history of involvement with social services, going back to 1995. There had been numerous referrals to the CFA and its predecessor, the health board, by various bodies, including the Garda Siochana, public health nurse, schools and neighbours. Concerns reported included neglect of the children, mental health issues, emotional abuse, alcohol misuse, domestic violence, physical and sexual abuse, poor school attendance and hunger.

In 2013 the Garda Siochana sought an emergency care order for Child A, who had expressed suicide ideation and had stepped in front of traffic. During the next two years there were various attempts at involvement by the CFA, during which time the family moved home five times. In 2015 there was a domestic violence incident and disclosures of sexual abuse of B and C followed by A, B, C and D entering voluntary care. The first of a series of interim care orders was made later that year, and the full care order hearing began in March 2019.

During the hearing a clinical psychologist gave evidence of a parenting capacity assessment made of both parents. He concluded that both were operating under disadvantage and did not have the capacity to parent their children adequately. In particular he stressed that they were ill-equipped to deal with the complex psychological and trauma-related needs of children B and C.

The guardian ad litem for the three younger children said that the parents’ attitude to professional intervention over the years had been “indifferent, hostile at times, resistant to change and lacking in candour” and she felt this had not changed. This resulted in anxiety and dysregulation on the part of the children, which heightened around access visits.

The GAL for Child A said that he was doing relatively well in his placement (a different placement to that of the other children). As he would reach the age of 18 later in the year it was imperative he had a comprehensive aftercare plan, including ongoing psychological work.

The court made 19 findings of fact, including that the disclosures of sexual harm made by B and C were credible and consistent; they, along with D, demonstrated behaviour indicating they had been exposed to neglect, alcohol abuse and domestic violence; the parents did not act as protective factors in the children’s lives; they did not accept that the children were impacted by their alcohol abuse and domestic violence and they minimised the issues and showed poor insight into the effect of the abuse on the children. The judge also found that the parents had been hostile, uncooperative and dishonest with professionals and that the father had a negative controlling influence on the mother, and that they were resistant to change. The judge granted the care orders sought until the children reached the age of 18.

She made a number of directions, including an aftercare plan with a psychological risk assessment for child A and immediate therapeutic inputs for children B and C. Care plans should be prepared for children B, C and D and they should remain in their current placements. The foster carers should receive help in dealing with their needs.

Their social work team should remain in place for at least six months and any change in social work personnel managed by the CFA in such a way as to minimise disruption to the children. The parents should receive therapeutic support to assist them in engaging in optimal access in the best interests of the children.

Aftercare plans for these children should commence not later than their 16th birthdays.