Judge met with three young children prior to granting full care orders – 2021vol2#18

The District Court in a rural town granted care orders for three children until they reached 18 years of age. The judge met directly with the three children at lunchtime on the day of the hearing. The children had been in care under various orders for the previous three and a half years due to issues of parental neglect and abuse. The court was informed the parents had made substantial progress in tackling their personal issues including addictions and they retained custody of their youngest infant child.

The Child and Family Agency (CFA) applied for a section 18 care order in respect of the three children, of primary school age, until they reached majority. The solicitor for the CFA noted that the parents did not object to the application but neither did they consent to it as they “did not wish to be seen to be giving up”.

He told the court that the court hearing day was the birthday of the youngest child, “a poignant day” for this hearing. The CFA’s solicitor acknowledged that this was “a very significant application” but he believed it was both in the best interests of the children and proportionate. He said the need for the orders was based on the presentation of the parents and what the children had gone through. He commented it was important for the parents to hear that the “door is never closed”.

The CFA’s social worker provided oral testimony. Extensive social work time had been allocated to the children, the parents were engaging and access was going well. Supervised access was taking place every three weeks and could be amended for special occasions if in the best interests of the children. She also commended the significant efforts made by the parents to attend access, travelling on public transport and supported by the CFA. She commented that the children loved their parents very much and wanted to spend time with them and had been disappointed when access was cancelled due to Covid public health restrictions. The social worker gave updates on each of the children and said that the foster carer was being supported by a psychologist on how best to manage the behaviour of the eldest child which she described as “concerning”.

Both parents were present in court and legally represented. The barrister for the mother raised the issue of access. He stated that the two older children wanted to see more of their parents and asked about access overnight. He pointed out that in a psychologist’s report one of the children had said their preference was “50/50 on whether to live in foster care or at home”. The barrister for the father referred to the social work report which acknowledged that a lot of progress had been made. The barrister noted that both parents would need assistance going forward, including psychological support, which was currently funded by the CFA. The parents did not wish to give evidence but handed in copies of reports on their engagement with addiction treatment services.

The solicitor for the guardian ad litem (GAL) set out the history of this case, noting that 10 child protection case conferences had been held while the children were living at home. He said alternatives had been explored, including a previous short care order granted for a 15-month period and a collection of interim care orders, which had culminated in today’s application for care orders.

He said the children loved their parents and loved where they were presently placed. The children had remained with the same foster family since admission to care and were “very settled”. The eldest child was described as currently “dealing with and processing early life traumas, much of which may not yet be disclosed”. He commented that the strength of that day’s application was that it gave the children space to deal with this and that by granting this order it gave the children that message.

A discussion took place on access arrangements, which had been halted for a number of months due to Covid public health restrictions. The parents attended access with their youngest child, an infant, who was not subject to care proceedings. Supervised access had taken place in the county where the children lived but the parents lived some distance away in another county, and until recently the mother did not have a valid driving license so the family were reliant on public transport. The social worker said an access plan was being finalised and access would take place in a location that best suited the children.

The father’s barrister raised a concern about differing rules between the CFA and the agency who at times supervised access on who was handling access, that led to an incident where the parents travelled for access but were unaware it had been cancelled. The judge expressed her concern about the impact of a long day of travel on the infant. The CFA acknowledged the need to plan access arrangements that worked for this infant child, perhaps at a mid-way point between the two families.

The court-appointed GAL for the three children also gave evidence. She supported the CFA’s application for care orders until the children reached majority and recommended a review in two years’ time. She said the youngest child, Child C, had settled very well since being admitted to care at the age of two. Prior to entering care, the child had received inconsistent care from her parents and had processing difficulties. The middle child, Child B, was reported to have made significant progress since coming into care. The GAL told that court that she was “a happy girl”, more indifferent about access changes, had really settled and developed very positive relationships. She noted that the child needed extra support in school but during Covid restrictions she became motivated about her school work and was growing in confidence.

The oldest of the children, Child A, had a “complex dynamic”, according to the GAL. She challenged her foster carers, especially the foster mother, with her emotional presentation, including crying and outbursts. She had found school difficult and was resistant to homework, she had some issues with toileting related to her social and emotional concerns. When the previous court hearing was adjourned, she acted out and displayed little or no self-control. She had tested boundaries including making allegations against the foster family, which were fully investigated and appropriate supports put in place, including making changes to the foster family’s home to provide the child with her own bedroom downstairs.

There was a concern that she had been the victim of sexual harm while in her parents’ care, but she had not made any disclosure. This concern was based on comments made to the foster mother and the fact that when she was living with her parents she received chaotic care, with inconsistent sleeping arrangements, including adults sharing a bed with her. The GAL said A had suffered physical harm, neglect, emotional abuse, and there was a concern regarding sexual abuse. She described the child as a “traumatised little girl”. The GAL also noted that she had made significant progress. The GAL said the granting of the care order would give her space to recover.

The GAL stated that A had “no psychological safely, there was a chance she’ll go home and chance she’ll stay in care”. She was very conflicted about the decision, she was worried about her parents if she was not “sent home”. The child had spoken of feeling unsafe in her parents’ care and safe with her foster carers. The GAL expressed a concern that the foster carers might get overwhelmed and the placement could break down.

In terms of the wishes and feelings of the children, the GAL said the children felt settled, they were being supported in a small country school and were part of the community.
She said the children need time to settle and develop relationships further. She also commented on the distance the parents travelled for access, 10 hours a day travelling on public transport. She recommended that the parents alternate bringing the baby to access visits – so some would include the baby and in others they could give the children their full parental attention.

The GAL said: “To the parents’ credit they have stabilised and made significant progress but the reality is the girls have suffered a lot” and would require skilled parenting going forward. The foster carers were committed to caring for the children as a sibling group. The report undertaken by an independent psychologist recommended the foster mother engage in a nurturing attachments programme. The need for support for the foster mother was echoed by the GAL who strongly recommended she engage in a therapeutic parenting programme. This recommendation had been made in early 2020 but Covid restrictions meant the therapist had been unable to continue to offer the programme. The GAL noted that there had been no foster link social worker for the preceding four months, which meant the foster carers were carrying a lot of work on their own.

In response to a question from the mother’s barrister on the possibility of increasing access, the GAL said the children needed a predicable routine, and recommended access should remain every third week. She noted that this was a high level of access for children in long term care.

The solicitor for the CFA said they supported a one-year review. The foster care link worker had been on maternity leave but a new worker had been allocated as of this week. He also confirmed that the CFA would progress securing one-to-one specialist therapeutic support for the foster mother.

The judge reported on her meeting with the three children, saying the youngest had only joined for a few minutes. She said the children loved their parents and extended family, they were happy where they were and spoke very well about their foster carers and the activities they engaged in. A wanted a decision on where things were going, she wanted finality, she was burdened by a decision to choose between two sets of parents – her parents and those taking care of her in foster care. She had a strong attachment to her youngest sibling and had no problem with her identity. B also expressed a desire for a decision – one way or other – today. She asked about doing a 50/50 (home/foster care) arrangement, but the judge explained to her that this was not possible. The judge said she had taken into account what the children had to say.

The judge said she was satisfied that the parents accepted that there had been a lot of difficulties with their parenting of the children and they wanted to do their best for them. There had been a significant level of neglect and the parent had had their own individual challenges in life, a lot of chaos and moving between countries, which was unsettling. The needs of the parents were such that they could not give sufficient time to their children. The children had specific needs including learning difficulties and were very lucky to be in a small school with learning support from which they were benefiting.

The judge found that it was necessary for care orders to be made under section 18(2) of the 1991 Act so that the children could have predictable care going forward, would know who would be looking after them and the arrangements for access with their parents. She noted that the children had certain needs at the educational and psychological levels which needed a level of monitoring and a body of work to be undertaken over the coming 12 months. She found the granting of the orders to be proportionate in order to provide the children with certainty and ensure their needs were met.

The three siblings were placed together, something that the judge said was “very unusual in care proceedings”, noting that in some parts of the country it can be “very challenging” to find a foster placement for three children. She continued that being placed together was a “huge benefit for the children”. She also remarked that the children were benefiting from a committed foster mother with significant experience and an interest in learning more about how to support the children with their challenges. They were living with a foster family who themselves had children, some of whom were still at home.

The judge stated that she believed granting the care orders until the children reached 18 years to be necessary. If such orders were not made the health, development and welfare of the children would be impaired. She said the parents were entitled at any stage to come back to court. The issue of family reunification must be taken into account by the CFA in child in care reviews. She directed that access arrangements be at the discretion of the CFA. The access plan set out that access visits take place every third week and telephone contact occur between visits.

Addressing the parents, the judge said: “The children need to hear from you,” they really looked forward to access and wanted to maintain contact on a regular basis. She expressed her concern at the distance the parents needed to travel with their young child for access. She noted the recommendation of the GAL that the parents might choose to leave the child at home every second access visit. She also flagged the upcoming mid-term break and suggested that meeting at a location mid-way between the foster family and the parents’ home would be much easier for all.

The judge directed that a review be held in 12 months’ time and fixed a date for that review. She ordered the GAL to be retained for a period of one year until the completion of the review. She directed the CFA to provide the parents with support to help them engage in access visits, access therapeutic services as needed and as identified in the reports from the GAL and psychologist and support to the foster carers. In relation to the children, she directed that funding be provided within 28 days of that day’s date for the medical, psychological and therapeutic needs of the children.

Finally, the judge directed that the case be re-entered on each child’s 16th birthday to address the issue of an aftercare plan. She made the standard orders that the case be re-entered if there was no allocated social worker or foster link worker for a four-week period, that in care reviews be held, noting that these are important to identify early any indication of a potential breakdown.