Review of eight-year-old care orders means access to be at child’s discretion – 2019vol2#54

Following a review of full care orders for three children, which had been made eight years earlier, an order was made that access between the eldest child and the parents was to be at the child’s discretion. Monthly welfare reports and educational progress reports were to be provided to the parents on all the children on a monthly basis and the parents are to be kept updated regarding exactly what therapeutic service interventions are made for the two younger children. The case is to be reviewed after three months by the same judge.

This case, in a provincial city, involved three children for whom full care orders were made eight years ago. Following a review of the orders three years ago, an order was made that access to the parents was to be at the discretion of the Child and Family Agency (CFA). The two oldest children are in post-primary school and the youngest in primary school.

Child A

A, the eldest of the siblings in care, will be ageing out of the care system within the year, when he reaches 18 years of age. The lawyer for the CFA asked his social worker how he was progressing educationally. The social worker replied that his school progress had deteriorated since the last review and he seemed to be focused too much on trying to spend time with his biological parents. His school report at the end of the previous school year praised his personality but noted a dis-improvement in his homework and academic progress.

The social worker said A had very good potential academically but he was prioritising time with his biological parents. He had initially expressed an interest in becoming [specific profession] but had recently set his mind on becoming a tradesman and doing a post Leaving Certificate course. He was currently in his Leaving Certificate year.

CFA lawyer: “Have his foster parents noticed a change?”

The social worker responded that they had noticed a change and that he was spending time on the phone instead of studying. She added that all those involved had spoken to him about his potential and the importance of applying himself in order to get a good career. When asked why she believed the contact with his biological parents was contributing to A’s lower educational attainments, the social worker replied that there was “historical evidence” for this opinion.

Judge: “Is it your opinion that [A’s] access to his biological parents is having a negative effect?”

Social worker: “Most definitely”.

The social worker told the court that an aftercare plan was being prepared and that A was positively disposed to the plan. He had a good relationship with older siblings who have aged out of care and he meets with them under a supervised access arrangement.

When the CFA lawyer asked the social worker if A ever spoke about his childhood experiences, she replied that he was closed off about that time and had said “the past is the past”. The judge asked what the CFA was proposing in relation to A and his social worker replied that she can say to A that the access with his parents is not good for him. The CFA lawyer said the after-care plan was very important and he suggested putting the matter in for a further review four months prior to A’s 18th birthday.

The father’s lawyer asked the social worker if A had attended a career fair and she replied that he had attended a seminar organised by the school. The lawyer suggested it was because of this experience that A identified for himself the possibility of becoming a tradesman.

Father’s lawyer: “You were implying that the parents influenced [A] in this decision?”

The father’s lawyer said that A’s decision had nothing to do with access as he was not seeing his parents at that time.

Father’s lawyer: “[A] will be 18 soon. You honestly think access should be blocked?”

The judge said A is now 17 years old and that any court order would be ineffective if he wanted to visit his parents. She told the social worker that despite the CFA’s opinion that access was the cause of A’s lower attainment, it could be that he has seen possible benefits in the life of a tradesman.

Judge: “That is the reality of life here… if [the trade] makes him happy, so be it”.

The father’s lawyer told the social worker that A is “drawn to his family of origin” and wanted to go to college and return home at weekends and that access to his parents may provide an opportunity to discuss his future plans. The social worker replied that it was the CFA’s opinion that it would be better to have access controlled by the CFA.

The mother’s lawyer asked A’s social worker when she had last met with the mother. The social worker said they had met in the previous 12 months but that meetings were “open meetings” and feedback was given. The lawyer questioned why the social worker had not contacted A’s mother to report the drop in his educational attainment since a report at the start of school year.

Mother’s lawyer: “Why do you attribute the last six weeks’ deterioration to his visits home?”

Social worker: “I’ve continued to say it was because of the parents”.

The mother’s lawyer said that A’s older siblings returned to their biological parents voluntarily after turning 18. He added that the CFA policy to block the parents out of their children’s lives had not worked and that A was already “voting with his feet”. It was clear he had a natural curiosity about his parents.

The mother’s lawyer referred to the court order made three years previously, which required the CFA to give regular updates to the parents. The social worker was not involved in the case at that time and said she was not aware of this. The mother’s lawyer asked if either medical or school updates had been given to the parents over the last number of years to which the social worker replied that the parents had never engaged in filling in or returning the forms sent to them. The lawyer said the mother had accepted her lack of initial parenting care but that it was a pity there had never been a “little bit of sitting down together rather than just court dates”.

Child B

B, who is of early post-primary school age, has been in care since she was three years of age. The most recent court order was made three years ago. It specified that access with the biological parents was to be “at the discretion of the CFA”.

The lawyer for the CFA asked about B’s welfare and her social worker described her as a lovely child who was doing very well and was very settled with her foster parents whom she regarded as her family. She was described as having great interest in sport and had engaged fully with play therapy and ongoing supports. Her social worker said she had a “brilliant attachment” with her foster family and would be attending the supervised Christmas access with her siblings. When asked if she had all her needs met, the social worker replied that B was embedded in her community where she had “total stability”.

CFA lawyer: “Instability would be completely wrong?”

Social worker: “Definitely”.

The father’s lawyer told the court that neither B nor C had seen their father at all in the previous eight years. The father had acknowledged all allegations made against him, had attended at 26 sessions of anger-management, had undergone two psychological assessments and a DNA test in the understanding it would prepare the way for commencing some access to his young daughters. The father’s lawyer said he had acknowledged and expressed remorse for his earlier parenting but that this had made no difference to access to his children.

The social worker said she did not think access was in the best interests of B and C until after their eighteenth birthdays. The father’s lawyer said one of the children could not even identify her own father and they were effectively being “severed from … their biological father”. Neither had they any contact whatsoever with their 40 first cousins.

The mother’s lawyer told the court that B had access with the mother six times a year up until three years previously when the order was revised to “access at the discretion of the CFA.”

Mother’s lawyer: “So, since the revised court order, discretion has been used by the CFA to stop access.” He said the previous court report, which was co-signed by B’s social worker, reported that the children’s access with their mother was going well. When the social worker said she was not involved in the case at that time, the lawyer showed her the report, which she had signed for court

Mother’s lawyer: “Why did the CFA totally pull the access?”

Social worker: “When we got discretion, we pulled it”.

Mother’s lawyer: “Do you not want Mam to see these girls until they are 18?”

Social worker: “In my professional opinion, yes”.

The social worker objected to access due to the need for the child’s placement to be secure and stable with friends and activities. She said there had been ongoing issues with previous access. The mother’s lawyer asked the social worker what she would say to the children if, after their 18th birthdays, they came and said: “I’ve missed out on years of contact with my mother?” The social worker replied that the children had enough people visiting them.

Mother’s lawyer: “[B] has only one mother and a mother is very precious to every human being”.

Social worker: “I disagree”.

The mother’s lawyer said that it was supervised access which was being sought and the social worker answered that any contact with the mother would have a “destabilising influence” on the placement. When asked if she had considered meeting with the mother to discuss possibilities around controlled, supervised access, the social worker replied that she had not as it had been tried before.

The mother’s lawyer enquired about the regular updates to parents written into the previous order. The social worker told her photographs of key events were sent and gave some examples such as B’s Confirmation and getting the post-primary school uniform. She said that any school information updates were sent. She said that the mother did not “meaningfully engage”.

The mother’s lawyer asked if one of the aims of the therapeutic work was to prepare for possible access. The social worker said her understanding was that the function of therapeutic work was that in the event that contact re-commenced between the children and parents, it would help to support them and give them the tools emotionally to deal with the situation and their history.

Child C

C was described by the social worker as being very bright, independent and with a bit of a temper. She is of primary school age and is doing really well at school. She is articulate and very bright. Having been taken into care at eleven months, she identifies with her foster family although she does know she has another Mam.

She had been with a different foster family originally but was moved from these following allegations by another child against one of the foster parents. The social worker confirmed C was in a stable, structured foster family which was very dedicated to her. The foster parents had sought increased autonomy so that they could sign permission slips for school events to make things easier for the child. The CFA lawyer asked about the relationship between C and her siblings and the social worker replied that they had good fun together and sometimes shared gifts. When asked by the CFA lawyer about re-commencing access with her mother, the social worker told the court this would unsettle the child whose stability and security were paramount.

The CFA lawyer said the mother had undergone two assessments which concluded that she lacked insight into the effect and impact she had had on her children. He asked the social worker if she thought the mother had gained any insight into her impact on the children, in view of the fact that the mother still went ahead and married the father even after completing her therapy sessions. The social worker replied that she believed the impact on the children would be detrimental to their well-being.

The father’s lawyer asked the social worker whether she had spoken at any time to C about her father. The social worker replied that C knows her father. The lawyer asked how it would ever be possible for C to express interest in getting to see or know her father when the CFA had severed the relationship due to lack of access. The social worker said she herself had a good relationship with C and that it was in the child’s best interest not to have access. When asked about the function of therapy for the child, the social worker said it was not her understanding that this was to help facilitate access but to prepare the child for access only via social media and not physical access.

The mother’s lawyer asked the social worker about C’s special academic talent and the fact that she was selected to attend a specialised programme for such children due to her superior talent.

Mother’s lawyer: “This achievement was a matter of great pride to [C’s] mother. Did you contact Mam about this?”

Social worker: “I told her on Friday when I met her”.

The mother’s lawyer said that the mother only found out about her daughter’s achievement in an “obtuse way” and that she really should have been informed in a respectful manner. She asked the social worker if the children knew their mother was fighting to see them. When the social worker confirmed that they did know this, the judge asked her how they knew and what their reaction was. The social worker told the judge the children knew that there were court days and they just “take it on board”. The lawyer said it was important for the children to know their mother wants to see them.

Mother’s lawyer: “I put it to you that the CFA has a closed mind on this”.

The mother’s lawyer said he believed that the longer the access is blocked, the more remote and the more difficult access would become.

Mother’s lawyer: “It’s more likely they’ll grow into young women without ever seeing their mother. You’re overstating the risk to the placement.”

The social worker said C was in care for a reason and that the historical evidence had to be taken into account. The mother’s lawyer said the loss to the children would be irreversible as the social worker never speaks or meets with the mother and “only talks in the court room”. He said the mother is only looking for some supervised access, a little role in their lives, which he considered to be reasonable. The social worker said stopping access was an “informed decision”.

The guardian ad litem (GAL) for the three children gave evidence that she had a good relationship with A and encouraged him to study well to be able to have an independent life later on in his own chosen career. She described the impact on his life of his earlier childhood as causing him to be “closed about his experiences”. In recalling his visits to his parents, she said A normalises the home life and tells her he is not at risk there as he is now older, bigger and stronger and could beat his father.

The judge asked the GAL what A’s understanding was of the social worker not wanting him to visit his home. She replied that A thought it would be beneficial for the social worker to acknowledge he was visiting home but that the social worker did not think the visits were in his best interests. When the father’s lawyer questioned the GAL about access, she said it was the CFA’s position that access would not happen as it would dilute their position. When asked if she was comfortable with the CFA position, the GAL replied that she wished the CFA would acknowledge that A was visiting his parents regularly.

Father’s lawyer: “Would it help if he led the access arrangements?”

GAL: “He’s doing that anyway”.

When asked about meeting with the mother, the GAL said she met her two months previously but could not remember when she had met her before that time as it was so long ago she could not remember. The mother’s lawyer said there must be fundamental deficiencies in parenting children before a care order is made and suggested it would be unusual for these parents to acknowledge the deficiencies. The GAL replied that it would be most beneficial to children if a full acknowledgement were made as it would make recovery quicker and more noticeable.

She confirmed that A believed that his unauthorised visits to his parents were being blamed for his dis-improvement in school. When asked if she thought some structure should be put into this through meetings, the GAL said she would like to collaborate on the best way forward.

Regarding her work with B and C, the GAL said they were doing well in their foster home and community. When asked her opinion of access for the girls, the GAL said that therapeutic work was only commencing for them and that it would not be good practice to introduce access at the very same time. The father’s lawyer suggested that it did not matter what would happen regarding the father’s therapy as the CFA had already made up its mind.

The mother’s lawyer asked the GAL about B’s opinion on access as she had said seven months previously that she would like access with her mother about twice a month.

Mother’s lawyer: “What exactly does [B] have to do to convince you that she wants to see her mother?”

The judge asked the GAL if there was an aspect in the therapy where they could explore potential access with the mother. The GAL replied that the main priorities at present were the children’s stability and their therapy and that it would be “an abomination if [C’s] placement were to be disrupted”.

The children’s mother gave evidence and answered questions from the judge, the CFA lawyer and the mother’s lawyer. She told the court that A visits home between two and five times a week and on many Saturdays. Regarding concerns about his school progress, the mother said she had spoken to him regularly about the importance of his schoolwork and doing his homework. She advised him to talk to his teachers about the subjects he finds difficult. She described him as “driven” and said that he wished to study [either of two professions].

The mother’s lawyer said there had been an earlier mention of an apology to the children from their mother regarding her earlier parenting of them. The mother said she would have no problem apologising but that she was restricted in what she could do at present. Her lawyer asked the mother how she felt about not seeing her two girls for almost three years. The mother said it was difficult to describe.

Mother: “It kills you inside when you know your children have milestones and you’re not part of it. I only saw achievements on the care review plan”.

The mother said that she had sought photographs of her girls playing sports to have them as a keepsake but never got any. When asked if she got medical and school updates, the mother replied she only heard things if there was a care plan review meeting. When she was told of the CFA’s concern that access would disrupt the girls’ placement, the mother said she did not think supervised access a few times a year could disrupt placement and she said she would be prepared to travel so that the children would not need to travel. She said her children knew who she was but she was not in their lives and she would love to be able to see her own child playing sport.

Mother: “I’d like them to know I have been fighting for years… they have a right to have that contact”.

Mother’s lawyer: “Would you undertake not to disrupt their placement?”

The mother said the last thing she would want is to disrupt their lives or make the girls upset but that in the last three years so much had happened in their lives. When asked if there was anything additional she wished to say, the mother said that she missed them both.

Mother: “I’ve two young daughters and I have no way of knowing what they’re into… a piece of you is out there and it’s heart-breaking”.

The mother told the court she was on a waiting list for counselling and her doctor had told her it would be beneficial. When asked about the therapy the girls are receiving, she said she understood why the social workers and GAL thought it would be good for the girls.

Judge: “If they ask you why did they have to go into care?”

Mother: “I wasn’t a good mother… I was very young… I would have used different techniques… I wouldn’t have slapped their backsides.”

Judge: “Is that the only reason? Do you accept there was neglect?”

Mother: “I do accept there was neglect”.

The judge said that the reality was that there was a lot of evidence of serious neglect and allegations of sexual abuse. The judge said the girls might be able to accept why they are in care “if it’s not played down”.

The CFA lawyer told the mother the children might ask in future why she went ahead and married their Dad after he did those terrible things. The mother said it had once been put to her that she had been grooming her children for prostitution but that there was “no way I’d even think of doing something like that.” She recalled that when this was put to her, she had felt like slapping the social worker but that instead she had walked out of the room.

However, the judge said that it was the children themselves who had made the disclosures and asked the mother if she was now saying she did not believe them.

Mother: “I hope they can forgive me one day.”

The judge made an order that access between the eldest child and the parents was to be at the child’s own discretion. She said she would review this again prior to the eldest child’s 18th birthday to deal with his aftercare plan.

The judge ordered that monthly welfare reports and educational progress reports on the three children were to be provided to the parents on a monthly basis by the CFA. The parents are also to be kept updated regarding exactly what therapeutic service interventions are made for the two younger children.

The case is to be reviewed after three months by the same judge.