A district court judge in a rural town made full Care Orders for two young children whose mother was described as having complex mental health problems and whose father is homeless. The judge made the orders until the children reach the age of 18 years, but he told the parents they could return to court and apply to have their children returned if their circumstances improved.
The mother was consenting to Care Orders for 18 months and the father, who had not attended any of the previous care order proceedings and was not legally represented, opposed the Child and Family Agency (CFA) application.
A consultant psychiatrist with the mental health service told the court that the mother had borderline personality and bi-polar disorders as well as a history of binge drinking. The mental health service first asked the community care services to become involved because the mother was repeatedly saying she could not care for her children and had thoughts of harming them. She would retract these statements but the situation escalated in 2013 when she “literally begged” to have them taken into care, saying she did not know what she would do with them if they were not taken. Later that year, she left the children alone in the house and phoned the Gardai who removed the children pursuant to section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991 and handed them over to the custody of the HSE.
The psychiatrist said the mother realised she could not cope with the children at present. She had recurrent ideas of harming them and was sometimes so emotionally distressed that she was not able to care for them and had said she was afraid of having them back. She had failed to attend for appointments and her drinking was “a problem in its own right”, as was her inability to manage her emotions. Her engagement with the health services over the previous six to eight months had been poor.
Because of the severity of her interpersonal difficulties and because she had been drinking, she had been unable to tolerate being in a skills based group and she had become distressed and quite disruptive. The social work department had offered her 13 parental capacity meetings but she had only attended three of the sessions. Any progress would be slow but she had some optimism about her future.
The psychiatrist told the mother’s solicitor that her first sign of improvement would be her more consistent attendance at appointments. She told the judge she would be hopeful that in 12 to 18 months time she might be able to care for her children. “She loves the children and when she is not distressed she is able to care for them. The fact that she has said to me that she is uneasy about that at the moment shows she has some insight herself into the difficulties”, she said. “I think there is at least a fifty-fifty chance she will turn up. That will be the first sign that things are changing”.
The social worker currently assigned to the children gave evidence that the CFA had attempted to carry out a parenting capacity assessment of the mother with a view to reunification but she had only attended three of the 13 appointments. She had been non compliant. Her background and early life history had been difficult and she had refused to share any information, which the mental health services had gleaned over the years.
Her conclusion was that the mother was unable at present to meet the long term needs of her children. She needed to work on her behaviours with the mental health services, attend access and engage with the support services. The mother had had difficulties with the family support worker and they changed her but that did not work either. The support worker was to provide the mother with support around her housing and to assist in managing bills and rent arrears. The mother did not appear to have difficulties with the new worker but she only attended three out of seven appointments with her.
The social worker said the mother had failed to attend access sessions, which had caused distress to the children. Access was initially twice a week but had to be changed as the mother was not turning up. She had missed numerous visits and was not contactable on phone on the day. She had failed to turn up in recent weeks either for access or for meetings to discuss her non-attendance.
The impact on the children when she failed to turn up, particularly on the older child, was very noticeable. The social worker said the father had never met his daughter and had not seen his son in 18 months. He too had cancelled access appointments.
The maternal grandmother had put herself forward as a relative foster carer. She was currently being assessed. There were no major concerns about her ability to mind the children but her relationship with her daughter had been quite fraught in the past. The children have overnight access with their grandmother twice a month. The mother had turned up at the house during an overnight access and the social worker said she would be concerned about unplanned access taking place. She wanted the mother to attend supervised access fortnightly at a health centre and it could be extended once she started to attend.
The father told the judge that he was homeless at the moment and could not do anything for the children. He was told that accommodation was being organised in another town “but it depends on urine etc”. The judge told the father that the children had a guardian ad Litem and he explained the role of the GAL to him. The GAL had prepared a report for the court hearing and she offered to go through the report and explain its contents to the father during the lunch break.
When the hearing resumed after lunch the GAL’s solicitor said the father, having discussed the guardian’s report with the GAL, was now consenting to the Care Order applications. He said there were considerable uncertainties as to whether or not he was the father of the young girl. He told the GAL he intended to make significant changes in his life. He hoped to get independent accommodation and would hope to return in six months to seek custody of the children. Asked if she though the father understood the nature of the application before the court, the Gal said she believed that he did and she would be happy to meet with him again and keep him up to date.
The GAL gave evidence that the mother had self-harmed just a few days before her daughter was born and had to be hospitalised. Since the children had come into care they had very committed support from the HSE/CFA. The current placement for the children was not a long-term one and they were looking at an alternative. The grandmother had a very involved role with the children and they had been cared for by her in the past. She would like to care for them. She wanted them to be back with their mother but realised that this was unlikely. She had applied formally to be assessed as carer for the children and that assessment was now under way.
Asked about the mother’s failure to attend access, the GAL said it was extremely distressing for the young boy when she did not attend. There had been a five-week break without any access and without any explanation, and this was a very long time. “Access has to be reliable and I wouldn’t countenance any increase until she is turning up regularly,” she said. The children should not be brought to the venue until she is there and “access should be reduced even further if she continues not to attend.” She said the children needed certainty and should remain in care until age 18 unless significant changes took place in the parents lifestyles.
The GAL said the mother was clear about the love she felt for the children. She had a good theoretical understanding of how to stimulate the children but she had difficulty with alcohol and suffered from low self esteem. She felt let down by the mental health services. The GAL said she would be available to her in the future. The granny was very keen to foster them and thoroughly enjoyed the overnight access with them. She was very predictable and reliable. She would protect the children from their mother but would want a lot of support from the social work department in order to do that.
The GAL agreed with the CFA solicitor that access for the mother should be reduced to once a fortnight until she engaged with the social work department and agreed that ad hoc access when the children were with their grandmother should not occur. She supported the CFA application for full Care Orders with a six month review.
The judge made Care Orders in respect of both children until they reached the age of 18. He said he was satisfied that they had been neglected and it was important that the mother attend to her own health. In the event that she recovered her full health, it would be open to her to return to court which would seriously consider an application for the return of the children. “The court will also consider an application from the father but given your lack of engagement to date you would have to satisfy the court you were able to care for them,” he said to the father.
Addressing the mother, he said: “It is disappointing that you haven’t seen the children for five weeks. Because of that and the inconsistency, is seems reasonable to direct access at the discretion of the CFA. It is open to them to increase access if you attend. It is unreasonable to expect the CFA to allocate resources when you are not turning up.”