Media alert sought for two sisters who absconded from their respective private residential units- 2022vol2#42

The case involved two young teenage sisters, who absconded from their respective private residential units during a scheduled access with family. The court directed that a complaint be made to An Garda Siochana about the family members that were harbouring them. A media alert was sought but the judge found that this application was not necessary as the mother had agreed to the issuing of such an alert. An extension of interim care orders was granted for the young girls who had previously been in care under a voluntary agreement.

The Child and Family Agency (CFA) solicitor outlined a serious incident involving one of the minors that occurred recently when she tried to set fire to a staff member’s car in the residential unit. Due to the seriousness of the incident, and the risks posed to other service users, she was immediately removed and placed in hotel accommodation. Following her return to the residential unit after a three-week period, she was brought by staff members for access with family members and her sister. During the access, two days prior to this application, the sisters absconded together.

The court heard that social workers had contacted their father to no avail. Members of An Garda Siochana had attended at both parents’ homes, and could not confirm the girls current location. It was the position that the mother consented to a media alert, but that the CFA could not obtain the father’s consent.

The private residential unit had made the decision to give notice to one of the girls, and was “willing to work with the social workers until another placement was found”. The CFA had been informed that it was the view of social workers that “if the girls are in close proximity absconsion will occur again”. The court was further told that one of the minors had absconded numerous times, and had returned to the unit; it was the first absconsion for the other minor.

The court heard that the guardian ad litem (GAL) supported the application for full care orders until the children reached the age of majority. The GAL was of the firm view that the girls were “running wild” with challenging behaviours. They had expressed a view that it was necessary to fight against the system in the hopes that if they fought [against the social workers] they “would be left alone.” The broader issue, unfortunately, was that they had “poor role models”.

The social worker allocated to one of the girls told the court that this girl was a very bright, friendly and polite young lady. However, there were complexities and difficulties with her personality, and, in particular absconding was a serious issue. He stated that there was little input from the mother, and none from the father. She was taken to a residential unit in a rural town to “reset”, in the hope that the placement and location would work for her. The girl loves her mother, father, cousins and siblings and it was “possibly determinantal to cut family ties”. Whether it was appropriate, or not when she is 18 she would be spending time with them. In respect of the access visits, the social worker said that the father is well at the moment, and partakes in four-hour weekly visits which were supervised. The father felt that there were limits to being a parent with children residing in a residential unit.

The social worker told the court this girl had returned to school, but that she had absconded within the past nine months. In his view, the siblings were absconding for longer as they were together. The court heard that some family members were not part of the safety plan; it was a complex family dynamic, and the “risk of [the minor] de-stabilising if moved away from family… would be huge”. There had been media alerts issued in the past, in response to this the family members that do harbour her “get annoyed – they don’t like the attention”. She normally returned if there was a threat of a media alert. In all the circumstances, it was “absolutely” appropriate that a care order be sought for this young person.

The judge asked if it was definitely the family that the girl was believed to be with. The social worker replied that it was “likely…she goes between family members”. The minor has an adult cousin whom she tends to be with. The teenager went in and out of her mother’s apartment; the mother could not control her as climbed in and out of windows.

The judge asked: “Why have the family members not been questioned by Gardai? … [the girls] are in voluntary care.” It appeared that there was “no consequence for the family”. The court suggested that a strategy meeting with the Gardai and both social workers was appropriate. A complaint needed to be made as a “criminal offence has been committed.”

The allocated social worker for the younger girl described her behaviour as being “extremely difficult”; it was her first absconsion. She “struggles making friends….and admits the main issue is her anger.” The family connection was very important to her, however, she “feels very rejected”, she had access with her family once a week; her sister saw them multiple times a week. Their presentations are very different. She refused to engage with the social worker but would engage with the GAL. She was involved in a number of incidents of property damage. In the social worker’s view, she had “no respect for the Gardai… she has had a number of JLOs (juvenile liaison officers) … the Garda Youth Diversion Project had not worked”. The court was told that when the Garda suggested to her that “the next stop will be detention”, she said she did not care “as she probably knows everyone there”.

The teenager had damaged hotel property, and was returned to the residential unit on the day of the absconsion. Prior to the children entering care, the girls had engaged in a lot of criminal activity. The judge commented that as this was her first absconsion, parallel planning needed to be in place as the social work team would be “likely to see it again.”

The social worker further told the court that the young person had been given notice to leave her residential unit. She had stated a number of times that she wanted to return to Dublin. A therapist was “yet to come on board” to assist her.

The young person would be devastated if a care order was granted, and it was likely she would not understand it. However, a care order was appropriate as “the mother does recognise she does not have full capacity to care for the girls”. It was not possible to contact the father.

The judge, having considered the evidence, stated that the children were at large, and there had been multiple interactions with Gardai. One of the minors was “very abusive…her identity is someone that gets in trouble with the Garda… it was very difficult to engage with this. [the minor] ignores that, and there is nothing the social worker can do.” The judge asked why there was not an application for a special care order before the court. The social worker replied that she had only returned from annual leave, and needed to have a conversation with her team leader. The judge stated: “this is not right – she needs her interactions limited in a special care setting rather than the suggestion that she eventually ends up in a detention facility. She is only [in her early teens]”.

In supporting the applications for both girls, the GAL explained to the court that he had known the family for a long time, their behaviours were “getting out of hand”. It was adult family members that were harbouring them. That Gardai were not taking action. He described the girls as “feral cats – they’re so wild”. The minors’ family took precedent over everything – this family had “a huge reputation”. The girls “should have been taken into care years ago.” However, in his opinion the criteria required for consideration by the special care committee were not present. The judge replied: “No matter – an application should be made”. The GAL further said that going to a detention facility would be “a badge of honour” for the older sister. The problem was that “when they get together, they are difficult to control”.

The judge emphasised the risks for the private residential unit and insurers’ risks with property damage. However, “the State is the ultimate underwriter… this is a bespoke placement.” The court should not be asked to make of its own volition a media alert. There was parental permission from the mother so the Gardai could do this of their own accord. The CFA said they would re-engage with An Garda Siochana on this.

The court was satisfied that the threshold was met to extend the interim care orders for both girls. It was directed that a formal complaint was to be lodged with An Garda Siochana in respect of a number of family members, as there was potential risk to the children. The court further commented that a special care application for the younger girl was appropriate, as in the court’s view the CFA did not “have an adequate plan in place”.

The interim care order was extended for 28 days.