Supervision order discharged despite GAL’s concerns about ongoing support for father caring for vulnerable child – 2019vol1#21

The District court discharged a six-month supervision order for a pre-school child with significant development needs who was in the care of his father. The father also cared for his daughter, who was thriving. The guardian ad litem (GAL) had recommended a supervision order for at least a year in order for the reunification plan to settle and to secure all the required supports for the father and young child into the future. The GAL expected a further adjournment rather than a discharge of the supervision order.

The Child and Family Agency (CFA) was satisfied that the supervision order could expire because the child’s welfare was no longer a concern while the child was in the care of his father, with ongoing supports. Despite the absence of a discharge plan, the judge held there was no jurisdiction to adjourn it.

Initially the child was placed in the care of the Child and Family Agency by the Gardaí under section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991. The mother struggled with drug addiction and had been in an out of prison over the past few years. The District court granted an interim care order and the child was placed in foster care for few days. The child returned then to the care of his father under a six-month supervision order.

When the matter returned to the District court six months later, the CFA sought a further supervision order with the consent of the father. The court was concerned as to whether the threshold for a supervision order had been met and adjourned the matter for three months. On the morning of the next hearing, the court heard the CFA’s intention had been to seek a further adjournment, which the GAL supported. However, the Agency was instead seeking to withdraw the supervision order.

Present in court were the legal representatives for the father and for the GAL. The court heard the father could not attend court due to some parenting support appointment. The mother had recently left prison and her whereabouts were unknown.

Judge: “Was she aware of the court hearing?”

CFA solicitor: “We wrote her a letter, which has not been responded to. She has no telephone number.”

The solicitor for the father said that it was a very positive case. His client was very committed and fully appreciative of the support. “At times he is a little bit embarrassed to ask for more help,” he said. The father had collaborated with all parties and the court review had been of “huge benefit”. The solicitor for the father asked the court to consider a month or two month’s adjournment to allow a response to the concerns outlined by the GAL in her report. He said that the absence of a plan outlining the supports available to the family, once the supervision order would be discharged, was concerning.

Counsel for the GAL said that his client understood there would be an application to adjourn matters, not to withdraw the supervision order. “I am not sure, judge, if you can refuse the application to withdraw and adjourn [instead],” said counsel for the GAL. The threshold had been an issue but it was accepted that section 24 of the Child Care Act 1991 (welfare of the child to be paramount) was an overarching condition.

The GAL had had telephone contact with the father and the social work department on various occasions but she was unable to make contact with the mother since she was released from prison. The mother’s whereabouts were unknown.

According to the GAL’s report, it was very positive that the child had been reunited with his father and sister. However, the child was a vulnerable boy who had experienced a lot of disruption in his life and significant concerns about his development and attachment style remained. The father was very committed to his son and was aware of the challenges. The warmth between the dad and his son was very evident.

The child continued to progress well and had showed some progress in his speech and communication. He was attending crèche five days a week despite initial difficulties. The former foster carers continued to offer respite and also telephone support to the father. It had been recommended that the respite be reduced from fortnightly to monthly to minimise disruption to the child and the father was satisfied with that arrangement. The GAL acknowledged that the child’s progress was a credit to himself, his father, the foster carers and the careful planning and support of the CFA.

The GAL had asked the CFA to identify childcare support for the father. The father was attending various parenting and support programmes, including meetings with a family support worker, but had difficulty attending appointments. The father, who received withdrawal symptoms replacement therapy once a week, had been monitored by a clinical psychologist and had access to a psychotherapist for support.

When the CFA first applied for a supervision order, the GAL had recommended a period of a year because it was the minimum time required to establish an appropriate plan and secure the supports required. The GAL emphasised that it was vital that the father would continue being offered very strong supports into the future in caring for his child, who was likely to have very significant needs. The court oversight and the involvement of the GAL were also essential.

The judge asked for an outline regarding the sudden change of approach. The CFA solicitor said that the Agency had been neutral on the point of postponing the matter. She said: “It is not necessary to keep the matter alive when there is going to be continued support”.

Counsel for the GAL pointed out that the GAL’s report indicated the Agency had not outlined the plan to best support the father and child in the future. The CFA plan should consider how to provide for childminding for the two children so that the father could attend the necessary appointments. The solicitor for the father pointed out that it was essential the father would get all the help that he could.

CFA solicitor: “It is not a proper mechanism to keep adjourning the application in this way. The threshold for a supervision order is not met.”

Judge: “What about the Agency’s obligations under section 3 of the Child Care Act 1991?”

CFA solicitor: “The social worker team is deeply involved in supporting the father. My clients had instructed that all the support services will continue. There is no intention to withdraw those services.”

The court heard the CFA had considered the report of the GAL and was satisfied that their obligations under section 3 of the Child Care Act 1991 would be met by continuing to provide the support services.

The judge said: “It is a deficit in the Child Care Act 1991 that there is no obligation on the Agency to outline precisely the steps that will be taken when the agency discharged an order particularly in cases like the one before the court where [the support] is essential…I have no choice but to discharge the application. I have no jurisdiction to continue on.” The judge concluded: “I simply wish the father well in overcoming his life complications but it is not in my power to adjourn the case in the circumstances.”

The solicitor for the father, on behalf of his client, thanked the court for all the support and encouragement it had given him from the beginning and acknowledged that the result was “extremely positive”.