A Care Order was granted for a two-and-a half year old child until the age of 18 with the consent of his parents following a three-hour hearing in a provincial town. The parents, who had come to Ireland from another jurisdiction, consented to the application from the Child and Family Agency following negotiations about access.
The judge said that the care plan seemed to be a bit confusing. “This care plan does not address the long-term issue,” he said. The solicitor for the CFA said that until the order was made it would not be possible for the fostering committee to deal with long-term care. However, she said she was confident that in this case the child would remain with the current foster parents, and the CFA would return to court if there was any plan to change that.
The CFA solicitor said that the child was two when he came into care first. He then went home, but came back into care.
The judge said the parents were scarcely out of their teens themselves and it was to their great credit that they were putting their child first. He added that huge efforts were made by the CFA to support them and ensure that the parents and child could remain together. Reunification was a real objective, but unfortunately circumstances made it impossible. “The law mandates us to do that, reunification of the family is the number one objective,” he said.
The child’s father said he wanted to address the court. “Of course, it’s your court,” the judge said. “We don’t look at making a Care Order as a process where the link between parents and the child is sundered. In a rare few cases it may be necessary. But in general I think it’s in the interests of the child that the link be maintained. I would start with that proposition and need to be convinced otherwise in every case.”
Referring to the father’s concern that access might be further reduced, he said: “One of the big differences between our system and the UK is that once the Care Order is made the court does not leave the stage. A parent may come back to court if they have any issue relating to the care of the child. It does not mean they can come into court every week, but Section 47 is a very powerful piece of legislation. It does not apply in Northern Ireland.”
The guardian ad litem said the child was very lively and engaging. He came into care very anxious and clingy, but has moved from that to being very confident and had great skills in activities like kicking a ball. He enjoyed access visits with his parents, and these were not rigidly kept to the 45 minutes agreed with the CFA. He was meeting his milestones and was very content and secure in his relationships. He was a child with additional needs and the foster carers would need the support of a link worker. She said she supported the Care Order application.
The social worker told the court the parents were very affable and pleasant people. They were very vulnerable, and needed very specialist support and help. They got the help of a disability social worker and a child care social worker. The foster carers were also working very hard to facilitate access, which was separate for each parent, who were no longer co-habitating.
At this point the father’s solicitor said the father was having a change of heart about his consent. The judge said that if this happened he would have to recuse himself, but added that he was entitled to do that, up to the making of the order. Following a short adjournment, the solicitor said the father was finding the proceedings very stressful, but said he was not contesting the application.
“Would you like to go into the witness box or speak where you are?” the judge asked the father. The father said he wanted to speak from the witness box and was sworn in.
He told the court his father was Irish and he had moved to Ireland with his partner just before he turned 18. It was a spur of the moment decision. They both settled in with his family and he did a college course.
Judge: “To be faced with something like this is hugely traumatic, to have me here making decisions. The court believes it is important you maintain contact with your child. You are the most important people here. You are his parents. You have instructed solicitors to act on your behalf and you are putting the child’s interests first.”
Father: “The foster family is the nicest family I’ve ever met in my life. I’d put them way ahead of my own family. [The child] is very lucky to have them.”
Judge: “When you have that relationship with the foster parents things will work out better than it may look at the moment. There will be a review in two years’ time. Both of you are getting support from your support workers. There are many positives in this.”
Father: “I would hope that if we come back in two years we might have a second chance at getting the child.”
Judge: “I’ll be frank with you. The review will be the court looking at the child’s care. You can always make an application, but I won’t tell you this is a chance of getting the order overturned.”
Father: “Up until now I felt that where [the child] is now is great for him. He’s active and intelligent. He never stops smiling. He has siblings, pets. It’s very good for him. I’ve been through a number of the reports myself. I re-live everything in my head. I would like him some time to go back to his mother’s care.”
Judge: “If you weren’t conflicted I would think it was strange. At the end of the day my job is to decide on what is best for the child. He’s twice blessed, in his parents and his foster parents. The best thing is you to remain involved in the child’s life.”
Father: “Is there any way I can fight for [the child] to go into his mother’s care?”
Judge: “The paramount rights are the child’s rights. This does not mean destroying your rights. They are side by side rights. As a judge I push the child’s rights ahead.”
Father: “I’m guessing you’re thinking he should be where he is?”
Father: “I agree and disagree at the same time.”
Judge: “Of course. When you walk out the door you’ll wonder if you made the right decision. That will never leave you. But I’m sure he’s in the best place. Keep involved.”
The mother indicated she wanted to address the court, she had a prepared statement. The judge left the bench and sat beside her in the body of the court as she read it out.
She outlined her education and background, including difficulties in school. She broke down when she spoke of preparing for the birth of the child. “I was very excited but very afraid of doing things wrong. When he was taken into care I felt my heart was ripped out of my body. Then the relationship [with her partner] broke down.”
She said she was now in another relationship and living in an apartment. “I will always fight for [my child]. I want him to have a healthy, happy future and I want to be involved in his life. I would love if the court kept my access or increased it. I want [the child] to know I will always be there for him.”
Judge: “Thank you very much. That was very impressive, it was not easy for you. There is no suggestion you are not going to be around. There is no difficulty if access is to be increased. I leave that for you and the CFA to work out. Nothing is set in stone. If there’s an issue you need to have decided you can come back to me.
“This is not a perfect process. The systems that protect children are not perfect. They cause huge hurt. I recognise that.”
Making the Care Order, he said there would be a review in two years, and in any case the CFA would have to come back when the child was 16 for a review of the after-care plan. He said he wanted a report five weeks before the two-year review, and the GAL to be re-appointed 12 weeks before that.
“Access is crucial. If the CFA wants to reduce it they must contact the GAL and bring it back to court before me. There is no need to bring it back to court if it is increased.”