An application for a full Care Order until two young children were 18 was refused by the District Court in a provincial city, and a one-year Care Order substituted.
The children were almost two and almost five and had been in care on short-term orders for almost two years. The older child, A, had also spent much of her early life in care. Her mother, who was pregnant again, was seeking increased access. The father of B, who had also been in loco parentis for A, was now seeking custody of B and to be assessed to be the foster carer for A. He had access to the children three times a week and the social work department was seeking to reduce it.
The social worker told the court the children were going from access to access and this was making it very hard to establish a routine and a rhythm to the week. A had a lot of disruption in her life and needed therapeutic work to help her deal with her experiences. There were signs of the impact of this on A in the crèche, where she sometimes had outbursts. She would be starting school in September. B had had less moving around, but his schedule was very hectic.
The mother had many good qualities, she had never had any involvement with drugs or alcohol. However, she had been in care and had been diagnosed with a personality disorder. In many ways she needed care herself, the social worker said. She saw things in black and white and had difficult in regulating her emotions. She needed intensive counselling for about two years to resolve this, but she was not open to this. There were periods when she did not eat or sleep. She did not cope well with stress.
Asked about the father, who had taken redundancy and would be more available for the children, the social worker said this was about adult circumstances changing and the children having to fit in. They had a solid placement at the moment. The father had been very successful on a parenting course, but B’s home was with the foster parents at the moment. If there was to be any change it would have to be very gradual. It was important the children stayed together. The father was always very regular and punctual and the children enjoyed their time with him. He was very devoted to both children.
The father had also been in care and had his own difficulties. He would need therapeutic work on this and his capacity to parent. But the children could not wait. The foster parents were available for long-term care, depending on the outcome of the court hearing. They were in their early 50s, and would need support from the HSE.
She agreed with the solicitor for the mother that the mother had been told there would be increased access from January, but this had not happened. A’s circumstances changed, she was very unsettled and it was felt that more access was not in the interests of the children. She acknowledged that one of the reasons the mother’s access was reduced was that there had been an allegation she used drugs, which was not true, but had to be investigated. The issue of increased access impacted on a lot of other people.
She agreed that the mother always turned up for access and behaved appropriately with the children, but she said she had difficulty in showing emotional warmth and transferring self-regulation skills. Her way of dealing with stress was to withdraw. Asked if people could change, she replied: “Yes. But children can’t wait for two to five years for their parents to change.” “So it is too late?” “Yes.”
She accepted that the mother worked in a crèche and there had never been any complaints about her behaviour from her employers. She also accepted she was working positively with a voluntary organisation supporting people who had been in care. She needed more intensive therapeutic work but was reluctant to engage in it as it involved delving into issues in the past that a lot of people would like to move on from.
The solicitor said that a short order for two years would allow the mother to address these issues and give certainty to the children. The social worker said if the mother engaged in therapeutic services a long-term order could be reviewed after two years.
The solicitor for the father asked the social worker if she knew the father well. “Quite well,” she replied. She agreed she had had more contact with the mother. The father’s solicitor said that the children were quite secure in their present placement, they regarded their foster carers like grandparents and did not have anxiety about them.
The social worker said that A was starting to question why she was not living with her daddy. Her foster home was her home. She was unsettled, calling out at night. She was likely to have attachment issues because of the disruption in her early life.
“That’s where access comes in,” the solicitor said. “She has a very strong bond with my client and all the access he’s had has gone very well.” The social worker agreed. The solicitor suggested that if the social worker had had more contact with his client she would have seen the positive dynamic between him and the children and she might reconsider her proposal to reduce the access. “To give structure to the children access has to be reduced,” the social worker replied.
“You are suggesting that his access be reduced from three days to one day a week. Can you explain how that benefits the children’s attachment?” the solicitor asked.
“We are trying to give them a routine and extend the time spent in the foster-parents’ household, to give them a sense of a solid place. There are on the go all the time,” the social worker replied. They needed extra time in the foster home to have good bonding time with their foster family. They also needed quality time with their father and mother.
“Would it be correct to say the purpose of the proposed schedule is to increase the children’s attachment to the foster parents to the detriment of the parents?” the solicitor asked. “No,” replied the social worker. “You accept there has been no complaint about the access with my client and it has been to the children’s benefit?” “Yes.” “So you want to reduce what is of benefit to them for the greater good?” “Yes. But the purpose is to put routine in place for the children,” the social worker replied.
Asked if she had any reservations about the foster placement, she said she had slight reservations because of their work schedules, which she was discussing with them. Asked if she had any concern about them caring for the children with less than a long-term care order, she said they were 100 per cent committed to the children.
Asked if she was aware that the father wished to become a full-time carer for the children, she said she was aware it was his wish. It involved a four year plan to attend college and qualify. Asked if the social work department had considered a co-parenting arrangement with the father, she said they had considered it but because A was not his biological child it had not been proceeded with.
The father’s solicitor said the department had not considered the parents equally. They had a pre-determined view, dominated by the legal difficulties. “Do you have any understanding of what the legal difficulties are?” he asked. “No. I was told there would be difficulties.”
“There are two ways of dealing with it,” the solicitor said. “The HSE had a person before who was not the biological parent and became a foster carer. The other way is for the child to be made a Ward of Court and my client to be made the Committee. It could be done tomorrow.”
The social worker said this was the first time the father was looking to become a foster carer. He had never been the primary carer of the children. They had either been in care or with their mother. His solicitor said he had a plan now, he had given up his job so he was available to the children, he was going to rent a property near their foster home.
The social worker said she would be prepared to consider him being a foster carer, but it would have to be a gradual transition. A lot of other people would have to be considered as well. Asked if she was prepared to reconsider her proposals for long-term care orders and a reduction in the father’s access, the social worker said the situation was complex. Child A had had a lot of changes in her life and she would be concerned about further changes.
The mother then gave evidence. She said she felt she had not been given a chance. She described a violent incident between her and the father which led to the children being taken into care. She said she only heard about the proposal for him becoming a foster carer earlier that day. Asked how she felt about it, she said if she had to choose between him and the existing carers she would choose the existing carers.
“You lose it and when you lose it the children are at risk. That’s what this case is all about,” the judge said. “You don’t like pressure and you’re nice and gentle and you walk away and when things get too bad you lose it. I’d like you to see a psychiatrist far more often to help you deal with the things that have been done to you.”
The father told the court he had taken redundancy in order to be more available for the children. He said when A was three months old he had overnight access for three nights a week. Then it was cut and he didn’t see her for 12 months. Then the mother asked him if he wanted to see her and he saw her regularly since.
The course he planned to do was a two-year course. He intended to start it in September, but would postpone it if the children were returned to him earlier. He said he accepted the children were close to their foster carers and that any change would have to be gradual.
Asked why he had come up with the proposal to be a foster carer for A now, he said he thought it was not possible to be A’s carer because he was not her biological father. Then he did research and got legal advice and saw how it could be done.
He said he had been in care himself from the age of 11 to 16.
Asked about his commitment to the children, he said: “A is my child. I adored her since before she was born. I have a bond with both. I realise one of the most vital aspects of their care is that they be together. I would accept them being together in care rather than B with me.”
He said he accepted there had been a serious incident of domestic violence, which was observed by the children, and his responsibility for being involved in it. “I recognise I was at fault. I went to seek counselling but they could not set a date for me.”
The guardian ad litem said it was clear that the best time emotionally for the mother was when she was pregnant. After the births there was a marked deterioration in her ability to self-regulate. The foster carers were involved with the children almost from the beginning. They were almost like grandparents to them. She said she recommended a Care Order until the children were 18.
“I will make an order for a year,” the judge said. “The father can do his course for a year. It is absolutely the last chance for the mother. She will also have to deal with another baby. I will look at access in October. The father has done everything he was expected to do.” The HSE solicitor said the father had to engage with social workers. “Yes, and the HSE must act proactively,” the judge said.