A judge in a rural District Court adjourned a review of full care orders that had been made in respect of four children. The judge was very critical of aspects of the Child and Family Agency’s (CFA) handling of the case, particularly in relation to its attitude to the children’s father.
The four siblings were all in primary school. The two eldest, a boy (A) and girl (B), were placed together in one foster placement. The two younger children, a girl (C) and boy (D), had been placed together in another foster placement. The two placements were in different social service jurisdictions, therefore A and B had different social workers and guardians ad litem (GAL) to C and D.
The children had initially been in care under a voluntary agreement but full care orders until the children reached 18 had been granted over two years earlier. Evidence was heard from the social workers for the children and from their respective GAL.
The mother was in court with a support worker and was represented by a solicitor and a barrister. A solicitor and a barrister representing the father were in court but the father arrived approximately 45 minutes after the hearing had commenced. He was reprimanded by the judge for being late.
The social worker’s evidence in relation to C and D
The social worker said she had been the social worker for child C and child D since their reception into care initially under a voluntary care arrangement almost six years earlier when they were a toddler and an infant. The reasons for their admission to care were domestic violence and the mother’s mental health. The care orders had been made with the consent of the mother. At the time the orders had been made the children’s father was in prison.
She said initially C was robotic in nature, had frozen watchfulness, overate, ate raw food including raw meat and had experienced significant trauma. She had blossomed in the care of her foster carers. She had attended school and was doing well. She had been receiving extra support in school. It had been agreed by the school, the social worker and the foster carers that a National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS) assessment was needed but that it would be best to defer it for another academic year. It was felt that because of C’s age she would benefit from the assessment more if it were delayed.
C had also been referred for an occupational therapy assessment. She had had 40 play therapy sessions to date, but these had stopped because it had not been possible for her to attend after school. The suspension of the play therapy sessions had been recommended at her child-in-care review meeting but this had been contested by her GAL. However, she said the CFA were open to more sessions as and when C required them. She also had had speech and language therapy.
D had never exhibited the difficulties C did because he was much younger, an infant, when he was admitted into care. While he had little emotional or behavioural difficulties, he had sometimes struggled at access with his mother. He was doing well at school, was strong willed and was very sporty. He had been referred for play therapy, but it was felt he had not needed it and the social worker said that social services would provide play therapy if it was. D had had speech and language therapy. There was the possibility of him being diagnosed with dyslexia, but no formal assessment had been undertaken and again the social worker said this would be kept under review.
The children had remained with the same foster carers since their reception into care. The social worker described the placement as ideal and excellent. The foster mother was incredibly supportive of the mother’s contact with the children.
The social worker said the mother’s mental health had significantly improved. The mother had been supported by advocates, support workers and her own mental health team. The mother had regular access with C and D each fortnight and then extra for special family days and events such as birthdays and Christmas. Access was to be rearranged to monthly access, but the social worker said this was not a reduction as the mother would still have access each fortnight overall because of the extra family events. A professionals’ meeting about access was due to be held as the GAL had not agreed with this reduction.
The social worker was supportive in principle of the children having access with their father. She said she approached access with him from the child’s viewpoint. She said the father had no understanding of the trauma C and D had experienced. D had no memory of his father. C had some memory, but the memories were not positive and were that of a scary man.
She had attempted to contact the father by phone. He had taken her calls and agreed to attend a meeting to discuss access but had refused to engage in an assessment with her. He had not engaged with the Signs of Safety [programme], he had not acknowledged that one of the main reasons the children had been admitted into care was significant domestic violence. He had not accepted the fact that C and D would have questions as to who he was.
The social worker met with the father and with the father’s probation officer. During this meeting the father focused on the role and responsibility the mother had played in the children’s reception into care. She asked for urine samples, but these had not been forthcoming. She asked him to engage in a domestic violence programme, but he had not attended. He had refused to engage in any assessments. She said he struggled to accept any responsibility for anything. He also blamed the children for the situation.
She said she would not facilitate access when she could not be assured of the behaviour of the father. The focus of access was the children and the father had not engaged with her in any meaningful way and it would create difficulties for the children.
The social worker said: “I just cannot go to [C] and say here is your dad, it is not that simple.”
The judge asked: “Do these children know about their father? Do they know who their father is?”
The social worker replied: “No.”
The social worker said she needed to create a family album to put the father’s presence in some sort of context. She had asked the father two years ago for a photograph, he had given her a photograph that was not suitable. The photograph he had supplied would invoke memories of fear. She had asked him for some written information as to why he thought the children were in care and again he had not provided this information. If access were to start the children would of course ask questions about who he was, and it was a worry as to what he [the father] might say. Life story work had to be completed first. It needed to be ascertained what the children remembered. The children needed to be prepared with stories and pictures. The children needed to be prepared to meet their father and he [the father] also needed to be prepared.
The social worker said the children stated they have two Mommies, their birth mother, and their foster mother. They had not asked about their father.
The mother’s barrister cross examined the social worker, and she reaffirmed the mother had a good relationship with the social worker, the GAL and with the foster mother. The mother had an excellent relationship with the children. The access plan had been agreed and was going well. The mother had worked extremely hard to ensure that access was a positive experience. The mother had been consistent, reliable and progress had been made. She said access was not supervised but it was supported. The mother needed a supported role but not a supervised role.
The father’s barrister cross examined the social worker at length and vigorously. He asked the social worker if she had told the children about their father. The social worker replied she had not.
The father’s barrister: “These children have been in the care of the CFA for over six years, why have you not told them about their father? Why have they not been told? “
The social worker replied it was not possible to tell them about their father. They had suffered pain and trauma. Her focus had been to ensure the children had a sense of safety and security. They had been traumatised. When they had been received into care they would not ask for food when they were hungry, C had been particularly affected. She had taken raw meat from a packet and eaten it.
She said: “There had been no way of introducing their father to them that concept had to be introduced in a safe way, we [the CFA] did not want a backlash.”
The father’s barrister said: “It has been six years surely he could have been introduced?”
The social worker: “I did not make this decision on my own but with my team leader it was discussed it was not safe to introduce this man to the children.”
The father’s barrister: “You were aware he made an application for and was granted guardianship, you were aware of the fundamental rights of the family and their right to have contact?”
The social worker: “The father did not engage, he would not do the Signs of Safety, he did not give me a photograph, I told him the photograph was unsuitable he did not give me another one.”
The father’s barrister: “The GAL has sent you four photographs, surely one of them is suitable.”
The social worker: “I have received those, but they were not sent to my work device, and I cannot forward them to a work device because of the firewall the CFA uses, it has been taken down to allow them to come through, but I will try to get them printed.”
The social worker continued: “The children were scared, they described a scary man. This man had shown no insight, he believes he had done nothing wrong.”
She said she and the CFA are very supportive of parents having access with their children if this does not traumatise children. She said it was only within the last four weeks that the father for the very first time had acknowledged any wrongdoing on his part. It had been the first time he had shown any insight into how his behaviour had affected C and D.
The father’s barrister: “You are aware for almost a year before the children had been taken into care, they had been living with a family relative – and given the young age of the children could the scary man not be someone else?”
The social worker replied: “No.”
The father’s barrister: “I have to put it to you, you have very strong views against my client, and you are obstructing his constitutional rights and that of his children by denying them access to him. You have not even told them of their father.”
The social worker: “That is not true, my priority is the children and these children have been traumatised by their experience at their father’s hands, I have tried to work with the father, but he would not send a photo and the photo he did send was unsuitable.”
The judge: “Have we got a copy of the photo? Can I see it?.
A copy of the photograph was given to the judge. The judge looked at the father and said: “This is not a suitable photograph for a child.”
The social worker said the children had been in care under a voluntary care arrangement for two years before the initial interim care order. During this period they had demonstrated behaviour of being highly insecure and traumatised. She said they showed extreme signs of fear. They would hang onto the foster carers’ legs. The social worker said they had made many plans for the foster carer to leave access but because C and D had been so insecure it had not been possible.
The judge interrupted: “Is the foster carer in attendance at access?”
The social worker: “Yes.”
The judge: “All accesses the mother has with C and D the foster mother is there?”
The social worker: “Yes, the foster carer has to be supported to leave access when the mother have access with C and D, and it was still a work in progress.”
The social worker said the full care order had helped reassure the children. C and D had settled and were now more secure.
The social worker was cross examined by the solicitor for the GAL. He asked if she agreed that she had halved the mother’s access. The social worker replied she did not agree. The social worker said that the mother had access with C and D every fortnight and then access with A, B, C and D every month. Plus, family occasions such as birthdays, Christmas, Easter, so when all those accesses were taken as a whole the mother had access each fortnight. Access was examined as whole, access with C and D, access with A and B and then access with all four children and all the special occasions. This was why she had suggested access with C and D be reduced to monthly because the mother was seeing C and D as part of other accesses also, so access time had not been reduced.
The GAL’s solicitor said the GAL had recommended an increase in access and that it be supported and not supervised and every opportunity such be taken to increase access not decrease it. The social worker replied access had not been reduced.
The judge asked to hear from the GAL of C and D.
Evidence of the GAL to C and D
The GAL said that initially C and D were anxious, had been highly insecure and showed signs of trauma, however that had all but abated. She had observed the mother at access, and it was positive, there was nothing more the mother could do or provide to make access better. Access with the mother needed to be increased and not halved. The GAL said she vehemently disagreed with the social worker’s proposal of a reduction of access. She said that C and D should continue to have fortnightly access with their mother in addition to all other special events and every opportunity for further access should be given.
She said while the mother may want a support worker at access, it was a supportive role and not a supervisory role. This support worker should not be the social worker. Everything possible should be done to make her access with the C and D independent of the foster carer. The foster carer had to be encouraged to leave C and D alone at access.
She said there had been many plans for that to happen, but it had not. She said this was the fear of the social worker and the foster carer not C and D. She worried that the foster carer remained present throughout the access. At the first review after the care order had been made the foster carer had become more secure but still remained in access. The mother needed time alone with her children.
The GAL said: “The foster carer needed to be told she needed to get out of access.”
The judge: “What, the foster carer remains during the access the children have with their mother?
The GAL: “Yes, the foster carer may step out for 10 or 15 minutes but that is all, she may go to the toilet but never leaves the building and is more often than not present.”
The judge: “Well, I suggest that stops promptly, the foster carer needs to be removed from that access, she can drop the children off, leave and return for collection.”
The GAL said she had recommended a trauma and attachment assessment for C and D but said this had been thwarted by the social worker as she [the social worker] felt that the children did not need another professional in their life. She said given the ages that C and D were when they were received into care, they have no conscious memory of their early life, it would all be sub-conscious and that was why such an assessment was necessary. C and D did not have access with their mother alone, the foster carer stayed during the access, they knew nothing of their father. It was therefore essential that such an assessment be undertaken.
The GAL said she was not happy with the therapeutic supports C and D had received. She had recommended at least 100 play therapy sessions and these had been stopped because C was tired and did not want to go. She said this was the very first time she had ever heard of a child not wanting to go to play therapy. All children enjoyed play therapy because it was play, it was fun, it was a safe space to explore their feelings. She said she would like this reinstated immediately. It was one session per week, one hour per week and it was essential for the well-being of C.
The GAL said that she agreed that a National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS) assessment for C was necessary. She said that while she thought it be of benefit for her to have that now she understood the teacher’s reasoning for delaying it. She said she would like to be reassured that if the NEPS assessment recommended any supports that those supports would be provided and funded.
With regards to the father the GAL said it was not an ideal situation and that was an understatement. These children should have been told of their father years ago. The social worker and the foster carer had referred to C and D being afraid of a scary man. The GAL said prior to coming into care C and D lived with an aunt and the aunt’s partner. There was no confirmation the scary man C and D referred to was their father. The social worker had delayed and delayed introducing the father to C and D, she [the social worker] had wanted to wait for an appropriate time. Social workers and foster carers cannot wait until there was an ideal situation. There was never an ideal situation.
There had been no access with the father. At a review meeting it was outlined that it needed to be acknowledged to C and D that their father existed. She said every opportunity had to be taken to make the father known to the C and D, but this had not happened. It will only be increasingly difficult but simple things such as the children’s surnames will only cause difficulties as they grow older. The children needed to know their place, where they are from, who they are, and they needed to understand their circumstances.
The judge said: “These children C and D do not know who their father is?”
The GAL replied: “Yes.”
The judge asked the GAL: “Would I be correct in thinking that it would be better for these children to be told of their father now, to be informed now rather than leaving it, surely delaying or withholding this information will only be more difficult as the children get older.”
The GAL: “Yes, this information is big and is going to create big feelings in C and D and they will need to be supported through this.”
The GAL said the children had created the version they had two mothers, a foster mother, and a birth mother but they never mentioned a father it was bizarre. The subject of their father had never been approached with C and D by either the social worker or the foster carer. C and D may now be afraid to ask. The children needed to be told of their father, supported through this, it could no longer be ignored. The longer this information and work was delayed the more issues it would raise and create. She said it was imperative that work was done now.
The GAL said she felt the situation had been created by the anxiety of the social worker and the foster carer. She said: “This information had been withheld because of their anxiety, the anxiety of the social worker and the foster carer.”
An agreed narrative had to be created that all people could remember and adhere to. There had to be work done with the foster carer and the social worker so they could manage their own anxiety. The GAL said she felt that because of their [the social worker and the foster carer] anxiety she recommended this work be done by an independent person. A roadmap needed to be created, a framework with an agreed narrative, life story work, pictures, photographs but it needed to be sooner not later.
The GAL said as much work had to be done with the foster carer and social worker as with the children. The social worker and foster carer had to manage the effects of telling C and D about their father, but it had to happen soon. The GAL said she accepted it was not ideal but the children could have been bought to prison to meet him or at least had some contact but that had not happened, and they were now in the current position.
The GAL said at times the father had been impatient and had been aggressive. She said the social worker and foster carer had strong views about the father and this may have clouded their judgment. It was positive that C and D had had the same social worker for five years, but she had concerns the social worker’s views were too strong and biased. The children C and D had to be told of their father, access with him had to happen and it was simply not possible to micro-manage every single issue.
The GAL was crossed examined by the solicitor for the CFA. The solicitor for the CFA said it was not accepted by the social worker there had been no engagement from them with the father. The father had only engaged three times in a 12-month period. He refused to send an appropriate photograph, he refused to engage in the safety plan. He said to the GAL: “Things had not progressed because of the father’s lack of engagement.”
The GAL said: “I do not completely agree with that. I have sent the social worker several photographs, appropriate photographs, one would have been suitable, but the children still had not been told of their father, things have not progressed. The foster carer was still attending access. The father wanted to see his children and to my knowledge he has sent cards and presents.”
The judge said: Can I ask a question here, do the older children know about their father?”
The GAL: “Yes, [B] wanted to see and meet with him, but [A] wanted nothing to do with him.”
The judge: “And do [A] and [B] have access with [C] and [D]?”
The GAL: “Yes”
The judge: “What do [A] and [B] say to [C] and [D]? Have they been told not to talk of their dad to them? The CFA have a lot to answer for.”
The judge asked to hear from the social worker of A and B
Evidence from the social worker of A and B
The social worker for A and B said A, a boy, had struggled. He had had episodes of violence and aggression towards his sister and his peers in school. He had had play therapy, and this had helped him control his temper. He had made friends and was now less likely to violent outbursts. He had wanted to stop the play therapy, but the GAL had recommended it continue. He had stopped wetting the bed when he heard the full care order had been made.
When B had been received into care, she was quiet, had nightmares and reported feeling scared. However, since being in care and the making of the full care orders she had grown in confidence. She would talk to anyone who would listen and talked over her brother. She had completed therapeutic supports and completed a words and pictures life story.
Both children had been in the same foster placement since their reception into care. The placement was stable, secure and the foster carers had an excellent relationship with the children’s mother. The foster carers had paid for the mother to come and stay in a nearby hotel during the period that B had made her first Holy Communion so that her mother had been fully involved in the day and in B’s preparation. B had had a wonderful day. The foster carers were committed to the children and would do everything they could to support them. They had told the children they could stay with them indefinitely.
The mother had access with A and B in a social service building halfway between the foster carers’ and the mother’s home. The access was not supervised and took place in a therapy room with an observation room attached. The social worker repeated the access was not supervised but as it was not the building where she worked, she felt she had no alternative but to sit in the observation room and so she did in fact observe the access. If the weather was good or the mother had planned a shopping tripping or outing the social worker remained in the observation room.
The judge: “What, do you observe the access from an observation room, does this room have audio?”
The social worker: “Yes.”
The judge: “Do the family know you are watching and listening?”
The social worker: “I am not watching and listening, there is nowhere else I can go.”
The judge: “Why have you not turned the audio off?”
The social worker: “I do not know how to do that, I don’t think it is possible.”
The judge: “Well, you need to find out, it is absolutely unacceptable that you are spying on a family during their private time.”
The social worker said she had met with the father three times in total, two sessions had gone well. She had undertaken a Signs of Safety framework with him. She had asked for written evidence that he was free from addiction, but this had not been forthcoming. Once this information had been provided work would be furthered to try to facilitate access. The father had sent photographs but again these had not been appropriate and had been returned to the father. B had wanted photographs and wanted to meet with her father, but A did not.
The judge: “[B] will meet with her father. She will then have access with her younger siblings. How on earth are you going to stop [B] talking to the younger children about their father. Are you going to ask [B] to keep secrets. It is quite simply not acceptable that you tell a child of [x] years of age ‘don’t tell your brothers and sisters about your father.’ It is quite simply unacceptable.”
The social worker said because the children had been placed in two different jurisdictions it had been difficult to arrange a meeting between all the social workers to arrange a unified plan. She said because C and D had not been informed of their father it had made things exceedingly difficult.
The father’s barrister asked the social worker if she was aware that the father had completed all his probation work, had completed a men against violence programme while in prison and had provided urine samples for the probation officer. The social worker said she was not aware of these. The father’s barrister said there had been a wilful and unacceptable delay by the social workers to progress any form of contact with the father. The social worker denied this and said the father had taken two years to provide them with a suitable photograph. She said she was aware the father had sent cards and presents to A and B. She had said that B had wanted to see her father prior to Christmas but it was not possible because the social worker had no room in her diary and B had not received any photographs of her father.
The judge: “Can someone please take this father outside of court today and take a suitable photograph of this man. I would like to hear from the GAL.”
Evidence of the GAL to A and B
The GAL said A and B were doing well but this was an extremely complex situation. The access A and B had with their mother was great. It was of excellent quality, the mother was appropriate, attentive and the children really enjoyed it. The access was not meant to be supervised and she found it disturbing that the social worker was in an observation room where the social worker could hear and see everything that happened. She said she believed the mother and children would like more access and that needed to be facilitated. She said one difficulty was that A did have terrible travel sickness and that had to be taken into account. It would be unfair to expect him have good access either with his mother or with his siblings if he had to travel a long distance.
Both children had experienced trauma, each child had different coping abilities and strategies. A had noticeably clear and bad memories of his father. He recounted stories to the GAL where he had witnessed significant violence between his parents. He was often heightened when he talked of his father and there was violence in the pictures he drew. He was adamant he did not want any contact with his father, and he did not want his sister B to have contact with their father either. B also had bad memories but she was more adaptive and wanted contact with her father. The children had made it absolutely clear to her that they wished to stay with their foster carers.
She said that while the social workers had agreed to a block of six to eight play therapy sessions for each child this was not enough. Both children needed ongoing and extensive therapy to address the trauma they had experienced. There needed to be a dedicated body of work for the children as individuals and together and this would not be achieved in only a few sessions.
The GAL said she had met with the father and while he did not accept every allegation, he had accepted some wrongdoing on his part. The social workers needed to work with him to bring him in a safe and secure way back into the children’s lives.
The GAL said there had to be better communication between both social work departments and they needed to work together to formulate a plan for the introduction of the father back into the lives of the children.
She said: “It is beyond my understanding that [C] and [D] have not been told of their father, they should have been told.”
The father’s barrister cross examined her. In response to his questions, she said she accepted that the father wanted to see his children but that needed to be at the children’s direction, pace, and tempo.
She said: “This man is the father of these children, [C] and [D] do not even know about him and none of the children know about his new kids.”
The judge: “What, am I living in some parallel universe, is this the third secret of Fatima, does this man have other children? “
The father’s barrister: “Yes, judge, he has now three other children.”
The judge: “Do [A], [B], [C] or [D] know about these other children, their half-siblings.”
The father’s barrister: “No.”
The judge: “So let me get this straight, [C] and [D] do not even know anything about their father, nor the fact that he has three other children, [A] and [B] know about their father but also do not know anything about their half-siblings, and social services arrange access between [A], [B], [C] and [D]. I am at a loss.”
Evidence of the mother
The mother said she had been in a bad place but now had the correct and appropriate support services around her. She said she was beyond grateful to the foster carers and had a good relationship with all of them. She said she had not always done the right things for her children, her family or herself but it was never too late to change. She hoped she would be able to continue to work with all professionals, so her children had a good life.
The judge: “You have made a choice and I congratulate you. You are a credit to yourself by the way you have worked with the GALs, the foster carers and social workers. Your love and commitment are very evident here today.”
The judge said: “This was a review of four siblings who had been admitted into the care of the CFA and it would be a gross understatement to say I have gravest concerns, and these are my findings all of which are of equal high priority.”
The judge said it was incomprehensible to her C and D knew nothing of their father. The judge directed the social worker, in conjunction with the GAL, to address this matter today. The foster carer to C and D had to be removed from the access the mother had with her children and this had to start at the next access. The mother was entitled to private time with her children. Both issues had been a serious failure on the part of the CFA, and it had to be addressed immediately.
A and B knew their father but had no photographs, no contact, no access even though B had requested it. The social worker had, even in the most prudential light, eavesdropped on the access that A and B had with their mother. The judge said the social worker had absolutely no entitlement to do that by default or otherwise and she [the social worker] should have known better. The judge said this had to stop immediately and was another serious failing by the CFA.
The social workers had facilitated access between all four siblings, A and B knew about their father, C and D did not, how did the social workers prevent A and B from talking to C and D about their father? Then it became known the father had three other new children which A, B, C or D know nothing about, another serious failure by the CFA which was to be addressed as soon as possible.
The judge addressed the father and said that he had work to do. The father had turned up late to court for this review. He had been asked for a photograph for his children and provided a photograph that had been totally unsuitable, and he should have known this. The judge said the father had to prove himself to his children and this would be done through working with the social workers and the GALs.
The judge said she wanted a roadmap or plan made by the social workers and the GAL, immediately which would set out how all these issues were to be addressed. She directed that the children were to receive play therapy on the direction of the GALs.
She adjourned the matter for three months to ensure that progress had been made and gave permission for any party to re-enter the proceedings for any reason.