Two-year care orders for two children amid concerns about abuse and domestic violence – 2022vol1#6

A judge in Dublin District Court granted a care order for two years for two children, A, a teenage girl and B, a boy of pre-school age, from a non-Irish family. There was an agreed reunification roadmap with the mother. The children had alleged physical and emotional abuse, including threats from their father that he would kill them and himself, and there were concerns about domestic violence. The family did not request the use of an interpreter and refused the offer of one.

The court heard that following an unsuccessful supervision order, the children initially came into the care of the Child and Family Agency (CFA) pursuant to an emergency care order approximately two and a half years earlier due to the children being subjected to physical abuse, emotional abuse and being exposed to domestic violence. The children had since then been in the care of the CFA pursuant to interim care orders. The father had had legal representation for a short period of time at the outset of the proceedings but he then attended the extensions of the interim care orders without legal representation. The mother had had separate legal representation throughout the proceedings.

At the outset of the application the solicitor for the CFA informed the Court that the father was not present as he had said that he thought the case was the following day. The solicitor told the court that the father had been served with the proceedings and had been reminded on a few occasions of the date of the hearing. The judge was satisfied that the father had been served with the proceedings and had been told and reminded of the court date. The judge commented that the father was “simply wrong” that it was not on that day and that it “sounds to me that he is being obstructive”. The guardian ad litem (GAL) supported the CFA’s application that the hearing proceed. The judge was satisfied that the father was aware of the correct date of the hearing and he proceeded to hear the application.

The CFA solicitor told the judge that the mother was consenting to a two-year full care order and that there was an agreed reunification roadmap with agreement to a review by the court in twelve months’ time. The judge noted that the mother was supportive of the work of the CFA trying to help her children along. At the outset of the hearing the judge was provided with the GAL report and two letters and pictures from the children were handed into the court for the judge to read.

The social worker at the time the children initially came into the care of the CFA told the court that she had been allocated to the family for over a year and a half from Spring 2019 to December 2020. She said that she had been allocated to complete an initial assessment in respect of allegations of physical and emotional abuse when the children were still at home with the parents.

The social worker told the court that physical abuse, perpetrated by the father, had been reported by child A to her school. She told the judge that the CFA had sought a supervision order in October 2019 but that they were unable to engage with the father as he had consistently blocked social worker access to the children. The social worker said that home visits and school visits were made to attempt to visit the children but the father had blocked a lot of the access and the social worker had only been able to see A sometimes at her school.

The social worker was asked why the CFA had sought a supervision order and she said that the children were listed on the Child Protection Notification System for concerns about physical and emotional abuse. She said that the father had not been willing to listen to the concerns of the children and had disputed any concerns the social workers had.

Social worker: “He constantly said that the social workers were making up lies and that the allegations were untrue. We were unable to meaningfully engage with him or put in any supports or interventions such as therapy.”

The father had “blocked many interventions” though he had attended family therapy on one occasion but at that time the family therapist was not able to meaningfully engage with the family as he was unwilling to engage and it was recommended that the mother and children should meet with her separately for family therapy.

In December 2019, child A had reported to her teacher that she was worried at home as the father had threatened to kill himself and kill them all and the school made a report to the social work department. The social worker said that she had attended the school to meet the children and the mother and the CFA had offered the mother a women’s refuge for the safety of her and the children. The mother had refused it so an application was made for an emergency care order, which was granted. She outlined how the father had attended at the school and was verbally abusive and the Gardaí had to be called.

The CFA solicitor asked her about details of the father’s threats of how he had intended to kill the children and the social worker said that the father had referred to a scythe which she described as a “stick with a metal hook on it” and he had been waving it at the children and the mother.

After the emergency care order and the subsequent interim care order had been granted the social worker said that she had met with A who had discussed times where she had been physically abused in the home and had been hit with wooden spoons, a ruler and sticks and that it was “sometimes painful”. A had also reported witnessing domestic violence in the home by the father against the mother and about her younger brother, B getting hurt. The social worker said B had said that he got hit and hurt at home and had seen his sister being hit.

Social worker: “[Child B] said that he had to stand for long periods of time in the corner and not talk as part of punishment.”

The social worker said that the mother had initially stayed with the father but after some time she separated from him and had accessed a women’s refuge, where she stayed for a couple of months and then moved on to a longer-term refuge.

The social worker described an incident that had occurred during an access visit where she had met with the mother and children in the refuge to complete a safety plan as at that point the CFA had been planning reunification. She told the judge that the father had turned up at the women’s refuge when he was not meant to know where the home was. She said that “the children were terrified” and they were afraid that the father would come in. They had called the gardaí and the children were then returned to their placement.

The social worker said that the father had dismissed any concerns the social work department had and he repeatedly said that they were making up lies. The father was reluctant to engage in any therapeutic services or anger management for himself.

CFA Solicitor: “How did he present?

Social worker: “I was concerned for his mental health at the time and encouraged him to seek support from his GP and a referral to mental health services. He attended his GP and said that he had a head cold but that his mental health fine.”

The social worker said that the father was “very dismissive of any concerns raised with him” and was very verbally aggressive towards the social work department.

CFA solicitor: “What was his perception about what happened, was it in line with reality?”

Social worker: “No, judge. He felt it was his right to hit his child. He admitted hitting the child with a wooden spoon but said he could do this as he was their father.”

The social worker gave evidence in respect of what the father thought had happened to the children when they were taken into care and she said that he thought that “the social work department had taken them away”.

Social worker: “At points he thought we had taken the children and his wife away and were holding them. At one point he thought the GAL had the children.”

The witness said that she has advised the father constantly to seek help and that he did have legal representation for short period of time. During the time the social worker was allocated to the case there was no progress with the father in addressing the concerns and no acceptance or insight into the risks. She said there was no amelioration of the risks for the children in returning home. She said that the mother did work and cooperate with the social work department but the concern was ongoing that there was contact between the mother and the father.

When the first witness finished giving evidence the CFA solicitor told the judge that the allocated social worker had just received a text from the father which was read out in court which stated that he had spent a few days in bed and was not feeling well and he asked the social worker to let the judge know and to inform him of the next monthly court date.

The judge said that the text message was a “quasi sick note” but that if the father was sick he needed a medical note and “in the context of what has happened in this case I don’t really believe that”. The judge decided to proceed with the hearing of the application.

The next witness to give evidence was the current social worker who had been allocated to the case since December 2020 for approximately eighteen months. She said that she had had a good bit of engagement with both parents and the father had attended office visits in the social work department but that she had not attended house visits “due to previous actions” at house visits.

The social worker said that when she became involved it was her opinion that the father’s presentation and understanding had not changed. The father had denied any harm caused to the children or that any violence “was scary for the children”. The father had said that he had no issues with his mental health but he had not attended his GP since the one visit to the GP before her allocation.

The social worker said when the subject changed to the children and how they were doing “he becomes very frustrated and agitated”. The father didn’t believe that the children were in foster care and he thought that the mother had the children. She had recommended that the father engage in a psychological assessment and he had engaged for a bit and attended one visit but did not complete any psychometric assessment or meet with the doctor again. The CFA received a report solely on one interview and the report shared their concerns but had advised that the conclusion was limited due to the limited engagement, but did recognise the concerns and noted the confusion that the father presented with. It was recommended that the father engage with mental health services but to date he had not done so.

The solicitor asked whether there was any reason to doubt what the children said had happened at home. The social worker said there was no reason to doubt it as the mother acknowledged what had happened at home.

Social worker: “I believe the domestic violence was quite extensive and dangerous for everyone involved.”

The mother had engaged with assessments and supports and had “shown commendable commitment to the children”. The CFA had created a roadmap outlining the work to be done before reunification can be pursued. The social worked acknowledged that it was difficult for the mother to separate from the father as the marriage was thirteen years long and the relationship was even longer than that. The mother had been in a domestic violence relationship for a long time.

Social worker: “I do think there is hope in the reunification roadmap and I have no doubt she will engage. It is about rebuilding her relationship with the children which is the aim of the social work department and for her to establish an independent identity as a mother and a woman.”

The social worker said that A had distanced herself from the mother and the plan was to help them reconnect. She said that she had discussed with the mother at length about how things are from A’s perspective and how she did not want hugs at access.

The judge then referred to the child’ letter and how the child was concerned about the father. The witness said that the social work department was committed to working with the mother and A to rebuild their relationship. B had been attending access with the mother and it was going well. She said that both children had been consistent since they came into care that they did not wish to see their father.

Social worker: “The children would have to see him take steps to address the concerns before they will consider seeing him and before that happens there is a road block.”

The social worker said that the children were in a placement together and they were both healthy and had finished school for the summer. She said that there was potentially a holiday to Spain in the summer with the foster family and they were both really looking forward to that. She described A as a very academic student and frequently got 100 per cent in her exams.

The social worker said it was her opinion that the children had been ill-treated and that their health and welfare had been impaired and she was satisfied it was “at the hands of the father”. It was her opinion that if the children were returned to either parent their health and welfare would be avoidably impaired. She said that the CFA had agreed to a two-year order for the children and to work on the reunification roadmap with a court review in one year’s time.

The solicitor for the mother said that on hearing the evidence the CFA deserved to be commended for balance and compassion shown to the mother “which is a rare commodity in this court”. The solicitor asked the social worker where the family therapy was at with the mother. The social worker said that the children were presently engaged in individual sessions with the therapist who was the person that would conduct the family therapy. She said that she had explored re-entering the family approach.

There were two incidents when the children did not want to attend family therapy and to continue the therapeutic process the children had started individual sessions which had “now gone on longer than anticipated” and the CFA now wanted to reintegrate the mother into the therapy. The therapist would work towards them entering the same room again and having therapy together depending on what the children were ready for.

The solicitor for the mother asked how the therapist was intending to execute the plan to reintegrate the mother. The social worker said that mentioning it to the children was the first step to gauge their feelings and see if there was any resistance. It was a balance between gently encouraging them but ensuring that they don’t go off the therapy completely.

She said that having a family approach is important in domestic violence and that each had experienced it in their own way. The social worker agreed that she would not like the mother to be excluded from the process of family therapy and the solicitor asked for the therapist to be requested to circulate what the plan was to reintegrate the mother into the therapy session as the mother was “at a loss”. The social worker was asked about the parenting course and she said that the group sessions were due to start soon but that the mother had not yet received a start date.

The solicitor for the GAL said that the social worker had dealt with the recommendations of the GAL and asked that the access worker continue to meet with the mother prior to access so that there was a structure and plan to work on to re-establish contact with her daughter. The GAL also asked that the social work department continue their efforts to try and engage with the father.

The GAL was called to give evidence and a report was handed into the court supporting the CFA’s application. The GAL described the children and said that A was the eldest in the family, she presented as quietly confident and was a high achiever in school. The child was described as very social, very witty and funny. The GAL said that the girl was getting on really well in her placement and had progressed enormously both socially and emotionally since coming into care.

If the child spoke about her father she talked about her concerns and about “being terrified of him” and about the physical and emotional abuse she had experience. The child had reported that the father was someone she did not want any contact with at all.

GAL: “In terms of the mother it is a difficult relationship with her at the moment as she had contact with the father which brought up trust issues for her and it was something they were working through. I believe in time she will be more open to therapy with her mother. … She wants to have a relationship but she is scared as she felt let down and she thought they were fully separated but [the mother] had that contact. From a child’s perspective it can be very black and white. In the therapy she is having she is slowly but surely getting around an understanding of the relationship between husband and wife and domestic violence.”

The GAL said that B had also spoken about being terrified of his father and there was no trust there and he was not wanting any contact with him. She said that B had a difficult relationship with his mum but it was different to his sister. He liked access with his mum but there was a concern that when at access the mother did not engage with play, the access worker was helping with that and encouraging the mother. B was adamant that he wanted to continue seeing his mother at fortnightly access and at that time he was not asking for access to increase.

The GAL said that A had “difficult access” and had chosen for a long time not to attend, but that she had attended recently and it was reported that it went well and the GAL hoped that her willingness to attend would improve. The girl wanted a care order to be granted and did not feel that her mother could give her the parenting that she needed at that time.

The judge asked if there was any safety order in place and the GAL confirmed that a five-year safety order had been granted against the father in December 2020. The GAL said that the children knew about the safety order but during that period the mother had contact with the father. The judge asked if the mother was still in contact with the father and the GAL said “not to my knowledge”.

The GAL said at the early stages of her dealing with the family she had a lot of contact with the mother and father in their apartment.

GAL: “He did allow me to go into the apartment but did not allow me to speak to the children without him present. He is a person who is quite volatile and gets heightened very quickly without provocation. On one occasion after the emergency care order he held me hostage in the apartment and threatened me with a scythe and a cleaver and the gardaí had to be called.”

The judge asked the GAL to describe the scythe and she said it had a blade that was about two foot, and the stick part was about four foot. The GAL confirmed that it was the implement that A had referred to.

The GAL said that following that incident she had made a decision that it was not safe to go back to the apartment. She met with the father again on one occasion outside but since then she had maintained contact with the father through text messages.

GAL: “You have seen his presentation in court. He believes the FBI is involved in this case and the President is involved. He has accused me of taking his social welfare payments and I have explained to him that I don’t work for social welfare. He has accused me of working with the mother’s solicitor against him. He makes a lot of accusations with no foundation.”

The GAL told the judge that she had serious concerns about the father’s mental health and that everyone had encouraged him to engage with mental health services. She said that the father was convinced that the social workers had cut off A’s arm and that it had happened at the back of the school. The father had been shown photographs of A to show that that had not happened but “he doesn’t believe it” and he was intent that the child had lost her arm.

GAL: “[the father] thought that I had the children living with myself and that I was driving around with them in the boot of my car then he thought the children were with the mother. I tried to tell him and give him updates but he refused to believe them.”

The GAL described meeting the mother in her apartment and at the refuges she had stayed at but said that most of their contact was through WhatsApp, texting and phone calls. The GAL had passed photographs, notes and letters to the mother to try and keep the relationship going and she believed it was working quite well. She said that the mother had taken up all advice and that she “can’t fault her on that” and the mother was doing her best to try and rekindle the relationship with the children.

The GAL told the court that the children were reporting that they were very happy, content, secure and safe.

GAL: “That is the message they keep wanting the court to know that their placement makes them feel safe and secure. The foster carer should be commended for encouraging the relationship with the mother and phone contact with the mother.”

The foster carer ensured that on Mothers’ Day the children did a card and sent a present to their mother and she was very encouraging of the children to build on their relationship.

The GAL said that she was in agreement with the proposed reunification roadmap with the mother. In terms of the children’s wishes and feelings she referred to the letters that had been handed in and said that A in particular had been expressing a wish to make sure it was said to the judge that she wanted a care order to the age of eighteen. The GAL said that wish was where “she is in this moment in time with mum” and she would like to think in a year’s time that she might be in a better place. The GAL said that the child had wanted her to read her letter out loud in court.

GAL read A’s letter including the line: “Finally my dream has come true of course because of help from you. Thank you for everything. If I didn’t speak out and ask for help nobody would have known what happened.”

The letter contained further views of the child such as “being with mum is an odd fear as I know for a fact I am safer here” and that being with her dad was her worst fear. The GAL said that if A was returned to her mother’s care at this time she had a fear that her father would be back in her life again and she needed more assurance from her mother.

The GAL said that the family therapist had been working with the children intensively for over a year, during which time the children had found out that their mother had met with their father. The therapist was working towards including the mother in the therapy but “at the moment it is important to have space to explore the mistrust and anger towards the mother and it is moving in that direction”. The GAL said that the process was slow and she had no doubt that the mother “can feel frustrated” but it was important that a good foundation was built up so that the children were confident and ready to have the mother in the room.

The judge noted that the father was not in court but that he was well aware that the hearing was scheduled for that day. He referred to the text message received outlining that the father was unwell but said he had not provided a medical cert. The judge said that the court was aware from the evidence given during the hearing and from previous experience that the father was not cooperative in the process and suffered from mental health issues.

Judge: “The court has some sympathy but he is unwilling to get help and there is not much I can do about that.”

The judge said that he had heard evidence that the mother was very cooperative in the social work process and care process. He noted that “there was a hiccup where the children felt betrayed by the mother’s contact with the father in the context where the father had been cruel to them” both emotionally and physically. The judge noted that the children were attending therapy and were working on “that hiccup and breach of trust”.

The judge referred to the letters received from the children and that they themselves were very happy in care and wanted to stay in care. He said that A wanted to be in care until that age of eighteen but that it might be partly a symptom of the stress she had been through. The judge commented that everyone in the case had tried to work towards reunification between the mother and children and he noted that they would encourage the father to address his mental health. However, there would be no contact with the mother and children as there was a safety order in place barring such contact.

The judge outlined the useful evidence from the social worker of the risk the father posed to the mother and children and that he was “deluded in respect of his beliefs”. The father had dismissed all of the concerns of the social work department as lies and he was very aggressive towards the social work department.

The judge noted the evidence given by the current social worker and gave the mother great praise of her commendable commitment to the children and that they were working towards reunification. That process was complicated by the thirteen years’ marriage with domestic violence, where the mother herself needed help to removed herself from that relationship and to establish an identity for herself as a mother and a woman. The judge noted that all the parties present in court supported the two-year order with the reunification roadmap in place, with a review in one year with the hope that the family therapy achieves great results.

The judge referred to the GAL’s useful evidence to the court about the wishes of the children and her dealings with the father and that he was suffering from delusions and needed help with his mental health.

Judge: “Their dealings in this matter are ‘heroic’ and the GAL herself has been kidnapped and threatened with a scythe and cleaver in her interactions with the father.”

The judge said that he had heard positive evidence about the children’s life in care and the foster carer was encouraging the children to have a relationship with their mother.

In giving his decision the judge said that taking into account the totality of the evidence he was satisfied that the children had been assaulted, ill-treated and neglected and their health, welfare and development had been avoidably impaired and if they were returned to the care of the father and the mother that their health, welfare, development was likely to be avoidably impaired.

The judge said that it was necessary to make the order sought and he noted the mother’s consent and that the experts agreed to a care order for two years with a review. A review date was listed for the following year after A had finished exams to look at the children’s welfare and the progress of the reunification trajectory and any progress on contact with the father.

The judge thanked all the parties involved and paid tribute to the mother as very courageous throughout the process and said to the mother that she was a great mother but that a big problem arose in the family that was not her fault and more work was required to be done and the court was delighted to see the mother doing the work.