Six-month care orders granted due to potential threat of domestic violence – 2020vol1#29

The district court in a provincial city granted interim care orders for four children of primary school age due to the potential threat of domestic violence. The children’s father had recently served a prison sentence for three breaches of a barring order and he had returned to the family home immediately following his release from prison. The children’s mother sought the father’s barring order to be discharged although she had previously given evidence in his bail application that she was living in fear of him.

The parents’ lawyers argued that the granting of a care order for the children was a draconian measure and that there was no evidence of any alternative options having been explored by the Child and Family Agency (CFA). The judge said she would not deal with the mother’s application to discharge the father’s barring order until the very important matters of child safety and welfare were decided.

Following a two-day hearing, the judge granted interim care orders for the four children and listed the matter for the following week as she decided to appoint a guardian ad litem for the children. She requested that the CFA make written submissions regarding the requirements for family reunification. On a further hearing date, the judge granted a six-month care order after hearing updated developments and additional evidence.

Day one: Garda evidence

A female Garda gave evidence of responding to a complaint made by the children’s mother when the father breached the barring order against him by coming straight to the family home following his release from prison. The Garda had received a call from the mother’s neighbour to say that the children’s father had called to her house and had threatened that the children’s mother “would not see 2019”. The neighbour alleged that the father threatened to “burn [mother’s] gaff”.

On the same night that this allegation was reported to Gardaí, the fire brigade was called to a fire in the family home. The house was empty at the time, but the fire caused considerable damage to the home, rendering it uninhabitable for some months. Gardaí preserved the scene of the fire. The Garda called to the house where the mother was staying on that night and observed the mother and father in an altercation. The mother was crying and she complained to the Garda that the father had punched her in the face. The Garda arrested the father and brought him to the Garda station where a criminal file was prepared for the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).

The Garda reported that the mother alleged that she had received a phone call from the father while he was in prison in which he had threatened to murder her when he got out. The father had applied for bail to the High Court on two occasions where the mother gave evidence to the High Court that she was in fear of [father]. Following the mother’s evidence, the father withdrew his bail application.

The Garda reported that an emergency meeting took place in the social work department in order to make provisions for the mother and children and draw up a plan for when the father would be released from prison. The Garda told the CFA lawyer that her view of the mother at that time was that the mother was in fear of the father. The father had received a one-year sentence which was backdated. Following his release from prison he applied to the Gardaí for the return of his clothes and he got these back at the Garda station.

CFA lawyer: “Did you have any further contact with the family?”

Garda: “I asked the children one day how the Communion had gone and had a general conversation with them.”

The Garda told the court that the father had phoned the station to ask why she was involved in the CFA matter regarding the children. She said he had accused her of harassment and had made threats regarding her career and had said he would report her to the Garda Ombudsman. The judge asked the Garda if her conversation with the children was in the course of her normal duties as a Garda. The Garda replied that it was part of her regular community Garda duties on patrol in the local area.

The Garda told the mother’s lawyer she did not have any child protection concerns regarding the children’s physical presentation. The father’s lawyer told the judge that it was everyone’s right to make a complaint to the Garda Ombudsman.

Father’s lawyer: “My client has formed the view that this Garda has taken a special interest in him and that as a consequence he has made a complaint to her sergeant.”

The father’s lawyer said the Garda had tried to make a connection between [father] and the fire in the children’s home although the father had been acquitted of the charge of starting the fire. The judge intervened and said that the Garda had a duty to take a statement from a named individual to whom a threat was made regarding the children’s home. At this point the judge discharged the Garda and told the parties she would not be dealing with the mother’s application to discharge the father’s barring order until such time as the welfare matter of the children had been sorted out.

Day two

The mother’s lawyer asked the children’s social worker about her relationship with the mother. The social worker reported that [mother] communicated freely but was not always honest and open about her relationship with the children’s father. The social worker said there were no concerns expressed by the children’s school principal and she told the judge she had spoken to the principal at the child protection conference (CPC).

The mother’s lawyer asked the social worker about the anonymous child protection referrals which had been made about the children. The mother had told her lawyer that one of these referrals alleged an incident that never happened whereas a second referral was in relation to one of the children wandering off for a brief time. The mother’s lawyer suggested that it was unwise to rely on the truth and reliability of the referrals.

The mother’s lawyer said that the mother did not believe that the father posed a risk to his children as long as he continued to follow his mental health plan. The social worker replied that she was not aware of any mental health issues.

The judge asked when the issue of the father’s mental health came to be mentioned and the CFA lawyer replied that his colleague had told him on the previous day that the father had a diagnosis since the age of 18 of bipolar disorder. The judge asked why this new information was only coming to light at this stage of the hearing. She asked if there were medical reports for the court and the CFA lawyer said there were not.

The mother’s lawyer asked if there was evidence of violence in the children’s home since the father came back and the social worker told the court there was no evidence of violence in that short space of time. The social worker reported that there was now a “high level of risk in the home” since the father’s return. The mother’s lawyer said the father believes he has “mended his ways” following the prison sentence and that he has engaged with the relevant services. The social worker replied that there was no evidence to support this belief.

The father’s lawyer asked the social worker what alternative options had been considered by the CFA prior to resorting to a care order application. The social worker replied that the matter was considered by the staff who attended the child protection conference (CPC) and that the mother had not attended this CPC. The father’s lawyer pointed out that there is an obligation under the law that a proportionate manner must be used when considering a care order for children and asked the social worker if the CFA had complied with the law by going through all the considerations. At this point the father interrupted proceedings and the judge rose briefly to allow the father to speak with his lawyer.

The social worker told the court that the father had been asked to leave the home on more than one occasion following his breach of the barring order. She also said that she had tried unsuccessfully to convince the children’s mother to attend the CPC. Consequently, following a discussion with the social work team leader during the CPC regarding the safety concerns for the children, an application for a care order was deemed to be the best option for the CFA. Both parents had been made aware of the potential difficulties if the father were to remain in the children’s home. The CFA had advised the mother that she was putting her own relationship with the father ahead of the children’s safety.

The father’s lawyer said that before the CFA interferes with the rights of a family, it was incumbent on them to explore all alternative options. He outlined the alternative options as:

  1. CFA to take no action
  2. CFA to take limited action
  3. CFA to seek a supervision order
  4. CFA to seek a care order.

The social worker said alternative options had been considered by the CFA but that they felt the level of risk required a care order. The father’s lawyer asked how this decision was reached following one home visit by the CFA and asked what exactly the concern was.

Social worker: “[Father] was there without any support network.”

Father’s lawyer: “Your concern was regarding possible traumatisation?”

The father’s lawyer asked the social worker why further visits were not made to the children’s home and she replied that she did not want to aggravate the situation. The social worker said a pattern of behaviour had developed and that unless something was done, that pattern would continue. The father’s lawyer said that the father alleged that the social worker had declined to have any conversations with him and that since his return to the children’s home at the mother’s invitation, their relationship had been good and stable and did not pose a risk to the children. The social worker pointed out that the father had breached the barring order and that the parents had not engaged with the CPC.

Father’s lawyer: “Are you saying that unless you can guarantee any children’s total safety, you will take them into care?”

The social worker said that in this particular case there was an increased risk to the children’s safety.

The CFA lawyer made final submissions to the court outlining the CFA’s application for the granting of a care order. She told the judge that the threshold for the granting of a care order had been met in this case. She described it as a “difficult and tragic case”. The mother had sought a three-year barring order against the father, which had been breached leading to a complaint to the Gardaí. The mother had travelled to Dublin to voice her opposition in court to the father’s bail application, saying that she would be in fear both for her own safety and the safety of the children.

The CFA lawyer reported that while the father was acquitted of the criminal charge in relation to the fire at the children’s home, weight had to be given to the fact that the mother had led others to believe that the father was capable of setting fire to the home. The mother believed she would have to go to a refuge rather than to her relatives and she had taken the step of visiting the refuge as she was in fear of the father. The CFA told the judge that the social worker had given evidence of the alternatives which had been considered at the CPC and that the threshold for a care order had been met in this case. She added that the level of risk could not be tolerated and sought the care order for the children.

The father’s lawyer described the care order as a “draconian order for which there must be compelling evidence”. He said the evidence was not sufficiently compelling to warrant the traumatic removal of four children from the care of their mother. He suggested that in view of the perceived level of risk, a supervision order would be more proportionate so the risk could be managed. He said there had been no concerns raised about these children by either the public health nurse or the school staff. He said the social worker should have called to the children’s home on more than one occasion if she had such serious concerns.

The father’s lawyer told the court that it would be a “travesty to take these [children] into care” and he suggested striking out the current proceedings and seeking a supervision order in the alternative. When this proposal was rejected by the CFA, the father’s lawyer sought an adjournment due to lack of evidence.

The judge said the mother’s current application to discharge the barring order against the children’s father was a matter of much concern.

Judge: “We are looking at a situation where there is a barring order in place against [father] in circumstances where [father] has now moved back into the house.”

The judge decided that she would need time to consider all matters and evidence raised in this hearing prior to coming to a decision and she consequently adjourned the matter.

Day three: Interim care orders granted

The judge gave her decision in relation to the application for care orders for the four children. She granted 21-day interim care orders in respect of all four children. She requested that the CFA put in writing what would be required for family reunification in this case. The judge said she intended to appoint a guardian ad litem and she listed the case for that matter to be dealt with a week later.

Day four: Six-month care orders granted

The judge noted that there was an interim care order in place for all four children. The mother had consented to a care order to be put in place for six months. The father had not consented but he was unable to provide a home himself as he had no current accommodation.

The lawyer for the CFA asked the social worker about developments that had taken place since the last court date. The social worker reported that the mother and father did not abide by their previous undertakings to the court. An altercation had taken place between the mother and father during which the mother had thrown an object at the father and he had retaliated by attacking her with a hockey stick. The father had been arrested as a result of this incident and the mother showed bruises on the back of her knees to the social worker during a subsequent access visit. The mother also complained that the father had poured coffee on her in a shop.

The social worker reported that the father had been aggressive towards her during an access visit and that he was threatening and shouting at her on a further access visit. Gardaí had been called but the father had gone away before they arrived. The mother was staying at an alternative address as the previous house was now boarded up.

The CFA lawyer asked the social worker what actions needed to be taken by the mother and father. The social worker told the court that they both needed to engage with the addiction services, engage with the mental health services and respect the barring order. The father also needed to engage in anger management counselling. The father’s lawyer asked the social worker where she had got evidence that the father had an addiction problem. The father’s lawyer said he only takes medication for panic attacks. She said that the father had told the CFA that he had no addiction problems and yet they made a note on their report that he was “not engaging” [with addiction services].

The social worker checked her notes and found a reference to an anonymous referral from two years earlier in which the father was reported to have been driving his children in the car while under the influence of drink or drugs. The father’s lawyer told the court that he was willing to undergo drug tests if required. He had also agreed to engage with both mental health services and anger management and was currently on a waiting list for these services. The father did not give evidence in court.

The mother’s lawyer said she was beginning to follow the previous recommendations with a view to family reunification. The mother was now pregnant again but intended to be up and about soon after her caesarean section. The mother’s lawyer said the mother was committed to the safety plan going forward and had acknowledged that she did not engage sufficiently in the past.

The judge said that having heard all the evidence put forward that very little had changed since the first interim care order was granted. She granted a care order for six months and noted the mother’s consent to this. The judge wished the mother well with her pregnancy.