Access to young child suspended temporarily by District Court

See also case histories 2014, Vol 1, No. 20 “Full care order till 18 for child whose mother has learning disability”.

Access to a young child who had been in care for four years was suspended on an interim basis by the District Court in the light of concerns about the mother’s aggressive behaviour at access.

In 2014 a full care order had been granted for the then infant. The court had heard that the single mother had a learning disability and struggled with judgment, reasoning and planning ability. She did not accept that she had a mild learning disability and had therefore not engaged with the necessary support services. The mother needed 24/7 support to care for the child, but no family members had come forward. There was also a history of drug addiction.

During the care order hearing in 2014 the court heard from the social worker that from the time of the birth concerns were very high about the mother’s basic ability to look after the baby. He was left unattended for long periods of time in the hospital. He was found alone with vomit on his mouth, and alone with his face tight up against the cot. He was also found in dirty clothes.

The social worker had said that the mother found it difficult to open bottle tops and put in the correct measure of formula, bottles were being overheated and she “had huge difficulty in changing the nappy.” She found it hard to do two things at once.

“She is not able to ensure the safety of the baby while she changes the nappy.” On one occasion the mother turned her back on the baby while he was unsecured in his high chair, he lunged forward and the social worker caught him. Concern was extremely high in relation to her ability to care for her son and that it was thought he would be at risk.

Evidence was given from the clinical psychologist that she had assessed the mother’s intellectual ability and that her score fell within the mild disability range, which meant that she would struggle with overall reasoning and planning ability and would need additional support. It would be difficult for the mother to judge situations where the baby could possibly be at risk in terms of health and safety.

“There’s plenty of evidence that people with a mild learning disability can marry and have children but also they would need extra support around it. I’m not aware she has any supports at the moment, she indicated to me her mum wouldn’t be able to give her a lot of support in the context of the baby,” said the psychologist.

Regarding the level of support the mother needed, she would have to have support at all times, because health and safety issues or a medical issue could occur at any stage.

The judge had granted the full care order, stating within his judgement that the objective assessment of the social work department was that only basic needs would be met under constant supervision and 24/7 support was not something that the social work department were able to provide. “Even if such a service were available it would not be in the child’s best interests, the level of support required to sustain a placement with [the mother] is not realistic and ultimately unfair on [the child].”

On the granting of the order the mother had lunged at the social worker, shouting: “You fuckin’ bitch I’ll kill you if I don’t get my son back, I’ll find out where you live.”

Access re-entry 2018

The court heard that in the summer of 2017 an incident had occurred at access and that access had already become difficult from the start of 2017 because the level of aggression from the mother towards the staff supervising access had increased. The mother had made a commitment that it would not happen again and the social worker had looked at ways of supporting access by adding activities such as baking and painting. However the mother had been having difficulties during the second hour of her access, it was difficult for her to sustain the interaction with her child.

Currently there was no access between the mother and child, as the social work department had had to suspend it following a department meeting after the incident in 2017. The child was still not ready to see his mother and the social work department did not consider it in his best interests.

Evidence was heard from the previously allocated social regarding the incident that took place in August 2017. The mother had become aggressive towards the social worker in front of her child, she had arrived to the foster carer’s mother’s house in a heightened state and had shouted at the foster carer’s mother: “Where is she [the foster mother] I’m going to kill her, that slut of a daughter of yours, I’m going to kill her.” Her child was in the sitting room on the foster carer’s mother’s knee, crying and the social worker had to block the entrance to the room. [The child is in relative foster care.]

The Gardai were called while the mother went upstairs to look for her son and the social worker noticed a knife on the floor outside the sitting room. She went outside and got into her car to leave with the child however the mother ran out and blocked the exit, she was shouting and throwing stones at the car, said the social worker, who had then turned the car around and saw the mother then had a huge rock in her hand. Five minutes after the social worker left the premises the Gardai arrived.

It was agreed by the social work team that access would be suspended following the incident and the social worker was taken off the case. The carers would tell the child, who was then three years old, that he would not have to have another visit until he was ready. The social worker told the court that the carers were conscious of his right to have access with his mother regarding his identity but they were also conscious of the impact it was having on him. He had been asked a few times if he would like access and he had not wanted it, the last time he was offered access was Christmas 2017.

The mother had not shown any insight into how her behaviour at access might affect her son, although she did accept that it had happened. Indirect access such as phone calls or Skype were discussed for when the child was ready. In the meantime correspondence in the form of letters and pictures were being sent between the mother and child.

However the mother was not happy at the lack of access, “she doesn’t want what he wants,” said the social worker. Over the phone she had been extremely threatening and abusive towards the social worker saying: “You little cunt, I’ll come down there and smash your face in and break your legs, your life is going to be short, I’m going to kill you, I’ll put you six feet under, I know a lot of people.”

The social worker had felt that Skype was not what the child had wanted and that essentially it would be traumatic; this decision had led to the mother had becoming aggressive. It was the social worker’s believe that the child currently needed a period of time before the social work team canvassed his views again around a potential visit.

The guardian ad litem (GAL) told the court that it was the incident of August 2017 that had determined the end of access for a period of time.

He had met with the mother, she denied having a mild learning difficulty. In the GAL’s opinion her clinical diagnosis should feed down to the access, he did not know whether her aggression was part of her learning difficulty and her insight into this aggression was limited.

The GAL noted that the little boy, who was now four, had already developed through a couple of stages in his life and would now require different stimuli. The GAL could not get a handle on the mother’s understanding of that and what she understood his development needs to be, she would require a lot of support at an access visit and if she was not able to meet his needs the visit would be counterproductive.

Professionals would need to eek it out a lot more, he told the court, somebody more independent needed to come in given the mother’s hostility, the social worker may not be the right person to begin the process, he added.

The GAL did not consider Skype to be suitable in case something inappropriate was said, “some of the comments from her are very spontaneous, assurance is needed that they would not continue. He may not understand Skype, or why it isn’t face to face or not at all.” The child needed to understand it and be fully on board with it.

He noted that there had been no further psychological assessment on the mother since the care order in 2014. The relationship with the child and his mother needed to build up and if access was not reinstated bonding was at risk. The GAL had been involved in the care order hearing and in his opinion there was very little change in the mother to suggest positivity in terms of access.

To reinstate contact at this time had the potential to cause distress to the child, he had never lived with her and had not been able to build up a proper picture of her. “We need to understand his experience of her, he would be quite vulnerable, it would be quite exposing to put in back in straight away,” said the GAL.

In court on the previous day, the mother had said in her evidence that she had made a mistake and she had apologised. The judge remarked that she now had to accept the fact of how she was perceived by others and how her actions could be viewed as intimidating, aggressive and frightening for others and for her son.

The court then heard that the advocate attending court with the mother was solely there for the hearing and was funded by the Legal Aid Board for the purpose of taking instructions. In respect of the mediation process, the current solicitor for the mother told the court that she would be open to that, she had a good relationship with her current social worker however, so mediation was not currently needed in that respect.

Her social worker confirmed to the court that she would assist the mother in sourcing an advocate who could support her at meetings and attending access with her if it resumed (with the prerequisite of conditions and boundaries). Meanwhile a private play therapist had been sourced for the little boy and the department were waiting on funding approval.

The judge made an interim order to suspend access on the basis that everybody was agreeable that face-to-face access between the boy and his mother should be reinstated. She asked the CFA to assist the mother in sourcing an advocate to enable her to engage with the CFA at meetings with the social work department and give her guidance.

The judge asked that the CFA ensure the mother be facilitated in complete enjoyment of her access at a frequency that could be agreed, preconditions and boundaries would have to be fully understood prior to access being reinstated, these included that the access be no longer than one hour with one visit per month. Face-to-face access could be reinstated when this work was completed with the mother, this might take three months noted the judge.

“The precondition is on the mother,” stated the judge, “she must understand what can and cannot happen at access, honour the preconditions and comply with them and must be supported in that…

“I don’t want to put the burden on this child’s shoulders. I agree with the mother when she says he’s only four, but you’re going to have to play the game now, there can’t be any repetition of this behaviour. You’ve frightened people and possibly frightened your son and it can’t go on. You’re going to have to change,” the judge concluded, “and if you don’t change he’s going to have to live without you, the onus is on you.”