A judge in a provincial city refused to renew an Interim Care Order for two young children that had been in place for two months.
The initial Interim Care Order had been made with the consent of the mother. At the time the court was told the address of the father was unknown and he was not notified of the proceedings. The mother, who had serious mental health problems, was living with her children in a refuge for victims of domestic violence, having come from another city, and told social workers the father had moved and changed his phone number. The social worker said she wrote to him at his last known address asking him to contact her, and a week later he did so. He was now present in court and was legally represented.
The social worker told the court it had been decided to seek to extend the Interim Care Order in order to explore the allegations of domestic violence against the father, and also allegations relating to drug use. The older child [A], aged five, had said his father was a bad man and had hurt his arm.
The couple had resumed their relationship and the child had changed his story and was now positive about his father. He could be being coached. The social worker acknowledged he could have previously been coached to be negative. She said that the CFA still had concerns about the mother’s mental health and domestic violence, and considered the threshold was met for continuing the Interim Care Order.
The solicitor for the father said that no action was taken for years, though the CFA knew the mother was mentally ill. Then, six months previously, she called the Gardai to the house alleging domestic violence. There was no record of violence against her or the children. The father said the Gardai told him to go away for a few days until she calmed down. He did so, and when he came back he discovered his wife and children were gone. The Gardai told him they did not know where they were and he went to social services and expressed his concern. He was told they had gone to the other city [where they now were].
The solicitor asked the social worker had social services from the city where the family had been living made any effort to contact them about this family, and the social worker said she did not work for the other city.
Father’s solicitor: “[The father] was vilified by [the mother] and by you without you talking to him. There was no history of domestic violence. If there was you’d have found something. The mother hears voices. She is in a refuge for people fleeing domestic violence. If she came in the door and said there was no domestic violence, she was not mentally well … this is the problem. She was referred to you from there. There is no evidence. That is why we are here.
“You didn’t bother to contact [the other city] and see if there were any concerns there. Yet people have decided this is an abusive man.”
Social Worker: “I hear what you’re saying but the mother kept saying domestic violence was an issue for her.”
Solicitor: “There is no evidence. None. Was there any evidence of any form of physical violence?”
Social worker: “Well, no, but the assessment of the domestic violence professionals was that she was a victim.”
Solicitor: “There is no evidence. What is worse is the suggestion that the father was violent towards his children. [A] is five. He has spent six months, one tenth of his life, in a refuge and in care. I don’t know what was said to these boys to make them say their father was a bad man. I have no doubt they asked for their father. I wonder what they were told. He denies categorically any violence.
“There is reference in the report to the father ‘breaking his arm’ and that [A] demonstrates nervousness in foster care. Is the basis of your concern alleged violence?”
Social worker: “Yes.”
Solicitor: “Do you accept there is no physical evidence of violence against the mother?”
Social worker: “Yes, but I accept [A’s] account of the injury to his hand. Taking those things together we are concerned.”
The judge intervened to say: “This woman has severe mental health difficulties. Were you aware of that when you considered her allegations? What independent examination was there of the allegations? At what point did you set down her allegations and consider them in the light of her mental health? At what point did you ask: ‘Can I really believe everything she says?’?”
Social worker: “I accept that.”
Judge: “No, you don’t accept it. At what point did you consider whether you could believe her allegations?”
Social worker: “Yes, I hear what you’re saying. On the basis she gave a fairly clear account … In addition to that the foster carer described the child [reacting nervously] when hit on the back as he was coughing.”
Judge: “It’s possible food got caught in the child’s throat. Why did no-one come up with an innocent explanation?”
The father’s solicitor asked if the situation between the social work departments in the two cities were reversed [with a family known to them moving to another city], what would the social worker have done. The social worker said she would have contacted the social work department in the other city. “That would have been the right thing. It wasn’t done,” the solicitor said.
Summing up his case, the mother’s solicitor asked if the mother was capable of minding her children when she was well, and the social worker said she was. The solicitor said that there was a referral from the refuge three months earlier, and the CFA had found the threshold [to seek a Care Order] was not met.
“She now has the support of her GP, a psychotherapist, her partner, who was the primary carer for her and the children, from [the domestic violence charity]. She has more supports now than three months ago when the social work department found the threshold was not met. There is no evidence to support your concerns. The threshold has not been met,” said the mother’s solicitor
“There is no evidence,” agreed the father’s solicitor. “If someone had decided to contact social services [in the other city] they would have found the family was under the gaze of social services there because of the mother’s mental disorder. They decided there was no risk to the children.
“The father moved from that position to being a drug-abusing, violent danger to his wife and children. This all happened after the mother moved to [the refuge]. I’m here today to prove his innocence. There is no evidence whatsoever that the father has ever done anything to threaten the welfare of his children. The evidence that is there is the opposite and shows him in a good light.”
The CFA solicitor responded that the evidence was the word of the mother. “The CFA can’t un-know what she has said. She has made serious allegations. The safety of the children is best served by having those allegations investigated. Just because someone has mental health difficulties does not mean everything they said is untrue. She has not withdrawn those allegations. She has said the father ‘has changed’.
“Now that they are back together it is understandable they want the children back. If they do go back it should be after an investigation to ensure their safety.”
Judge: “The children were placed in care for one reason only – while the mother underwent treatment for her mental health. If I was to make an Interim Care Order under Section 17 I would have to be satisfied that the children had been abused, were being abused or at risk of abuse, or their health, development or welfare unavoidably impaired, on the balance of probabilities. [The judge quoted the section fully.]
“Regrettably the allegations were made when the mother was seriously unwell. She was not able to manage the children. She had psychotic episodes. Clearly that couldn’t continue. I don’t know if her allegations were coloured by her mental health. The CFA want to keep the children in care while they carry out an examination of the mother and an investigation into the father.
“I am satisfied she is taking her medication and attending her GP. I am satisfied she had two appointments with her psychiatrist. I am satisfied she engaged with the CFA. I am satisfied a Supervision Order would ensure that happens.
“The CFA wants to carry out an assessment of the father. The only evidence I have in relation to this man is that he oversaw the care of his children while they were living in [the other city]. They were [in that city] for seven years. There was no effort to take the children into care. Social services there were satisfied with the way he managed his children. Is it in the best interests of these children that they are denied the care of their mother, who grievously denied them access to their father?”
Refusing to extend the Interim Care Order, she said: “I do not have a concern for these children in the care of their father. If the CFA have concerns about the mother’s mental health they can be dealt with while the children are at home with their mother and father.”