The District Court granted care orders for two half-siblings (A and C) due to the mother’s addiction issues and failure to engage with services. A third child (B) was living with his father, who was also the father of C but not A, and was not the subject of the application. The father was present in court and was legally represented. The mother was not present, but was also represented.
The solicitor for the Child and Family Agency (CFA) told the court that the mother and the father consented to the full care order until the age of 18 for C. The mother’s solicitor told the court that the mother believed it was in C’s best interests and that with it he would receive stability and care into the future. She said that the mother accepted that she had some difficulties and intended to engage with services and hoped to maintain a relationship with C “when in a better position to do so”. The father’s solicitor said that he was also consenting to the order as it was in C’s best interests but he hoped that “access will be increased and that matters will progress”.
The allocated social worked gave evidence that C had been born with withdrawal symptoms and had been placed in voluntary care and had been with the same foster carers since he was discharged from the hospital after his birth. The social worker said that there had been “very little engagement from the mother since” and the mother last had access with the child in October 2018.
The father had been attending access with C prior to the Covid-19 pandemic and it was hoped that face-to-face access would be able to resume. An application had been made for an interim care order in January 2020 as the voluntary care arrangements was “no longer sustainable” and an interim care order had been in place since then.
The social worker had been allocated since October 2019 and prior to that there had been two other social workers involved. The family had been known to the social work department since 2016, initially in relation to A and then to B. The social worker said that there were concerns in respect of addiction, drug use and the domestic abusive relationship at that time between the father and the previous partner. There was also concern about A’s non-attendance at school and the mother’s lack of engagement with the social work department. She said that the CFA had supported the mother to engage with addiction services and with getting A to school.
During the mother’s pregnancy with C there had been concerns in relation to the mother’s drug use. During her pregnancy the mother had been an in-patient in a women’s residential drug rehabilitation centre but when she came out she was “back using heroin”. She said that while C was in hospital after his birth the mother had presented at the hospital looking for needles and had advised social workers that she was using heroin again.
Following the handover meeting when the social worker was allocated the mother had said that she would like to see C and provide her with photos. Access was set up on a date the mother chose and had said she was going to attend up until the morning of the scheduled access and then she did not attend. The mother had not attended the child in care review meeting. The social worker said that at that time most of the mother’s priority was on the two children A and B who were in her care at the time.
Social worker: “When she gave voluntary consent for the baby into care she needed to focus on the children [A and B] at home in her own care.”
The social worker said her initial engagement with the father was just prior to the initial interim care order while he was in an in-patient facility.
Social worker: “[The father] expressed [the view] that he wanted to meet with us and see the child and he wanted to be a part of his life going forward. The father attended well in court proceedings and attended numerous extensions and engaged well with me.”
The social worker told the court that they were “not able to progress the relationship with [C] due to Covid 19 and due to lockdown” but that the father “has been understanding that it was not possible.”
The social worker said that unfortunately the mother’s engagement with the social work department was very sporadic in particular since A entered the care of the CFA. The mother’s engagement with services deteriorated and it slipped with her addiction and mental health. The mother had not attended any meetings and the reports from the addiction services reflects that of “sporadic engagement”.
Evidence was given that the mother had been an in-patient in hospital for a number of months earlier in the year as a result of her mental health and suicidal ideation. The social worker said that she had been in contact with the hospital and her after-care supports. The hospital mental health social worker prior to the mother’s discharge had outlined a complex package of mental health supports including an outreach worker to her home but the mother had since disengaged with the services.
The social worker said that the mother had not looked for access with C since she was allocated to the case in October 2019. The social worker had spoken to the mother the previous day and she had said that she wanted to have access with the child but given how much time had passed and her lack of engagement the CFA would “need to see consistency before introducing her back into the child’s life”. The court was told that there was no relationship between C and the mother as there had been no access since 2018 and there had been a lack of progress with the mother’s addiction and mental health.
Social worker: “There continues to be concerns and it might even be more concerning at the moment in terms of her deteriorating mental health.”
The social worker said that she believed the only support the mother was accessing at the time was the addiction service as reported by the mother but that this had not been confirmed by the service. The social worker’s engagement with the father was positive and she would be seeking for access to resume once the Covid-19 restrictions lifted.
Both parents had been invited to the child in care review but unfortunately neither were able to attend. The meeting reviewed C’s needs and how he was progressing and the social worker said that “everything was positive” and C was receiving a “high level of care from his current foster carers”. She described the foster carers as a lovely family with several foster siblings and that C was “well loved and cared for”. It was confirmed that the foster carers were a long-term match for the child and the family had “expressed how committed they are for caring” for him. The social worker acknowledged that the father, when making his decision about the care order, was concerned whether C would be moving around foster placements but he was reassured that the foster family were very committed to him.
The CFA solicitor asked the social worker about sibling access and she said that when C had access with his father his full brother B was also attending. Access with his half-sister A had not been “as much as intended due to lockdown” but the CFA was committed to setting it up again.
The social worker said that the CFA was seeking a section 18 care order for C until the age of majority and it was her opinion that threshold existed and the child should remain in care.
The social worker agreed with the statement put to her by the mother’s solicitors that the mother had made the decision when C was born that she was not in a position to care for him and she had put his best interests first. The mother’s solicitor told the social worker that the mother accepted that she needed help and intended to seek out treatment and was moving to build a relationship with C.
Social worker: “I am happy to support [the mother] if that is indeed the plan. She has stated that on numerous occasions previously and she hasn’t followed through. If that is her intention, I am happy to support her.”
The social worker agreed with the father’s solicitor that he had always engaged very well with the social work department as long as she had been involved. In respect of a concern about why an access with C over Christmas was cancelled the father’s solicitor said that he was always willing to meet with C but due to a Covid test for B the access was cancelled. The social worker said that the test was negative but the father had cancelled access again when it was rearranged.
The social worker agreed and understood that consenting the full care order was a difficult decision for the father and he was given reassurance that it was hoped that C would stay in the current placement.
Social worker: “I understand it was a difficult decision. I feel that he thought long and hard about it and it was clearly based in the child’s best interests. I understand that it is a long term match and they are absolutely committed to keeping him in their care as long as he needs to be.”
In respect of access with the father going forward the social worker said that they needed to consider what a “slow process building a relationship is”. At a previous access it was important for the foster carers to remain in the room as C would make strange with an adult he didn’t know. Access would be given due consideration with the child’s best interest at heart and the social worker would like to see the relationship growing stronger and she was there to support that.
The social worker was asked about the concern that there may be a delay of speech and language and a referral for an assessment had been made. The social worker confirmed that the referral had been made in July 2020 and in March 2021 a letter was received confirming that the child was on the waiting list. She said it had been decided to follow up on the referral and if necessary the CFA would pursue private options.
Social worker: “The foster carers feel that he has come on a lot as he is back in creche and socialising with his peers and the matter is not as urgent as previously thought.”
The social worker agreed that she would meet with the father prior to access resuming and come up with an agreement and plan and that the plan would also include sibling access.
The GAL, who had been appointed in January 2020, told the court she was supporting the application for the full care order until the age of majority. The GAL confirmed that she had spoken to the foster carers when she had visited C and she had contact with the father but limited contact with the mother.
GAL: “We have had some conversations but unfortunately not as much I would have liked there to have been.”
When the GAL was asked if C’s needs were being met in his foster placement she said that she was really happy with the progress he had made and it was a lovely family with children of their own.
GAL: “He is the youngest and adored. They welcomed him with open arms and he is a huge part of their family system.”
The GAL said that C had had a difficult start after his birth and he had a period of withdrawal. She said the foster placement was the “only family he knows” and he had a great attachment with the foster carers and they really looked after him. The GAL told the court that a matter came up in a recent meeting that the foster family would like a christening for C as they are practising Catholics and they would like him to attend a Catholic school and that required further consideration.
In respect of the speech and language therapy the GAL was happy with his progress at the moment for a child of his age and the foster carers were satisfied that he was developing his speech and language but the GAL made a recommendation that it be monitored and reviewed again.
In terms of access the GAL recommended that C begin access with his mother as it was important for his identity. The GAL said that unfortunately Covid-19 did disrupt access for the child and that it was necessary to put a plan in place in line with restrictions.
The GAL supported the section 18 care order until the age of majority as she said it was important that C’s primary attachment with his foster carers was secure and he needed security.
The judge noted that the father was present in court and there was consent from both parents for the section 18 care order. The judge had read the reports and heard the evidence and was satisfied that the threshold was met to make the order sought. He noted that the child was doing well in his placement and was part of the family. He noted that there might be issues with speech and language and the matter of religious affiliation should be addressed.
The judge made a care order pursuant to section 18 for C until he reached the age of majority and he said that every effort should be made to encourage his biological parents to continue to be in contact. The care order was listed for a review in three years.
Application for a care order for Child A
The following day the CFA made an application for a care order pursuant to section 18 for the older sibling, A, of primary school age, until she reached the age of majority. The solicitor for the mother told the court that she was instructed to contest the application only in relation to proportionality and duration and she was “not disputing the facts”. The mother was of the view that an order until the age of eighteen was not required and was unnecessary. The mother was not present in court.
At the outset an application was made to strike off the named respondent father from the proceedings. The CFA solicitor told the court that a DNA test was undertaken and there was a 0% chance that the named respondent father was the father of A. The named father in the application was not the same father as had been involved in the application for C. The solicitor said that the person did reside with the mother and A a number of years ago, but he had no active role in the child’s life. The solicitor said that he was named on A’s birth certificate and that was why he was named and joined to the proceedings.
Judge: “I will accede to the application to remove the second named respondent from the proceedings as it has been established that he is not the biological father.”
The solicitor told the court that the CFA was seeking a section 18 care order until the age of majority on the basis of a long history of drug misuse and domestic violence. She said that the mother had attended a number of treatment centres but had left early or disengaged with the services. The mother had mental health issues and was not engaging with services.
She said that the mother had throughout the years shown “short periods of sobriety” but they had never lasted and there were some concerns in respect of that. The court was told that the mother had not had scheduled face to face access with A for approximately fifteen months since January 2020. There had been a request to set up access for A’s birthday but the mother had failed to attend and that “had a detrimental effect” on the child. The court was told that the initial interim care order had been granted in January 2020.
The judge rose from the bench to read all of the reports provided to him in his chambers prior to hearing any oral evidence. The CFA had two professional medical witnesses to give evidence to support the application and the court agreed to hear their evidence first.
A consultant psychiatrist who had treated the mother as an in-patient in a hospital had prepared a report. He gave evidence that he had treated the mother for a period of approximately one month earlier in the year and she had been discharged approximately two months before the hearing of the care order application. The consultant said that the mother was admitted to his ward due to her risk of self-harming and the concern of a risk of suicidal behaviour. Her condition was not perfectly clear but the medical team was assessing two possible associated diagnoses that had a lot in common. He noted there was an opioid dependency and addiction diagnosis and he was treating the mother for emotional personality disorder. He said that there was a symptomatic overlap between that diagnosis and complex post-traumatic stress disorder and treatment for both would be quite similar.
Psychiatrist: “She presented with a history of significant trauma in her earlier life and her later life. Sometimes this can manifest later on. These are associated with difficulty with mood regulation, self-harm and suicidal ideation and interpersonal difficulties and feelings of paranoia and difficulty with trusting relationships.”
The witness said that this could present in isolation and relationship difficulties. The CFA solicitor asked if the mother had been taking her medication correctly and whether any changes were made to the prescribed medication. He said that he had made one very minor change and she was prescribed an anti-depressant, a low dose medication to help with sleep problems and she was also prescribed methadone.
Psychiatrist: “I don’t know since she was discharged to what extent she has been taking medication.”
The CFA solicitor asked what supports were put in place for the mother once she was discharged and he said that “we had immediate supports put in place”. He described the treatment for complex PTSD as primarily psychological. It did not respond to medication particularly well and required intense treatment. This treatment was started while she was an in-patient as they were concerned it might be difficult to engage with her because she had difficulty to trust. The consultant said that following the mother’s discharge she had an appointment later that week but she did not attend. The hospital had tried to follow up with her and he had not seen her since, they were unable to make contact with her by phone, there was no response to written appointment correspondence and she had not followed up to date.
Consultant: “Our service is open to her but as it stands she is not a case on the team.”
The witness said that the mother’s prognosis was guarded but it could be improved with engagement. He described it as a “challenging case” and said that the mother had had two decades of dysregulation. The consultant said that the mother had told him that she had first self-harmed aged twelve or thirteen and so it had been a “long time”.
CFA solicitor: “In your professional opinion what is required for her to overcome this?”
Psychiatrist: “I think that it is going to be very challenging for her. It is possible to recover from enduring PTSD and suicidal behaviour with sustained absence from intoxicating drugs, [which is] a pre-requisite for then engaging in prolonged psychotherapy. When I say long, I mean years. She needs a fair bit of stability from drug use to engage. People are at varying degrees of readiness for that work but long term that would have to have happened for things to improve.”
The solicitor for the mother asked the consultant whether after her one month in-patient treatment he had reached an opinion that the mother was in a position to resume living in the community and whether she would be able to manage day-to-day tasks and survive in the community based on the medication prescribed. The consultant replied that he was not sure, he did not think that medication was central to her treatment.
Mother’s solicitor: “After her discharge would she be able to provide care for a child at that stage?”
Consultant: “I cannot do that retrospectively. My understanding was that she was not caring for any child at the time so I did not assess that.”
Mother’s solicitor: “If she engages with treatment for the two years and the necessary requirements, would you be of the opinion that at that point she could resume the care of her daughter?”
Consultant: “I do not want to put a timeline on it but that would be the objective of the treatment.”
The solicitor indicated that the mother was anxious to get into a residential treatment programme and she asked if the mother left the programme drug-free and engaged with intensive counselling and mental health service could she resume caring for A. The consultant said that it was a common situation “tragically” that many patients, the majority of them women, had gone through serious traumas in early life and there was a strong association with their difficulties of self-harm and suicidal behaviour later on in life. He said that trauma therapy can be helpful but that it often needs to be preceded by reducing the intensity and frequency of suicidal ideation and “revisiting trauma” can make people more vulnerable. The consultant said that it was difficult to say how long it would take.
Mother’s solicitor: “If my client is to commit to a residential programme and trauma therapy and a detox programme and in-house treatment is she someone that could do everyday things and provide care for her child?
Solicitor: “In your professional opinion if my client was to commit to this would you be of the view that she could resume the care of her daughter sooner than eleven years’ time?”
Consultant: “There is a pathway to completing treatment sooner than eleven years but it is difficult to predict.”
The CFA solicitor asked if it was difficult to give any timeframe as engagement was required and the mother had a history of a lack of engagement. The consultant said that the mother was only under his care for a period of one month so it was difficult to give a reasonable timeframe.
The judge noted that the prognosis was guarded and that a more definitive prognosis was dependent on the mother’s engagement with the treatment plan put in place. The consultant said that “not everyone who enters therapy benefits from it” and he added that there needed to be a “stepping stone” prior to commencing trauma therapy.
Consultant: “Someone with a long pattern and recent history of self-harming, to ask them to do trauma work is emotionally really difficult work and it would not be safe so they would need preparatory work involving learning ways of behaviour without self-harming.”
The judge asked the consultant about a timeline for the mother engaging in therapy and residential treatment. The consultant replied that there was “so much variability” and people with complex PTSD were characterised by a difficulty maintaining relationships including therapeutic professional relationships.
A general practitioner in the addiction service of the HSE had prepared a report for the court. The doctor said that the mother became his patient in 2016 when she was transferred from a different addiction clinic after a change of address. He said that the mother had a history of benzodiazepine and cocaine misuse and additional opioid use but was on methadone. When asked to describe the mother’s overall attendance and engagement he said that initially in 2016 her attendance at the clinic and the pharmacy was poor so she was transferred to a clinic with daily dispensing and she had missed a few days a week.
Doctor: “Over last 5 years she would have missed two or three days a week and at times weeks at a time.”
The doctor outlined the history of urine samples and he said that the mother had “sometimes refused to give urines” but that when children were involved the clinic asked for a sample once a week on a random day and the test was supervised. He said the samples had tested positive for opioids, cocaine, benzodiazepine, methadone and cannabis and when samples were not provided there was an assumption that they might be positive.
The doctor described the mother’s history of low mood, self-harm and threatened self-harm and at times of domestic difficulties and stress she would become quite anxious. He said that she had been prescribed anti-depressants and had been referred to counselling and a psychiatrist.
In relation to the supports and services offered the doctor said that when the mother was pregnant she had been referred to the midwife and obstetric team in the hospital and there had been a number of appointments that she did not attend. He said the mother also had an underlying chronic medical condition which necessitated ongoing medication and it was important that she took that medication. Missed appointments and not taking her medication had led to a number of hospital admissions for the mother. The doctor said that the mother had not engaged with the counselling service and a number of appointments arranged with the psychiatrist were missed. The doctor said that the objective of the clinic was to treat the patient’s drug misuse and to stop them taking opioids with methadone treatment.
The doctor described “one period that she did attend regularly and certainly showed stability” but stated that it was “two months in the five years I have known her”.
The doctor described the options of residential drug treatment centres but that the mother had to engage with six counselling sessions before a referral could be made to the detox unit. Due to the limited number of beds available the centres “need to know it is someone willing to engage”. He also said that there was a requirement to be on a lower dose of methadone and to be cocaine free.
CFA Solicitor: “How would you rate her overall engagement?”
Doctor: “Quite frustrating. She is very nice and pleasant and comes across well but does not engage in services no matter how many appointments. She has good intentions.”
The doctor said that to overcome her dependency she had to engage in services including counselling and psychiatric services and her chronic medical condition services.
The doctor was asked about her engagement since she was discharged from the in-patient hospital stay and he said that “over her last number of months her attendance has been so chaotic”. He told the court that he had discussed the issues with the mother on numerous occasions and “she knows the steps that need to be taken”.
The solicitor for the mother asked the doctor about the two-month period of engagement he had referred to and whether he thought somebody “can have a lightbulb moment and engage in services” and turn their life around. The doctor said he remembered the period very well and “then a few days later she was smoking crack again”. He described it as a slow process and that she did really well during the period of being drug free. He said that if the mother engaged fully with services it was a possibility, but that if she did not engage with services it would be very difficult.
The doctor said that he was not at that time aware of her current methadone dosage as she had moved clinics in recent weeks and she had missed five days before that “so I imagine it has gone up”. The mother’s solicitor asked if she could reduce her dose of methadone to 50ml and have a month of drug-free samples, she could be put on the waiting list for residential treatment.
Doctor: “Out of ten people that come out of drug treatment centres only one remains drug free. They need long term stability as all the external stresses are still there when they come out. If someone wants to detox I never stop them.”
The solicitor asked if it was an eighteen-month programme but the doctor said it was six weeks of residential treatment and after that they would move on and “certainly the longer the time spent engaged in services the more likely to remain drug free.”
The solicitor asked if he was of the opinion if the mother committed to the programme that she could “function in society and care for her daughter”. The doctor said that “from a drug point of view” if she was drug-free for two years that he “would like to think she could continue” if she engaged in all of the services.
Doctor: “I have known her for the last five years and she hasn’t, but of course that could change.”
The previous social worker, allocated from July 2018 to March 2020, said that the mother first came to the attention of the social work department in 2016 as a result of substance misuse and domestic violence in relationships. The social worker told that court that she had worked extensively with her and she had offered a number of services to try and support her from local family support services and also residential drug rehabilitation centres. The social worker said that the mother had “engaged to a degree” but afterwards she had engaged in substance misuse again to a substantial level. She told the court that in early 2019 there was a concern that A was missing a lot of school and there had been some engagement but “not a level of consistent engagement”
At time the mother had stated her motivation to engage and try her best to work on her addiction issues. She said that the mother’s engagement with the social worker was probably the best but it faltered at times. The mother had always allowed access to the home and to the children and to engage in the school runs but at other times the social worker was not able to contact her.
The social worker told the court that the main concern in relation to A was that she was being cared for by an adult with active substance abuse with little support or safety network. She said there was also a “concerning incident of domestic violence” that the mother had reported herself but the couple were committed to staying together.
By the end of 2019 the social worker was finding A at home in her pyjamas and the mother had said that she was feeling too nauseous to bring her to school. At other times the mother said that the child was unwell but “she didn’t look unwell”.
The social worker told the court that the mother was “very open about her struggles”.
Social worker: “There was concern about basic care needs and to her credit she asked for help when she needed it.”
The social worker said that the child was withdrawn and quiet but after increased contact she got more comfortable on school runs and spoke to the social worker about life at home. The child had described a time of safety as a time when she was with her mother in the residential drug treatment centres. The child said to her that when she was unwell her mother would cuddle her and give her “7up”.
Social worker: “She also talked about getting her mum her medicine and I determined that to be her methadone.”
In respect of the child “getting medicine for her mum” the child had advised the social worker “’it’s the blue stuff,’ then paused, ‘no, the green stuff’”.
Social worker: “I would associate that with methadone as it can have a green colour like that.”
The social worker said that she did address this with the mother and she said that A “would have seen her use it”. She said that for “a young child there was a lot of pressure on her”, and when the child came into care her “priority was knowing how her mum was and where she was”.
The social worker gave evidence that A had previously attended for respite with the foster carer and was also in voluntary care with the foster carer for a period of time. Respite had started when the mother went into a stabilisation programme for a number of weeks. The foster carer was known to the child and the carer had a strong bond with the family and wanted to support them and the respite arrangement had followed.
At the end of 2019 the child moved to stay with the foster carer. The social worker said that A “turned to me on occasion” and said that she understood why they chose the “foster carer to mind me as she knows that she will be safe”. A had a good relationship with the foster carer and was in close proximity to both the school and the mother, which would assist with access and school pickups but that “did not transpire despite our best efforts”.
The CFA solicitor asked the social worker what access did take place and she said that access took place in November 2019 which was positive but it had be cut short as the mother had to attend the clinic. Until January 2020 the social worker was not able to get any meaningful access plan which she said was distressing for the child as she was “wondering where her mother was”. The social worker said that the mother had stopped engaging and she hadn’t been seen in some time but then she heard from the local community that she “had been seen alive and well”.
The social worker said that the mother suffered from mental health issues, she had expressed low mood and suicidal ideations and the social worker had offered to bring her to A&E.
Social worker: “There are always periods of stated motivation. The best part of that was July to August and her partner moved out. It was a positive improvement but there was still substance misuse.”
The social worker told the court that there were reports a member of a local creche had seen her begging and A had missed more school. She said that the mother was not answering calls and there was a lack of engagement and “I can only assume it was a deterioration in her drug use and mental health” as her “engagement falters in times when she is struggling with addiction”.
The CFA solicitor told the witness that the mother was now wishing to engage in a long-term treatment plan. The social worker said that she would “really welcome” her engaging to get to the point where she was stable and had control over her addiction.
Social worker: “In assessing future harm we look at past behaviour. Her pattern in engagement of services is just not consistent. I would welcome her decision to do that. She has a lot of work to do and I wish her well in that and I hope she can succeed.”
When questioned by the mother’s solicitor the social worker said that “to her credit she has always been honest about her struggles and abuse and her past and that is meaningful to me.”
Mother’s solicitor: “Is a shorter order more proportionate to give her the opportunity to complete her treatment or counselling?”
Social Worker: “She has had so many opportunities to engage, but the focus needs to be around what the child needs at this point. [A] had not seen her mother in a long time. A child needs stability for a longer period of time. [A] would benefit from stability going forward. Nothing has changed for a really long time for the child and we can’t predict if it will.”
The barrister for the GAL asked the social worker what effect she thought the mother’s inconsistency in engagement with services and access had on A’s wellbeing. The social worker said that the child was always asking where her mother was and it was very distressing for her. The child also had an issue with bed wetting when she first moved into care and it was a concern relating to emotional distress. Nearly every morning the foster carer had to change the bed sheets and try to reassure her.
Social worker: “She was trying to hold on to her family when other adults in her life couldn’t quite keep it together.”
The social worker commented on the child’s development after coming into care, as she had previously been quiet and withdrawn. She became more “chatty and outgoing” and “her schooling improved immensely as she was there every day.” She said that the child was clean and well fed with her foster carers, she played with other children and “came out of her shell”.
The social worker allocated to the case in April 2020 had nothing to add to the history as the detail given by the previous social worker was “quite comprehensive”. At the time she was allocated A had been living with her foster carers for approximately six months. The social worker told that court that A had not had access with her mother since January 2020. She said that efforts were made to work with the child by way of a words and pictures story and it was hoped that the mother would be part of that. The child never completed it and she had asked to stop reading it. She said the foster carer had tried to revisit it again but the child had not wanted to go through with it.
The social worker said that at the time of her allocation the schools had just closed for the Covid-19 lockdown and the child was attending school virtually. She made a number of attempts to contact the mother to meet her and do a handover meeting. The social worker had offered the mother three appointments but none of them were attended and she only got to meet her for the first time in July 2020. There had been no accesses since she was allocated to the case.
The social worker told the court that the child’s foster placement was in very close proximity to her mother’s home and she had “bumped into her mother on several occasions”, when there was no plan or preparation and she described it as “challenging” for the child. She said that on those occasions the mother had not always shown insight into what it was like for A.
Social worker: “Her expectation was that [A] would run over [to her] when what actually happened was that she was in shock and on one occasion turned and ran down the street. She got such a fright.”
The social worker said on one occasion A had bumped into her mother around the time of her birthday and the mother had told her that she was going to see her again soon and this “gave [A] the expectation it was going to happen”. The social worker felt that she needed to follow through and an access was set up to attend in the park. It was “more upsetting when it didn’t happen”, as the mother cancelled half an hour before the access was scheduled.
The social worker told the court that there was concern in respect of the mother’s mental health.
Social worker: “It was difficult for her when [A] was removed from her care, as it would be for any parent. There was a significant deterioration in her presentation in respect of her mental health along with other areas of presentation.”
The social worker outlined her attempts to make contact with the mother by arranging meetings, telephone calls and arriving to her home both announced and unannounced. It seemed that after her release from hospital she completely disengaged.
Since the mother’s discharge from hospital she had tried to encourage her to attend the follow-up appointments and the social worker described her presentation at that time as “very chaotic” and her partner had expressed concern about her. The CFA solicitor said that the mother’s legal representative had indicated that the mother has had a “lightbulb moment” and she asked the social worker what evidence she had seen of that.
Social worker: “Unfortunately I would have to say I have not seen any progress in that period. At times she can state motivation but I have not seen any follow through on that, unfortunately. People are unable to get a hold of her for weeks at a time and I have not seen any sustained, or any, progress during that period.”
The mother had not shown any insight into A’s needs and how hard it was for her to not have seen her in any planned way since January 2020. “She has effectively abandoned [A] since out of her care as she has had very little contact with her”.
The social worker said that A was generally in good health and the carer had got a referral to a bed-wetting clinic, she was doing quite well in terms of the bed wetting issue. It appeared to be connected to when the child had seen her mother “in an unplanned way in the community,” and it would deteriorate in the weeks after.
She said the child had some issues about food and eating, she “can present as obsessively eating or binge eating, potentially as source of comfort to her”. The social worker said that she thought it might be that when she was in her mother’s care she was not sure when the next meal was coming and the school had experience of A “taking lunches home for herself or her little brother.” The social worker told the court that A was attending play therapy and was engaging well and looked forward to it. The therapy had been suspended during the Covid-19 lockdown after Christmas but had recently resumed.
In relation to her education, A had asked to move school, where she knew children from after school care and she now “skipped to and from school”. There were some issues with her spelling or mixing up numbers and the social worker was “looking in to getting her assessed”. She also enjoyed sibling access which had been suspended during lockdown but it was hoped would resume over the coming weeks. They would prioritise access with B as the girl would have lived with him while in her mother’s care and she had only recently been introduced to C so they did not “have the same bond” but “she really does look forward to” sibling access.
The CFA solicitor asked the social worker what were her views about a shorter order. The social worker was not confident as she had seen no evidence of change by the mother either recently or otherwise and she was of the view that her state had deteriorated over the last year. “[A] has already been in care for a year and a half and she has definitely felt in limbo not knowing if she was going or staying such as asking will I be here for my birthday or Communion.”
The social worker said that she was “very sure at this point” that A required the security and stability of a section 18 care order until the age of majority. At the child in care reviews reunification was always on the agenda and there was the possibility under section 22 of the Child Care Act 1991 to make an application to discharge the care order.
The social worker was asked by the mother’s solicitor if she could give the assurance that the placement would not break down. She said that of course a placement could break down but in lots of placements the children stay for the duration of their care and even if not guaranteed it could bring her some comfort and the carers were “extremely committed to caring for her until eighteen … at the moment things are looking pretty safe.” The social worker agreed that she was willing to support the mother in undertaking a residential programme but that some of the factors were outside of her control.
Solicitor: “In respect of a section 22 discharge application, how many times have you seen that succeed?”
Social worker: “I have not been a part of any case where a section 22 application has been sought.”
The mother’s solicitor asked if the CFA could seek to extend the care order if a short order was made by the court.
Social worker: “It has been outlined today the many opportunities the mother has been given to get herself on track in terms of her addiction and at some point we have to draw a line in the sand and think about the child and what is best for her. I hope she gets her addiction under control but the child’s life can’t be constantly waiting for that to happen.”
The social worker agreed that the best place for a child was with their family but only if it was “the safest place for the child” and not the best place if it impacted her emotional, physical and educational needs or if she witnessed domestic violence. The social worker said that the mother was “not in a position to give [A] the best care she needs and deserves” and in her mother’s care was not the best place “if she is presenting as she is”.
The barrister for the GAL asked the social worker about supports going forward to facilitate access with the mother. She said the mother needed to show consistency in engagement with the social work department and to attend appointments when they were set up for her. She acknowledged that it was in the child’s best interests to maintain contact and access and it was important for her to see her mother regularly. It was “important for her own identity and her anxiety about her mother that access be set up as soon as possible”.
The social worker also noted that A had expressed a desire to have access with the father of B and C as he was a big part in her life. Before such access could be established she needed a clear understanding, as “at the moment she identifies him as her father and he is not her father”. There needed to be a “child-friendly but real conversation” about what his role would be before access was re-established, but the child had expressed on multiple occasions that she would like to see him.
The judge asked if the foster carers were a long-term match and the social worker said that they were not at the stage of long-term matching yet as they needed full approval as foster carers. She said there were issues initially about the size of their home and a bedroom for A. The foster carers split one of the bedrooms in half to give A her own room. The social worker said that she was “not anticipating any issues”.
The GAL described the child as very compliant with adults in her life and as a “very endearing child” who made friends easily enough. She said the child was happy to engage with professionals when asked, but could be quite guarded. She said the child had suffered a significant loss as she cared for her mother and there was a “strong bond there”. The GAL said that an attachment assessment could be considered in the future but at the moment it was important that she had that security of where she was going to be staying.
She had met with the child earlier in the week but since she was appointed she had “not seen her as much as I would have liked” due to Covid-19 restrictions. She would have liked it to be a “more steady relationship” as she had not seen A for a number of months. She thought the placement was secure as the foster carer had known A since she was a baby and the carer had described an “instance connection” with the child.
The GAL also described the nature of the previous private arrangement between the mother and the carer as a “very solid relationship and secure”, and the private arrangement had been with no financial assistance. The GAL also said that the commitment was there and the carers had made a lot of adjustments to their home to make an additional bedroom for A and it was a “nice space for her”.
The GAL said that it was at A’s request that she moved school and she liked the new school and she “feels more of a fit for her.” The GAL said there would be greater security if the placement was approved and she wanted that approval to happen as soon as possible. It was in A’s best interests that access take place and the relationship with her mother should be promoted. The girl loved access with her brothers but did not get to see them very often with Covid-19, and a plan should be made. The GAL said that she would also advocate for the father of the younger children to be a part of that as “although not biologically connected he is a significant figure in her life” and she hoped that remained the case.
Referring to the suggestion of a shorter care order, she said the child “needs security and a stable placement for the rest of her childhood to reach her developmental milestones”. The GAL was satisfied that A required the continued care of the CFA. She had spoken to the mother the previous month, when she was “distracted by other competing things in her life”, but was always very polite and well-meaning. The GAL said that the mother’s circumstances were “quite sad” and she had a “lot of empathy for her situation”. The GAL hoped that the mother made progress but the improvement needed to be substantial over a period of time and she was recommending a long-term care plan.
The mother had not attended the court for the hearing of the application but the judge decided to give the mother one last opportunity to attend court before giving his decision and he adjourned the matter to the following morning.
The following day the mother’s solicitor said that she had endeavoured to contact the mother but did not succeed and she was not in attendance. In submissions to the court the solicitor said in a consultation the mother had engaged and was not contesting the underlying facts and threshold but that she was “just heartbroken” if there was a care order until eighteen and she was instructed to contest the application on duration and proportionality.
She said that the mother had consented to the care order for C until the age of eighteen but that she had a “different relationship with A and it is something she is committed to do”. The solicitor reiterated that the mother had instructed her to say that she was committed to going in to residential drug treatment and engaging with services. She highlighted evidence from the medical professionals that if the mother engaged with the services and therapy “that she has a chance to care for her child”.
The solicitor highlighted the evidence of the two-month period of stability and sobriety where the mother was doing well and the doctor “did not rule out that she could do it again and it is possible”. The solicitor said that the mother wanted to be given the opportunity to get this treatment and “be the mother [A] deserves”. The solicitor said the mother had asked for help when she needed it and that she did have some insight in how to act in the best interests of the child.
The solicitor added that if the mother did not carry through with what she had indicated the CFA could apply to extend the order until the age of eighteen and she asked the judge to consider the rights of the family in accordance with the Constitution and Article 8 and the rights it afforded to the family. She told the court that the mother was willing to consent to an order for three years with a review after two years and the possibility to extend but it would “give my client some sort of hope to hold on to and give light at the end of the tunnel”.
She said that she was asking the court to give the mother the chance of a shorter order and one final opportunity and she submitted that it was proportionate in the circumstances and she described an order until the age of eighteen as “tantamount to a life sentence” for the mother.
The barrister for the GAL told the court that threshold was not in issue and it was accepted by the mother. She said that an order to the age of majority was proportionate as there had been a lack of engagement so far which had resulted in any plan for future engagement being very difficult. It would be unfair for the child to suffer a lack of permanency, stability and security because of the mother’s failure to commit to plans to progress into the future.
“Access has not been great in the last 12-18 months and there is no structure there to work upon at the moment.” The GAL was of the opinion that the child had benefitted from therapeutic supports while under the care of the CFA. The carer had been a stable figure, had provided respite and was in a caretaker role already and the placement “is a nurturing supportive and secure one that the child feels protected in”.
A shorter order would overlap with a period time in her life where she would be approaching her teenage years, which was difficult for any young girl. She said that instability around that time concerning her home life would be detrimental to her progress. Reunification could always be explored and reviewed and there was always the possibility for the mother to make an application to vary or discharge the order and a review date could also be set.
The solicitor for the CFA said that based on the evidence there remained a risk to the child’s welfare should she be returned to her mother’s care and with the order she would be protected until the age of majority. The solicitor referred to Article 42A of the Constitution, which stated that in assessing proportionality the child’s welfare was of paramount consideration.
The solicitor said that the court had heard from two professional doctors and social workers who had been engaged with the mother since 2016 and there had been “little meaningful progress” with the absence of engagement with services. She referred to the “terminology of a lightbulb moment” on behalf of the mother but there had been no evidence of this, she had disengaged from all services and there had been no evidence of any change by the mother. It was submitted that an order to the age of eighteen “is necessary and proportionate at this stage.”
The judge thanked the professionals involved in a “difficult case even by the standards in this court”. The judge outlined the background to the case and that the child was with carers that were known to her since she was a baby and who the mother had turned to for assistance, which he said “the mother is to be complimented for doing.” He noted the concerns of substance abuse, domestic violence and the child missing school along with the lack of consistent engagement with supports and services, concerns which continued.
The judge noted that the placement was in close proximity to her mother’s home and although there had been no access A had “encountered her mother randomly which has contributed to night terrors and bed-wetting”.
The judge said the issue of the necessity of the order was not before the court but rather the proportionality and duration of the order. He said that he had the benefit of the reports and evidence from the consultant psychiatrist and the GP from the substance abuse services.
Judge: “It is not in doubt that the mother loves her child and has difficulties of her own, a long-term medical condition requiring ongoing treatment, substance abuse and mental health issues requiring her to be an in-patient in hospital. It has been urged nevertheless on behalf of the mother, who unfortunately was not able to participate in the hearing, that she has had a light bulb moment and wants to re-engage”.
The judge noted that some long period of time was required for the mother to engage in services and therapy until she was in a position to care for the child. The judge noted the evidence of the social workers that the focus should be on the child and her life “can’t be put on hold indefinitely at the behest of the mother’s difficulties,” and the child needed stability for longer than three years.
Judge: “Her lack of engagement with services cannot be overlooked despite her ‘light bulb moment’ but the evidence [is] that past behaviour can demonstrate the risk of future behaviour.”
The judge said that he had reflected on the issues and taking into account all of the factors he would grant an order until the age of eighteen. He said that it was open to the mother to have recourse to section 22 [seeking a discharge of the order] and he “wishes the mother every success with her journey”.
The judge adopted the recommendations of the GAL for A to have an educational assessment. He also said it was necessary for an update of the fostering assessment and a timeline of when it would be approved by the placement committee and an access plan. The judge listed the matter for review in four years’ time and he listed the matter for mention in six months for an update in respect of the GAL’s recommendations.