Care orders for three Traveller children amid alcohol and drug concerns

A judge in a rural court made care orders to the age of 18 for two children of primary school ages, A and B, and a two-year care order for a baby, C. This was followed by a day-long review three months later of access arrangements.

Child A and child B had been taken into care by the Garda Síochána by emergency care order following a violent incident in the home some years earlier. Child C was taken into care immediately after her birth. There was a breakdown in relationships between the mother, a member of the Traveller community and the Child and Family Agency (CFA). The mother had developed an addiction to alcohol and a prescribed drug following the death of one of her older children.

The mother came back to court seeking a review of the access order but the CFA told the court that the mother had failed to engage in the process and was not contactable. The judge told the mother that she had wonderful traditions as a Traveller woman and that the children were entitled to know these traditions. She made an order that access to the children should be at the discretion of the CFA.

Care order hearing

The mother’s solicitor told the court that access had broken down due to the relationship between the children’s mother and the social work department and that her client was not seeing her children at the moment. The lawyer for the CFA told the judge that the main problem was that the mother did not want to take part in supervised access.

Mother’s solicitor: “My client is not allowed to touch her child and the foster parent is.”

The lawyer for the CFA explained that the youngest child, C, had been in foster care since birth and the two older children, A and B, were also in care. The mother’s primary difficulties related to alcohol and drug abuse.

The lawyer for the CFA described a long history of alcohol abuse. Two years previously, the Garda Síochána used section 12 of the Child Care Act to take the older children into emergency care when they were found screaming out of the upstairs windows of their home. There had been a violent incident in the home. The children’s social worker informed the court that the mother had become addicted to drugs after the death of an older child. These drugs had originally been prescribed for her. She said that the mother described herself as “having a very difficult life”. The mother had made undertakings to get additional mental health treatment for herself.

CFA lawyer: “Has this mother any insight into the effects on her kids?”

The social worker replied that it was her professional opinion that the mother did not have any insight into the effects of her parenting on the children. The mother regularly blamed the social work department regarding her children and her own mental health. She has never acknowledged that the children have had a hugely traumatic life. The social worker gave an example of an allegation that A had made against her mother where she described an occasion when her mother drank vodka, called her a “worthless child” and said that she wished she had never been born. She alleged that her mother had slapped her and locked her in a room. Child B had also made disclosures of violence between his mother and her partner.

The social worker reported that the conversations that had taken place during access with A had involved “over-sharing of unsuitable issues regarding the care situation”. The mother had refused to attend access because she was dissatisfied with the supervision element. That led to a two-month gap in access which was followed by a further break in access due to Covid. Subsequently, supervised access had resumed but child C, the baby, had a very adverse reaction when her mother tried to touch her and became very upset afterwards. The social worker reported that the mother did not possess a mobile, resulting in the fact that the social workers had to communicate with her in writing only. There had been no communication in reply from the mother.

CFA lawyer: “Has anything improved in 12 years?”

Social worker: “Nothing consistent”.

The lawyer for the CFA asked if anything at all had changed despite the many opportunities given to this family. She asked if there was any motivation or capacity to change. The social worker replied that she did not think so and that these children needed the protection of a care order until the age of 18 for their own security. The lawyer reported that the section 12 procedure by the Gardai had been very traumatic for the children. She said that the children’s mother had to ring the Gardai on the day following the section 12 procedure to find out where her children were, as she had been too intoxicated to suggest a family member who could step in to help on the previous night.

The social worker said that A’s learning difficulties were exacerbated by the constant moving around and difficulty in maintaining friendships. When A was informed that the case was taking place today, seeking a care order until she was 18 years of age, she replied by saying: “Well, now I know I’m safe”. The CFA lawyer said that A had written a letter to the judge and that it was clear that she wanted to stay in care where she felt safe.

The social worker described B as having delayed speech difficulties. His language was poor and he was difficult to understand. When he first came into care he experienced toileting difficulties, although there was no physiological or medical reason for this. He reported that he hated his mother’s partner and that he was in fear of him. The social worker told the court that C deserved a different life, free from continuous trauma.

The mother’s lawyer told the court that the mother was now leading a “fairly stable life” and was not drinking. After a period of criminality, the mother’s life improved and there followed a period of stability where she was not constantly in trouble. When the children were living with their mother, they did not have proper accommodation as their mother had struggled very much to get private rental accommodation. The mother was now living with her partner and had secure accommodation.

The mother’s lawyer reported that it had been a very traumatic experience when a care order was sought just as she was leaving the maternity hospital with her new baby. This meant that the mother had to leave the hospital and immediately go to court where her baby was taken into care. The mother’s lawyer said that the stress of the loss of her baby led the mother to “go downhill from then on”. The mother had engaged with her GP, who was taking advice from the mother’s psychiatrist. The mother denied that she ever laid a hand on her daughter.

Mothers lawyer: “My client is still their mother. It is important that this is resolved. The relationship between the social work department and the mother has broken down. [Child B] is very young. He may look back as a young adult and he might ask why he was not allowed to go home”.

Judge: “The kernel is that the relationship has broken down regarding the access. Is there any hope of any improvement? Is there anything that can be done?”

The mother’s lawyer made a suggestion that an independent access facilitator could be engaged but the lawyer for the CFA replied that this was already in place as the access was supervised, and that the mother did not want the access to be supervised. The mother’s lawyer pointed out that she was maintaining sobriety.

At this point the mother became very agitated and interrupted the court proceedings saying: “Ye can have them. I’m not fighting anymore. Ye know best. I am not sitting here listening to this. You have the children”. Then she walked out of the courtroom.

Judge: “My heart breaks for this woman”.

The guardian ad litem (GAL) gave evidence that A’s memory of the night on which the section 12 emergency care order was made and the children were taken into emergency care from their home was extremely traumatic. She had told the GAL that she had feared that her mother’s partner was going to kill her on that night so she had taken her younger sibling to safety upstairs in the home and then shouted out the windows seeking help. She alleged that her mother had used physical abuse against her and that she felt worthless as a result.

The GAL reported that B was “an exceptionally vulnerable child who needs significant supports”. The GAL said that B had significant needs and was very scared of his mother’s partner.

The GAL told the court that the children were hurt by the fact that their mother chose her partner over them. The mother’s lawyer said that this was the wrong time to be making long term plans. The lawyer for the CFA reported that she did not think the mother would be able to make improvements as she was not engaging with addiction services and had a number of drink-driving offences.

CFA lawyer: “She loves her children but she doesn’t have capacity to parent them”.

The judge said that she would not make in order to the age of 18 for the baby, child C, as this would be like “closing the door” on the mother. The mother’s lawyer stressed that the mother was a very important person in the lives of the children.

Mother’s lawyer: “She’s already a crushed person, we don’t want her buried… some little chink needs to be kept open for the mother”.

The judge listened carefully to all the evidence and decided to make a full section 18 care order in respect of child A and child B. She made a two-year care order for the baby, child C. The judge said that this might result in providing a period for the mother to consider the whole thing. An annual review of the children’s care orders will take place.

Review hearing

The matter came back before the court to discuss access three months after the care orders were made. An access order had been made in the interim period by a second judge in the same district. It was brought before a third judge for a review of the access order. The judge said it was not appropriate for her to deal with orders made by other judges but the mother’s lawyer asked if the access order could be reviewed as she claimed that her client had only had one successful access visit out of the six visits planned for the interim period.

The lawyer for the CFA told the judge that the GAL had been unable to make contact with the children’s mother. Directions for access had been made by the judge two months previously but only one access visit had taken place due to difficulties in contacting the mother. She said that the mother must engage in order for access to take place. The mother’s lawyer disputed the difficulties that the CFA had in contacting the mother and the judge asked the lawyer to take a look at the mother’s phone and make notes of attempts made to make contact.

The judge allowed some time for the lawyer to examine the mother’s mobile phone. However, as the phone was an older model and not a smart phone, there were no records other than a few entries.

CFA lawyer: “My concern is that Mam is not engaging. [Child C] is very distressed after access. Mam needs to engage first and then go on to access again.”

The judge decided that she would hear evidence about the engagement of the mother and that if she was not satisfied that engagement had taken place, she intended to vacate the access order. The social worker gave evidence of multiple attempts she had made to contact the mother but without success or reply. She said she would like access to take place in a consistent manner and for the access to be at the discretion of the CFA.

The mother’s lawyer pointed out that she had written on the mother’s behalf, looking for access to take place but there had been a lacuna between the termination of one social worker’s time and the appointment of the next one. The GAL said the mother had failed to make contact since the making of the access order.

GAL: “[Child C] needs consistency in access as she’s been in care almost since birth.”

Judge: “What are your recommendations as the voice of the child?”

The GAL replied that access with the mother would be beneficial if it was consistent.

The mother gave evidence and said that her connection with her own child was now gone and that she had not even known that the child was able to walk. The judge advised the mother that the most important part of all of this was the children. She acknowledged that the mother was trying but said she would need to try harder.

Mother: “I’m a Traveller. My children are gone into a different world.”

The judge advised the mother that she needed to attend the access on the same day in each month and be consistent, but the mother replied that it was “just too heart-breaking”. The judge told the mother that she appreciated her pain, but that if she did not trust anyone, she would not get anywhere.

Judge: “You have a wonderful tradition as a Traveller woman. Your children are entitled to know where they came from and all about their traditions.”

The judge in conclusion told the mother that it was clear to everyone that she loved her children. However, she decided to vacate the access order made in court and to make a Section 37 order instead, giving the CFA the discretion to arrange the access.