A contested ICO heard over two days was adjourned for two weeks when it emerged during the hearing that the mother was not seeking the return of the two-year-old child but a voluntary reception into care instead. She had already placed her child in the care of her sister and sought an emergency relative foster care assessment of her sister under Section 36 of the Child Care Act.
The relevant section of the Act states: Part II of the Child Care Act 1991, Voluntary care: (2) Without prejudice to the provisions of Parts III , IV and VI , nothing in this section shall authorise a health board to take a child into its care against the wishes of a parent having custody of him or of any person acting in loco parentis or to maintain him in its care under this section if that parent or any such person wishes to resume care of him.
The judge noted that parental responsibility extended to making suitable arrangements for a child. He said that there were many voluntary care arrangements in Ireland and these took place outside of the courts. He remarked that “you’d have to assume the CFA did not know about them or where they do they were happy about them.”
The ICO hearing
The hearing proceeded without service to the father, he was not a guardian and the CFA did not know his whereabouts. As the rules provided for service of the parent having custody of the child, the judge was happy to proceed.
The social worker told the court that the mother of the child was currently using two bags of heroin a day. Initially she had been addicted to unprescribed methadone and then she had started to use tablets. A treatment programme had been set up for her in a drug treatment centre which the social worker had driven her to on three occasions but the mother had not subsequently followed it up.
As the mother was not linked in with any clinic the social worker was very concerned because it was since her disengagement from this programme that she had started using heroin for the first time. The mother had admitted to the drug use and did want to address it. Her life had been chaotic for the last couple of weeks.
With regard to the child, the social worker told the court that since he had been born he had not had a stable environment.
“We don’t know where he is a lot of the time,” the social worker said. “There is huge upheaval in his life, he doesn’t know whether he’s coming or going.” The mother had never lived in private rented accommodation since he had been born two years ago and had always lived within homeless services. Although the social work department had got her accommodation through the Central Placement Team for homeless accommodation the mother had lost one of the rooms available to her and had left the other one. She was currently booked into another homeless accommodation but she sometimes refused it.
During the previous week, the Central Placement Team and Focus Ireland had found an accommodation for her and her child, the social worker told the court. However when her partner was not allowed in with her she chose to sleep in a doorway instead. She had admitted this to the social work department. When passers-by had offered to help her, she had refused their help. This choice to sleep in a doorway with her child rather than in the B&B accommodation offered to her was a huge source of concern for the department.
A serious incident had been reported two weeks ago that had taken place in the city centre at night time. The child had been in the buggy at the time, in the middle of the incident. It involved the mother’s previous partner (the child’s father) stabbing the mother’s new partner in the face. The mother had confirmed the assault to the department and there was a report from the hospital they had gone to afterwards. She had slept with her child in the hospital that night.
The hospital had reported that both the mother and her partner were affected by drugs that night. The child had been exposed to that as well as the assault, said the social worker. That was just one incident the department knew about as it had been reported, there was a huge escalation in the case in terms of the child being at risk.
There was a lack of structure for the two year old child. The department had tried to get him into a crèche and when a place had been found for him the mother could not follow it up by signing the required form. The crèche would have provided him with a structure and routine from Monday to Friday from 9am to 3pm. He would have been fed and stimulated and the social worker saw the crèche was being crucial to the child. It would have also provided the mother with the time to address her addiction and the issues in her life. However the capacity had not been there to follow through and he had lost the place. There were serious concerns for the parenting capacity of the mother.
The social worker told the court that the mother wanted her sister to care for her child and that was where he was currently. However an emergency foster care assessment under Section 36 of the Child Care Act could take between eight and 12 weeks.
A culturally appropriate placement had been sourced in a Traveller foster family however the mother was not in agreement with it. A general foster care placement had also been sourced.
At the moment the mother did not have the motivation to prioritise her child’s needs. The broad outline for the future was that she should address her addiction, link in with the services involved, address her homelessness and complete an assessment again with the drug treatment centre and follow through on its recommendations. In the long term she would have to ensure that her child had routine and structure, attend a crèche and she would have to attend a parenting programme.
In cross examination the mother’s solicitor asked the social worker if there was any evidence that the child had been affected by the assault.
“From the assessment in the hospital, it said he was in good spirits,” replied the social worker.
“Mother says he was asleep at the time, were you aware of that?” the solicitor asked.
The mother’s solicitor asked was there any evidence that the child had witnessed the assault. The social worker told him that she had been informed by the Gardai that he had seen it.
The mother disputed this, her solicitor told the court. He also asked her if a Public Health Nurse had seen the child and if there had been any concerns. The social worker replied that he had been seen and had been reported to be doing well and there were no child protection concerns in relation to his development.
The judge asked the social worker about the issue she had raised about the mother’s inability to maintain accommodation. The social worker said it concerned her. However the mother’s solicitor pointed out that there were many children currently in out-of-hours emergency accommodation every evening. He said that the ICO was a premature application, the child had been placed by the mother with his maternal aunt, there was a safety plan. “Why can’t it continue without bringing these court proceedings?” he asked.
An assessment of the aunt needed to be done, said the social worker. Things needed to be followed up. The judge asked if the mother was suggesting the child remain in her sister’s care subject to supports but not in her care.
“Yes, judge,” replied her solicitor. He said the mother would be willing to go through the social work team regarding access. She was not seeking the return of the child but a voluntary reception into care. “But I understand that is not acceptable to the social work team,” said the solicitor.
The social worker felt there were too many information gaps of what she knew about the family and in terms of a voluntary arrangement she would be concerned about more gaps.
“If it is the case that mother is not seeking to have [the child] in her care at present … you still have to meet the threshold. If you don’t meet it and the child is not going back into her care where does that leave us?” asked the judge.
“You are into a lacuna at that stage,” replied the CFA solicitor.
The judge asked if the aunt’s living arrangements had been assessed.
Currently the aunt was living in a single room with one bed, a fridge and a wardrobe. The Central Placement Team had taken over the building so it was not a private B&B anymore.
There was a communal shower. The bedroom was not a mother and child bedroom said the social worker, but the aunt had asked to be moved into one.
She was not sure of their daily routine, she had been told the aunt tried to go out with the child during the day and bought some dinner in a coffee shop.
The judge summed up the issues identified. He said there was the drug use, which the social worker had said was chaotic and current. There was the exposure to the assault, the issue with regard to stimulation and stability including the issue with regard to attendance in a crèche. Then there was the issue with regard to arrangements with the maternal aunt.
Judge: “I want to clarify the situation with homelessness, is that simply background information or do you say there is something in that that has an adverse effect on the child?”
Social worker: “There are lots of children that are homeless. I would be concerned about any child in homeless accommodation.”
Judge: “Are you saying there is anything the mother can do to improve the situation?” Social worker: “It’s not a factor in itself.”
Judge: “I will take it out as being an issue.”
He read from her report. Judge: “Warm, well-fed, good spirits at the time of my review this morning, with regard to basic care needs, nutrition, warmth, hygiene, general health, any issues of that nature?”
Social worker: “No.”
Judge: “It would seem that the de facto situation is that mother has privately placed the child with her sister, do you say where the child is placed, there is reasonable cause to believe in that circumstances the child would not receive appropriate care and protection?” Social worker: “At this time we don’t know her stability, even in relation to her drug use, it’s an unknown to us at the moment, they need to assess it.”
The judge said it was appropriate the social worker to come to a conclusion based on background information from the social work department and that he was satisfied that she would express an opinion about the alternative arrangement the mother was proposing because it was unreasonable for the CFA to have to prove everything.
The social worker said that she was not happy at this stage the child would have care and protection. However the judge remarked that parental responsibility extended to making suitable arrangements for the child, if she was seeking an ICO then she had to deal with that as well.
The judge commented that there were many children in voluntary care arrangements and that “you’d have to assume the CFA don’t know about them or where they do they are happy about them. You are fully entitled to say you aren’t happy about it but I have to let the mother’s solicitor answer the case.”
The case was adjourned until the following day. When it returned, the CFA solicitor told the court that they were seeking to adjourn the application for the purpose of a Section 36 assessment of the aunt. There was a safety plan in place and the social work team leader was going to expedite the relative fostering assessment as soon as possible. A meeting was taking place that afternoon where a plan would be made to assist the assessment.
The mother’s solicitor told the court that the mother wanted her sister assessed, that was her application to the court. “She has made arrangements for his care although she is not in a position to care for him,” he said.
The case was adjourned for two weeks with liberty to re-enter.
“That does not prevent you [the CFA] from bringing a different application if you felt that was appropriate,” said the judge in conclusion.