Interim Care Order for young girl with sexualised behaviour and language

An Interim Care Order was granted for a very young child who was using sexualised behaviour and language. A psychologist said the combination was the most concerning aspect. The child was being cared for by her extended family because her mother had struggled with substance abuse in the past.

A clinical psychologist gave evidence that he was asked to conduct an interview with the child. He told the court that when he arrived at the child’s school she was separated from her peer group as she had just made herself vomit by putting her fingers down her throat. When asked whether he observed the child interacting with her peers the psychologist replied that she interacted very little with the other children and said that the other children were wary of her because she can suddenly hit them or pull their hair.

The psychologist described the tool he used to speak to the child, which was called “In My Shoes”. He said it was a way to survey experiences in different settings whereby he looks first for the child to describe neutral or positive experiences with no particular emphasis on specific allegations. One of the first exercises is to establish whether the child can positively identify people in their lives and from that they create households or settings and look for anecdotes about experiences in these settings.

The psychologist observed that the child was more relaxed and less inhibited than you would expect and was very distractable. He said that, although he did not undertake an attachment assessment, this behaviour raised concerns about security of primary attachments.

When describing the interview the psychologist said that at the point where he was discussing positive experiences with the child “she absolutely screeched to a halt in a rather striking way” and indicated that she was not going to discuss anything. The psychologist said that it was extremely rare for a child to be so reluctant to talk about family life, especially positive experiences. When asked by the CFA solicitor whether a refusal to communicate can be a product of sanctions imposed by a perpetrator of sexual abuse, the psychologist replied that it would be extremely unusual for a child to suffer sexual abuse without a sanction, even if it is simply not to tell anyone.

When asked whether the child’s sexualised behaviour could be a result of the mother’s drug dependency the psychologist said that the concern comes much more from behaviour that appears to be a recapitulation with language. He went on to say “these are things that she has to have experienced vicariously or directly.”

In relation to the parents’ contention that the child does not display the behaviour complained of at home, the psychologist replied that due to the extent of the behavioural problems it would be extremely unlikely that she is easy to manage at home and he would expect her to be just as demanding at home as she is at the nursery. He further said that he thought it was likely that pressure had been placed on the child not to communicate with professionals.

The CFA solicitor pointed out that consideration had been given to the possibility that the child had been exposed vicariously (to sexualised behaviour) through TV or internet but it appeared that she had no access to these. The CFA solicitor asked the psychologist if that was the case would this type of behaviour have to be learned? The psychologist replied that it would, particularly if someone is using language along with the behaviour.

In cross examination the barrister for the grandmother asked the psychologist whether he had observed the child in her home setting and he replied that he had not. The grandmother’s barrister pointed out that his letter of instruction had requested that a clinical and forensic psychological assessment of the child be carried out in respect of the child and her family. The psychologist replied that in assessing the child and her account of her experiences it is important not to have contact with her home.

The barrister for the grandmother said that the family had such a level of commitment that they were willing to do whatever it took and would engage and co-operate (with the social services) in order to care for the child. The psychologist replied that it was important to make the distinction between what someone says at the doors of the court and what happens, adding “it’s not only about commitment but capacity.”

The barrister for the mother told the court that the family had said that they would be amenable to visits by professionals at any time, day or night. The psychologist replied that, if such visits were conducted, the only two outcomes you would expect to see would be that either the child is not being supervised to the level expected or that the child is being abused. The psychologist went on to say that he had not ruled out the possibility that the sexualised behaviour arose as a result of vicarious exposure but that it would have to have been more than once and would not be explained by normal TV programmes such as “Southpark”, which had been put forward by the parents as an explanation for the behaviour.

When asked by the mother’s barrister whether an ongoing psychological assessment of the child would be useful, the psychologist replied that it would be useful to have a full assessment of her general psychological functioning.

When asked again as to his opinion on the source of the sexualised behaviour, the psychologist replied that you sometimes see children using outrageous sexual words without knowing what they mean, but in this case they were associated with actions which suggest an invitation to engage in a sexual act. This has to have originated somewhere.

When asked directly by the judge whether attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or foetal exposure to drugs or alcohol could on its own account for this behaviour the psychologist said no. Those occurrences might account for vulnerability and [parental] capacity to protect but were “not an explanation for the more florid displays of sexualised behaviours.”

The judge further asked whether the behaviour could be explained by observing the behaviour of children in the area. The psychologist replied that he thought it would have to have been something “considerably more sinister”, including the possibility of sexual exploitation and something not found in the ordinary course of children’s play, otherwise there would be more children behaving in a similar way. He concluded that, on the balance of probabilities, it was more likely that the behaviour resulted from exposure to inappropriate sexual material or actual sexual abuse.

In relation to the child’s reluctance to talk, the psychologist said that he thought that there was something “acting on the child not to talk” and said it might be the social milieu she has grown up in or more specifically a perpetrator telling her not to talk.

The judge asked the psychologist if it was proved to be correct that the child was displaying the sexualised behaviour at school but not at home, would his opinion be different. The psychologist said that he would be astonished if this were proven to be the case, but that if it were so it would undermine several aspects of his report.

Asked whether the behaviour could be explained as self-soothing the psychologist replied that some aspects of it you could dismiss as normal but that it was difficult to see where the behaviour would come from without exposure to something that would impart the knowledge that the child was demonstrating in speech and behaviour. He went on to say that, taking the least disturbing possible explanation for the behaviour, that the child was exposed to pornography, it would still be more than the occasional glimpse of sexual behaviour.

The psychologist said that it was the combination of the slang language and the self-stimulation that was of most concern.

A social worker gave evidence of a safety plan that had been put in place since the last court date which identified two people, the child’s grandmother and aunt, as her primary carers. The social worker told the court of a disclosure the child had made to her when she had said that her nanny had touched her “there” which the social worker said she understood to mean her vagina.

She also told the court of a conversation she had with the child while looking at a book which contained images of naked boys and girls. The social worker told the court that she asked the child did somebody touch her and the child replied “no” but then pointed to the girl’s bum and said that somebody kissed her there. The social worker said that she pointed to the boy’s penis and said that she kissed a boy there.

The social worker told the court that she raised this conversation with the father and he had said that he did not think it would have happened. The father expressed concern that he might be blamed as he was the only male in the house. The social worker told the court that another child had told her that this girl was in his “house of worries” and that she would come into his room and pull down her pants and tell him to kiss her bum. The social worker went on to say that a decision was made to place the child’s name on the child protection notification system under the category of sexual abuse.

The social worker told the court of another incident reported to her from the crèche where the child had told the crèche worker that she was “scalded” and pointed to her vagina. The crèche worker asked her did she want her to look at it and did someone hurt her and she replied yes to both questions. She was asked who touched her and she replied that her next door neighbour did.

The crèche worker brought the child to the GP who recommended that she be brought to Temple St. A&E, where she was placed on the red alert system. A member of the family confirmed that the person the child had named was a neighbour but stated that the child rarely saw him and went on to say that the child had lied about these things.

The social worker was asked by the CFA solicitor whether the child could be afforded on-going protection in her current circumstances. The social worker replied that she felt that the child’s grandparents were unwilling or unable to accept that the child was at risk and that someone may pose a risk to her and that compromised their ability to care for her. It was the opinion of the social worker that the child had been exposed to sexual abuse or sexual material.

She went on to say that the child did not seem to have any understanding of what appropriate boundaries were and that she invited adults to touch her and she did not seem to understand what a safe touch was. She said that there were a huge number of adults coming in and out of the house and the social work department’s concern was the level of supervision required. She didn’t think the grandparents saw the risks.

The court was told that a unit dealing with children who have experienced sexual abuse had stated that they could not conduct an assessment as there had not been a disclosure.

The grandmother gave evidence that she had spoken to the child about the bad language she was using and had said that little girls don’t speak like that. She told the court that the child did not display the type of behaviour complained of at home. She went on to say that the child would do anything for attention; screaming, shouting, taking off her clothes and wetting herself to get attention.

The judge, in granting the Interim Care Order, stated that the behaviour had gone on for some time and that in the absence of insight it was difficult to see how the adults involved could protect her from the risk. He said that the language in itself was not the issue but it was the sexual nature of the language linked with the behaviour that was the issue.

The judge stated that he was satisfied with regard to the right to family life that the finding he had made was proportionate in relation to the Interim Care Order. The judge directed that the CFA make reasonable access available to the family and stated that he did not consider one access a week reasonable access; a few times a week was reasonable. A GAL was appointed even though the child was very young as there were some very complex issues in the case.