Reunification of mother and children postponed for 15 months – 2019vol2#28

Following a review in a rural town of a care order for three children, the court ruled that they should remain in care until early in 2021, to allow the mother consolidate the progress she had made, and the children to receive promised therapy.

The judge expressed her disappointment that the Child and Family Agency had not complied with directions made when the orders were made in early 2018, relating to assessments of the children and sibling access. The judge heard the case over a week at that time, when evidence was given of alcohol abuse and domestic violence in the home, and neglect of the children. The parents, who were from another European country, had since separated and the father was in a new relationship. Both parents had interpreters present in court.

At the review hearing the allocated social worker said the children were doing well. The oldest, A, had just done his Junior Certificate and had received a good school report. He was very mature and articulate. The next two children, B and C, were in the same foster placement. B was doing better than C, who was more quiet and reserved, and felt a bit lost at times. Occupational therapy was under consideration for him. The youngest, D, was thriving in every way and meeting all his milestones.

Referring to the court directions, which included psychotherapy for A, the social worker said a therapist had been identified but A was adamant he did not want it. The judge said she did not want to force it on him, but thought a time would come when he would want it.

Referring to sibling access, the social worker said that the children saw each other at the weekly access with their mother, and fortnightly access with their father. There had been an incident at the foster carers where the father had a disagreement with the person supervising access with him and the children had been very upset and angry, especially A. The social worker said the agency was working with the father to improve the quality of his access with the children and a therapist from his own country had been identified.

The mother had moved away to a residential addiction treatment centre in order to address her alcohol addiction. It had been very difficult for her, and the language barrier had been a big issue, but she had made huge progress and her English had improved dramatically. The judge said this was a very great credit to her, and she had also had to deal with the separation from her husband. She did not underestimate the difficulties for her.

The social worker said he had put together a time line for the reunification of the mother with her children, with the exception of A, who said he wanted to stay where he was. The children had been in care for four years and it was envisaged they would return in the summer of 2020, taking into account the school year. The mother would like them back earlier, but it was a huge undertaking. D had been in care since he was six days old, and the foster family was all he knew. An attachment specialist would be needed to help him reunify with his family, and it would also be important to see how the reunification with B and C went. The social worker said the CFA was recommending a 10-month care order, until the end of the summer of 2020.

The social worker added that he did not think the fact that A did not want to go home at this stage was a reflection of his relationship with his mother. They had unsupervised visits, and he thought A would take part in more such visits. He proposed a review in four months’ time to see how increased access with B and C was doing, and to make sure neither they nor the mother was overwhelmed.

The mother’s barrister said that the mother had done a parenting course, had engaged with addiction services and with a counsellor in the rural town, so she was very committed. The social worker agreed. “She never misses a visit with the children and the children love going to her house.”

Asked if he accepted there was no question over her commitment, the social worker replied: “Absolutely. I was sceptical, but she proved us all wrong.”

He agreed that she had demonstrated she could cope with very significant stressors, including homelessness and the break-up of her marriage. The parents were engaging with each other civilly in relation to the children, and the father had stressed he did not want to jeopardise their welfare.

He agreed with the father’s barrister that the father was engaging in therapy, and knew he wanted increased access. However, the social worker said there had been a number of accesses missed, and he needed to build up his relationships with his children, who were very upset by his anger.

Father’s barrister: “There is no threat to the children?”

Social worker: “I don’t accept that. While his anger is directed at adults, the children were very upset by it.”

The judge said that the situation was now different, in that the parents were separated. The children had to process that, and when reunification occurred access would have to be arranged with the non-custodial parent.

A psychologist gave evidence of her assessment of the parents, which followed a parenting capacity assessment previously carried out by another psychologist. She had conducted psychometric tests, observed accesses and interviewed the children.

She said he did not see evidence that the mother had engaged in therapy in relation to trauma that had been identified earlier, or that the children had received the therapy recommended by the previous psychologist. It would be of great benefit to the children if they received an agreed coherent explanation from the parents of what they had experienced.

She said she thought there was still some work to do before reunification should be scheduled. Both parents would benefit from personal therapy for the trauma they had both experienced in their lives.

The judge said that the mother was seeing a therapist, and the psychologist said she was concerned an addiction counsellor was not competent to undertake a parenting capacity assessment.

Asked by the mother’s barrister what problems the mother had outside of her addiction, the psychologist said she had difficulty at times with emotional regulation. Asked for evidence of this, she said the mother had said she did not want to interact with the father while he was in a relationship with his new partner, who was pregnant. The barrister pointed out that the social worker had said the relationship was civil, if not warm, and the psychologist said it would need to be worked on so that they could engage together as parents.

Mother’s barrister: “But the social worker said they were able to do so and be civil. Did you see them interact?”

Psychologist: “No. I observed [the mother’s] reaction to [the father’s] current environment. She demonstrated considerable difficulty. The children observed it.”

Asked what they observed, the psychologist said: “She looked upset and looked to me for guidance.”

Barrister: “Would that be unusual where a couple separated in rather bad circumstances?”

Psychologist: “No.”

Barrister: “So on what do you base your concerns in relation to her parenting capacity?”

Psychologist: “Her ability to manage emotionally challenging situations. She displayed significant distress.”

Barrister: “Did she cry?”

Psychologist: “No.”

Barrister: “Did she shout? Run out of the room?”

Psychologist: “No. She disclosed to me later she was upset. The children were upset when they saw [the mother’s] reaction. She told me when she left the room she broke down.”

Asked what her other concerns were about the mother’s parenting, she said they concerned her openness with professionals, especially in relation to her emotional vulnerabilities, her reluctance to talk about past difficulties.

Barrister: “Is it not the case that [the previous psychologist] said a major issue was trust, and when he built that trust she was able to talk to him about the past?”

Psychologist: “That is not my understanding.”

Asked if she had discussed the social worker’s evidence with him, the psychologist said she had not.

She accepted that the mother had engaged with the professionals in the addiction centre for a year. She agreed also that this would have involved a lot of personal work. Asked if she was aware the mother was continuing to engage with these services, she said she had not seen the report.

Responding further to the mother’s barrister’s cross-examination, she said she accepted that the therapies the mother was currently engaged in provided useful tools, and that she could use them to address other difficulties in her life.

Asked if she had seen the mother unable to cope with the children the psychologist replied: “She displayed practical, caring parenting. She demonstrated really positive coping skills in a supported environment. [But] she needs to do more work in the new environment [in the rural town].”

The judge said: “Would you not be hopeful? The previous psychologist was very positive about her capacity to parent if her addiction was dealt with. He talked about an intelligent lady. In the light of what you heard today from the social worker, are your fears allayed in any way?”

The psychologist said that some of what she had heard was in line with her recommendations. These were ongoing therapy for the parents and the children, a cohesive approach from the parents and an independent advocate for the father to assist with communication, especially with the social work department. She said this work should come before reunification, so that the children were confident the parents were open in their communication, which would mean the children could be open in their communication.

The guardian ad litem (GAL), who had taken over from a previous GAL eight months previously, said she recommended an 18-month care order, to allow the necessary reports for the parents and children. It would take time to identify the right people. It was important the children had access to therapeutic supports before reunification. There should be increased contact with the children and the children should understand there was going to be reunification.

The parents needed to work on how they were going to co-parent. Reviewing the history of the case, there had been a number of problems including aggression between them. Without supports challenges could arise.

Asked why she was recommending 18 months, she said the children wanted to go home, but she thought 10 months was over-optimistic. She would like to see the parents in individual therapy and working on co-parenting. If the supports were not in place, and if the reunification were to fail, the current foster placements may not be available for the children, which would be very detrimental to them. There was a severe shortage of foster placements around the country.

“These children are waiting a long time for a long-term care plan. [B] and [C] in particular would be counting on one day going home. It is always possible for children to go home on a care order while waiting for the care order to be discharged. An 18-month care order is realistic in my view.”

She said she would also like directions for therapeutic supports for both the parents and children. In relation to D, she said that the child was in care since he was six days old, where he felt safe and nurtured, and disrupting that could be very damaging without the support of an attachment specialist. The mother had not had the opportunity to parent her children for four years and she needed an opportunity to get to know the children individually. She was only seeing them for an hour a week.

It would be very beneficial for them to spend longer time with their mother as individuals. She had discussed this with the mother and she was very open to that. In relation to sibling access, it would have been beneficial for B and C to see A more. The GAL had discussed this with him and he was agreeable if they wanted it, though at his age socialising was a priority for him. There should be no obstacle either to contact between B and C and D, as they lived close to each other.

Asked whether she had identified therapy, she said that she thought art therapy would be best for C, but B was very confident and talking therapy might suit her. D was too young. D was quite anxious going to access and was reassured when his siblings were there. She would prefer if an attachment specialist was engaged before he had access with his mother alone. Access with B and C should be increased, it was very short at the moment. Increased time, rather than frequency, would allow the mother to engage in more advanced parenting tasks like cooking dinner and reviewing homework.

She said she thought reunification by the summer was over-optimistic. She agreed with the mother’s barrister that the mother should be commended for all the work she had done. “I see it rarely in my work.”

Asked about unsupervised access for the father, she said she hoped the father saw the supervision as a supportive rather than an oppressive measure. He would benefit from a mentor being involved in access. The children reported he could become very angry, and they were also upset that he brought his girlfriend to access.

“This could be a case where we have a number of reviews before a final decision,” the judge said. “I really feel strongly that no-one will know for sure how this is going to work out. We have to have a leap of faith. I think the mother and father have been very mature. There was great resistance to doing a lot in 2017. They have come a long way since then.

“I am looking at a Section 18 order up to February 2021, with a review in mid-March 2020. Access at the discretion of the CFA, knowing it’s envisaged it will be increased for all the children. A section 47 order for therapeutic support for all the children. Do it very quickly. The CFA is to continue to support the parents. An attachment specialist is to be sourced for [D] [to see] how reunification will work for him. The older siblings will have a role in that. [B] wrote to me, but I put a lot of store on what the GAL said.”