An application for a full care order until the age of 18 for a primary school age child was refused and a three-year order granted instead, with a review after eighteen months.
The mother was legally represented by a solicitor and a barrister. Evidence was given out of sequence and because of Covid restrictions by video link, which presented some difficulties, but they were resolved. The judge noted that the mother, who had the child when she was very young, had had a very traumatic childhood with a history of neglect and physical and emotional abuse. She said that the mother had started to take steps to address her problems arising from her background and complimented the mother on the fact that she had matured.
The solicitor for the Child and Family Agency (CFA) informed the court that because of Covid restrictions some evidence was going to be given by video link on the second day and would be out of order. The barrister for the mother, the solicitor for the guardian ad litem (GAL) and the judge acknowledged they had read the reports and had no objections to the order of the evidence.
Evidence of the Access Supervisor
The access supervisor told the court she had been supervising access for one hour a week. Her role was to monitor access and encourage the relationship between the young girl and her mother. Access was good and positive and there was a clear and affectionate relationship between the girl and her mother. She said because of Covid access had been much more difficult but there had been video calls and other correspondence.
The access supervisor said she tried to gently steer the mother away from unwanted behaviours, such as offering the child false promises, setting boundaries or promising things that she could not give. She said she had met with the mother prior to the access to decide what would happen and had a good working relationship with the mother, who had taken on board what the access supervisor had to say. When asked by the mother’s barrister, she confirmed that there was a great connection between the child and her mother, as had been stated in her reports.
“The mother has a great rapport with [her daughter], there was lots of emotional warmth, hugging, laughter, the mother brings lunch or buys lunch and the mother is never late,” she said.
She confirmed that she knew about the mother’s drug history, but that the mother had never attended access under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Evidence from current social worker
The social worker told the court she had been allocated to the child since the middle of 2019. The child had been in voluntary care prior to then. She said initially the girl was placed with a paternal relative for nine months and then moved to her current placement, with another relative, where she had been for almost five years and was very settled.
In 2019 an application was made for an interim care order and a care order, because of concerns that the child had a disability and ongoing health needs, missed patient appointments, the mother’s drug use and issues of domestic violence,
The social worker said one of her main concerns was housing. She said the mother had been homeless, had been in private rented accommodation, had moved three times and had also at times lived with friends. She had now secured council accommodation and since late 2020 had moved to the new council house.
She told the court that the mother had never presented to her under the influence of drugs and had told her she only used cannabis occasionally to help her sleep. The social worker said she did have significant concerns regarding domestic violence and that the mother had attended appointments with bruises to her face and arms. The mother had obtained a barring order but her ex-partner still turned up to appointments and threw stones at the mother. The social worker told the court the mother was now in a new relationship where there was no violence, but she was still friends with her ex-partner.
Turning to the child, she said she was doing well in class but could struggle academically. She had asked the school to complete an educational assessment to identify the needs she might have. The girl loved her foster carer and her mother and also enjoyed her dolls and was interested in animals.
The mother had weekly access and for the past two months it had been supervised by the social worker as the girl had been more vocal about not wanting to go and sometimes complained of tummy aches. There had been episodes where she had wet and soiled herself but a recent out-patient appointment stated there were no organic or medical reasons for this. The child had some sleeping difficulties but the mother had refused to allow her receive sleep medication. The social worker said the foster carer reported more dysregulated behaviour and said that the girl was more difficult to manage following access. Because of Covid current access was taking place by Zoom calls which last about 10 minutes because of the child’s attention span.
The social worker repeated some of the evidence of the access worker concerning positive aspects of the access. However, the mother had sometimes done and said things that were inappropriate. She said the mother told the child she had a new house now, where she could have her own bedroom, that the girl could come and live with her, which the social worker said was also inappropriate.
The mother had made allegations that she was sexually abused by her father on three separate occasions but that these allegations had been retracted. An assessment was initiated but the mother told her she was not in the proper head space and did not want to progress them.
She said that the mother and the foster carer had a strained relationship and there had been inappropriate comments and postings on social media. The social worker said she was unsure if they came from the foster career directly but she did address these with her. They included a claim that the child alleged her mother had hit her, but the social worker investigated and decided nothing should be done about it. No other such episodes had been reported. She added she had tried to promote the relationship between the foster carer and the mother. Tensions had been high since the allegations made about the mother’s father, who was closely related to the foster carer.
The mother wanted more access and overnight access at her house but as the child said she did not want access the social worker wanted her to have a psychological assessment before devising a plan to meet her needs. This could be combined an educational assessment. The social worker had commissioned a parenting capacity assessment, as the mother had grown up in care and had experienced parental abuse, neglect, and domestic violence. The mother’s mother had addiction issues and the mother’s teenage brother died of a heroin overdose.
She said it would be necessary for the mother to engage in long-term therapy to address all her issues prior to any reunification and she would need to have entered into therapy for at least six months before access could be reviewed. It would be reviewed in six months, hopefully after assessments were completed. She acknowledged that significant progress had been made by the mother, but if the girl was to be moved now it would be very confusing for her after five years in her current placement.
She said her summary was there was potential for a very positive long-term outcome but there was a lot of work to be done.
The mother’s barrister asked the witness if she accepted that the mother had managed to break away from a violent relationship, seeking the assistance of Women’s Aid and other charities. He said she had sought help, obtained a barring order and she had been out of that relationship for the last four years. The social worker agreed and also accepted that the mother had never attended any appointment under the influence of drugs or any substance.
Asked how the current placement had come about, the social worker said that the mother only agreed to this placement because she wanted to keep the child within the extended family.
Asked if other placements had been considered, the social worker said that in the summer of 2020 the foster placement had been under severe stress because of what was being posted on social media. She had sourced another foster placement outside of the county. Referring to how that situation had been resolved, the mother’s barrister said: “It was [A’s] mother who backed down, wasn’t it, to try to save the placement.” The social worker did not respond.
The mother’s barrister continued that the foster carers had wavered in their commitment to the child several times. The social worker replied that the foster carers had had some health issues and needed support but their commitment to the child never wavered. They had other older children, one of whom had a baby, to whom the child was attached.
The mother’s barrister asked if the witness was aware that the foster carer had posted on social media that the mother was never getting the child back and had made other derogatory remarks about her. The social worker said she had spoken to the foster carer about the inappropriate use of social media, and that things had improved.
The mother’s barrister said a care order until the child was 18 years old was completely disproportionate. The social worker said it would be necessary for the mother to have therapy to address her own needs before a reunification place could be considered. She said the child needed certainty, stability and to know where she would be, she could not live in limbo waiting for her mother to have therapy that may or may not help.
Evidence from the previous social worker
The mother’s previous social worker, who worked with the mother from 2018 to 2019, said the issues were cyclical in nature – drug abuse, domestic violence, sex abuse, housing, and a lack of engagement. She had requested a parenting capacity assessment but the mother did not engage. Access had to be supervised, she had tried to progress access, but the mother would not work with the access coordinator. The girl complained of non-specific illnesses and the mother did not have insight into the effect access was having on the girl.
She said an access contract was agreed. On access the mother had taken the girl shopping when she just wanted to play with her dolls. She said the mother had inappropriate conversations with her daughter, she was verbally abusive to the foster carers and had said that the foster carers had touched the child inappropriately, which the foster carers denied.
She said that the placement was under severe stress with significant allegations on both sides but despite that it was a good placement and the girl was doing well there.
She said that the girl was upset at leaving her mother after access and upset at leaving foster carer for access. “She was trying to balance the relationships.”
The social worker said mediation efforts had been made but had failed, as neither party had engaged.
At that time the mother was unable to care for the girl because of the concerns regarding domestic abuse. The mother’s partner was aggressive and banned from the social work building. At one point he had been following the mother to access and the social worker had concerns for her safety, she had noticed bruising on the mother at times.
She confirmed for the mother’s barrister that she had only been a temporary social worker for approximately 10-12 months and acknowledged it did appear that the mother seemed to have made progress.
Evidence of the guardian ad litem
The guardian ad litem (GAL) said there had been difficulties but that the child was settled and had a clear sense of belonging in the foster placement and regarded it as home. The child had formed a good attachment to the foster carer and that was very important for her future well-being. The girl felt loved and accepted but it had its limitations because of the complex issues and the child having to take sides to please everyone. The foster carers needed support in understanding their role and the limitations of their role. She said they needed to respect the mother. “The foster carer needs to know the social worker makes decisions regarding [the child].”
She said she hoped that going forward with support that there would be overnight access for the girl with her mother and they would move to a shared care arrangement
The judge said: “[The child] is carrying this load, trying to please everyone and nothing is done to address this issue, what happens if the placement issues are not addressed? If I am struggling as a judge, how must it be for the child?”
The GAL said if there were to be further significant issues a new placement might need to be sourced and a move would not be in the child’s interests. She said the mother needed significant therapeutic input to be in a position to care for her daughter.
The judge asked the GAL if she was aware of any attachment work being done with the child and her mother. The GAL said she was not aware of anything specific but two things might be very beneficial: play therapy and a life story. She said also access must be child-centred and not adult-centred.
The GAL said she supported the application as the girl did have complex needs. She said that the placement had land with animals and the girl has a sense of belonging there.
The judge said: “Friction between a mother and foster carer no cat or rabbit will resolve, the evidence [is], this child was stressed.”
The judge continued that the court’s primary and paramount concern was the interests of the child. Adults have their own views and insights, this child was trying to please everyone, she needed play therapy and access needed to centre on her at her pace. A child would always be [the parents’] child and parents would always be their parents.
The judge asked the GAL: “Was the mother’s consent reasonably withheld with regards to the sleeping medication?”
The GAL said: “Yes, I think so, I think alternatives should be tried first, medication is not the first line and given the mother’s history of what she has witnessed it is more likely she would be more wary of such drugs.”
The GAL said she would like the adults to act more responsibly and put the child first, she said the placement needed close monitoring.
The mother’s barrister asked the GAL if a care order until 18 was proportionate and the GAL said the child needed security and knowing where she would be would give her security.
She said: “The mother needs therapy, the foster carer needs training, they both need support. [The child] needs to play and be a child.”
The GAL said that current access should continue but there was a need to reduce the child’s anxiety around access and improve its quality.
The mother’s barrister asked the GAL if the mother’s concerns about giving a sleeping medication to the girl were valid. The GAL said the mother’s concerns were not without merit, alternatives such as keeping a sleep diary, exercise and a good bedtime routine had not been explored, they should really have been tried first. Given the history of drug abuse the mother had been exposed to, her concern of giving the child sleeping medication and withholding her consent was not unreasonable. The GAL confirmed the alternatives had been tried and A’s sleep pattern had improved.
Video evidence was given by the parenting capacity assessor
The parenting capacity assessor gave evidence by video link, following a short adjournment to resolve technical issues with the link from the assessor’s side.
The assessor said that the mother was on time, co-operative, had good expressive and receptive language. She had no psychotic, delusional, or suicidal ideation but had low mood and low self-esteem. She said as part of the assessment various tests were carried out. Although the mother’s reading and writing were not good, they were acceptable for the tests to be done. She felt she developed a very good, open and honest relationship with the mother
The PCA said she completed an intelligence quotient (IQ) test which showed low IQ bordering on mild intellectual disability but she believed the mother had learned to compensate for this. The mother’s verbal comprehension was within the normal range; perceptual reasoning was low, working memory was good, processing speed was low, which meant that when the mother was anxious it took longer for her to process new information. The mother was withdrawn in relationships, found it difficult to trust and be open, was defensive, projected onto others deficits in herself and was hypervigilant. She had a chronic low mood which was not depression.
There had been a history of domestic violence and cannabis use. The child was noted to have significant health needs, difficulty in some motor skills and difficulties with maintaining attention. She said at the child’s birth the mother had refused time in a mother and baby unit and there had been sporadic engagement with social workers. The mother accepted there had been issues of domestic violence in front of the child but she lacked insight into the effect that this might have on the child.
There had been some contradictions in the mother’s narrative. She had said she had agreed to voluntary care because she did not want the girl to have the memory of the Gardai turning up to the house and taking her away, which had happened to her. The mother had repeated the allegations of sexual abuse by her father but when she had told her family, they turned against her and called her a liar. She said the mother did not get along with social workers.
She said the mother remembered her childhood as not going to school, theft, drug abuse, her mother being sexually assaulted and being in and out of prison. The mother remembered being taken into care when she was seven or eight years old, when she had been taken away in a police car. The mother said she moved about eight times whilst in care in the United Kingdom and when she was about 14 or 15 years old her father came for her and brought her back to Ireland. She said her father raped her when she was 15 years old.
The mother had had employment on and off but because of the instability and changes in her life had no formal educational qualifications and was bullied at school. She said the mother admitted to self-harm in the past, she said she received no help for this. She said the mother started to experiment with drugs at about 18 years old, but she did not consider cannabis a drug and did not take it every day, only when she had trouble sleeping or was very stressed.
The assessor said the mother was now in a new relationship and she considered this to be a protective factor. The mother said her new partner was supportive and she got are very well with his parents who were also supportive to her. She said her family had turned against her and she had one woman friend who helped her whom she had known for a long time, and her daughter called this woman nanny. She also described a paternal in-law as a support.
The mother had been waiting for the social worker to help her source a counsellor and had been on a waiting list but had now sourced a counsellor herself.
The assessor said that the mother was very vulnerable, was not an extrovert and lacked the courage to go into the world to ask for what she needed. She said: “The mother’s style of parenting is ‘doing with [the child] rather than being with [her]’ and this sort of attachment can be disorganised or avoidant in nature which can then lead to overcompensation which is confusing for a child.”
The PCA said that the most significant issue was that the mother had and has a very, very significant history of trauma. “She has tried hard, really hard to mature and accommodate that history but she needs support in this.”
This unresolved trauma would lead to attachment issues and difficulties. She needed at least two years of therapy prior to any reunification plan. The assessor said she was supporting the application because there was no certainty therapy would work and the child could not be allowed to wait, she needed security.
She confirmed she had witnessed access and it was warm and affectionate. The mother’s barrister asked if she thought they had been any recent improvements. She said recently things had improved, there was no more domestic violence and housing had been resolved. The assessor said the mother had sought a therapist of her own volitation but she did need to start facing up to the difficult past if she was to move forward. There was more consistency now than ever before and her situation was more stable.
The mother told the court she had been born in Ireland and moved to the United Kingdom as a baby. She remembered her mother being hyper, always shouting and always cleaning. Her mother had been a heroin addict and she did not go to school, though her brother would sometimes bring her to school. She said as far as she was aware her mother was still alive but she was not sure. She said she could not remember how many different homes she had.
She had her daughter when in her late teens. She was in a relationship for five years after that, which was violent. She eventually did get help and obtained a barring order. She said now she had a new property and was in a much better position with more family and friends to support her. She had one friend whom she met when she was 16 and who was a great support and her daughter called her nanny.
She said she agreed for the girl to go into voluntary care to help her into a sleeping routine, that was all. She said she never got on well with the foster carer and only agreed to this arrangement because that would keep the child within the family. The foster placement was on the verge on breaking down and the social worker had a place lined up for her daughter in a completely different county. She had to try to work hard and accept what the foster carer wanted so that her daughter would not be moved. She said she had tried to contact the foster carer by text, but the woman would not respond. She said that the foster carer was letting her father have unsupervised access with her daughter.
She went to her GP for help with cannabis use and in sourcing therapy as she did ultimately want to be reunited with her daughter. She had written a letter for the judge and the judge invited her to read it. She said she had changed and grown up. She said she recognised how detrimental her old relationship was to her and her daughter but had left that relationship for a number of years. She said her new relationship was much better, her partner was supportive and so were his parents.
She had found a counsellor to address the issues she had and would do anything to get her daughter back. She said she found it difficult to understand why she could not have more access; it had been twice weekly and was reduced to once weekly. She said her daughter asked to stay longer but had not been allowed. She did not want the girl to go through what she had gone through.
Responding to the CFA solicitor she said she understood what the parenting capacity assessor had said about her need for therapy and was starting to work on that. The mother said that she acknowledged the effect her issues might have had on her daughter and said shared care would be better.
The judge asked the mother how realistic it was that shared care would work. The mother said the child only knew this foster carer who spoke badly about her. She had tried to mediate but everything she suggested was rejected or the foster carer did not respond.
The mother’s barrister said that the mother acknowledged that she was unable to care for her daughter on a day-to-day basis at present. Her history went some way to explaining why that was so. She was now older, more mature, had begun to have insight into her own life and how that affected her daughter. She had taken the steps necessary, she had secured accommodation and rather than wait for a counsellor to be appointed she had sourced one for herself. She had always put her daughter first; when there were issues with the foster carer she tried to mediate and when this did not work, she withdrew so that the girl would be protected.
The reference for the making of a care order was that it must be appropriate, proportionate and go no further than necessary. He said the longer the duration of the order the stronger the reasons needed to be. There did need to be a care order, but it did not need to last until the child was 18. The mother and girl must be given the chance of reunification.
The solicitor for the CFA said that the application was being supported by a parenting capacity assessor, two social workers and a GAL. They had all said that the girl had been in care for seven years, she had been in the same foster placement for the last six years. She was secure and settled. She needed long term security and certainty. She could not be asked to wait any longer while her mother got therapy, her welfare could not be paused while the parents got their act together.
The judge said she had listened carefully to arguments over the two days and stated her obligations were to the child and her best interests were her paramount concern. As far as possible she must take the girl’s wishes into account, but it was not possible at this stage as she was too young.
The judge reminded the mother of her rights under the Child Care Act 1991. Section 22 provides that she could apply to vary or discharge this order at any time. She said section 37 for access and section 47 for welfare were always available to her.
The judge said it had not been contested that the girl currently met the threshold for an order and her mother at this stage was not able to take on her care. There was history of limited engagement, drug use and violence in front of the child. However, the mother had demonstrated some limited insight.
She said no-one had a crystal ball or could predict what would happen. She had to compliment the mother on her maturity and acknowledge she was very young when she had the girl, the mother had grown up a lot since then. With significant intervention and therapeutic support, she would hope for a full reunification and that must be in her consideration.
She said the CFA had a statutory obligation to reunification. She did have reservations about the relationship between the foster carers and the mother. She said she would grant a care order for three years with a review in 18 months. She said she would make an order to discharge the GAL and would include directions for play therapy for the child, to be funded by the CFA, attachment work for her to integrate her life story, mediation services to be explored for the mother and the foster carers and support from the CFA for the mother with her therapy.