A change of school placement for a child in care, who was being relentlessly bullied, was granted in the District Court, although it was contested by the child’s mother.
The mother’s solicitor told the court that the mother did not accept the veracity of the statements her daughter had made about being bullied. “She is a stranger to her claimed problems, she knows nothing about them,” said her solicitor. She was also instructed to object to any Section 23 applications – which would admit hearsay evidence – relating to the statements made to the GAL by the child.
Although the GAL was not a party to the proceedings, the judge held: “Section 23 did not apply to the evidence given by the GAL, only in so far as that she is not representing the views of anyone except the child.” He said Section 23 provided exceptions to the hearsay rule and the welfare of the child must be the over-riding consideration of the court.
The HSE called the GAL as a witness.
The GAL told her solicitor that she was supporting the application under section 47, for a change of school placement. She said the child was extremely overwhelmed at the moment, she had completed a Garda interview and was attending an assessment and therapy centre for sexually abused children.
Last year she was being bullied in school, but the bullying was worse this year. “The other girls in the class were hitting her, calling her names, knocking her over, they had made up a horrible song about her saying she needed to be buried deep in the ground,” said the GAL. She had therefore stopped going to school around mid-September.
In October she was still very scared about returning to school, but wanted to learn and liked learning. She could not manage the other girls that were bullying her, she felt that she had no friends and spent most of her playtime on her own. She was extremely upset at the thought of going back to school.
“Mother says a new school is not a guarantee that there will be no bullying,” said the GAL solicitor.
The GAL agreed with that point, she said however that the child lack social skills, which was part of the problem. Therefore a psychologist would be appointed to her to assist her in developing social skills so she could build up friendships. The GAL said that play dates would then need to be encouraged to build on friendships, she would also do extra-curricular activities such as GAA.
The bullying was also happening on the bus, on the way to school, the GAL told the court. However the foster carers could not commit to bringing her to school has they had two disabled children and were also fostering a baby who had symptoms of withdrawing from drugs.
“The school are not coming forward with any assistance or any ideas,” said the GAL.
If she was made to go back she would feel that the adults were not listening to her, she also felt isolated and that she had no friends. The GAL did not feel confident with the school as they had not been able to come up with a plan regarding the bullying.
The judge asked about the foster carers. “That’s a heavy load” he commented in relation to their disabled children and the baby they were fostering.
The GAL said it was but “the child talks about her carers in a very positive way and sees them as being well able to help her with her difficulties and the very serious disclosures that she’s made.”
When the mother had put forward a concern she was being left out of the process, it was agreed they would meet her every six weeks and had done that. However she was heavily intoxicated at one meeting, so it was rescheduled for a week later. During that meeting, the mother consented to a medical examination for her daughter, but she would not consent to a change of school.
The GAL was not just recommending a change in school but also that other supports be put in place. The sexual abuse unit were in the process of making an assessment.
Access had been followed by a number of very serious disclosures. She did not want to meet her mother or brother again. Her wishes were respected and access had been stopped.
“[The child] is informing me that she is absolutely terrified of her mother. At this moment in time she did not want to tell the mother where the new school would be. The child is very upset and is extremely vulnerable, she’s afraid that her mother will come and take her or send men to the school to come and take her. In the earlier part of this case, there was a report that mother had looked for the address of the foster parents to come and remove her daughter,” continued the GAL.
The HSE solicitor told the court there was already a direction for that information to be withheld.
“This is a child who is currently experiencing a lot of nightmares, it would add to that [if her mum knew the location of the new school]. She had been stabbing herself with a pencil into her hand. She soiled her pyjamas after access and hid them away.” She was crying and visibly upset at the thoughts of meeting her mother, said the GAL.
The nightmares were about her mother knowing where she was, that she would find out and make attempts to take her. The GAL acknowledged however that she knew where the current school was and had made no such attempts.
The child had gone into care late last year. The GAL said that early this year she became aware of the child’s problems in school and the teacher’s contribution to appeasing those problems.
There was no school bullying policy in the school. There was regular contact between the social worker and the school, approximately once a fortnight. Her teacher had left on sick leave before Easter, and she had been helping the child to manage the bullying (that teacher had since left the school). There was an SNA in the class that the child got on well with. However, when she moved into a new class in September, there was a new teacher and the bullying had escalated.
There was a meeting between the foster carer, the teacher and the social worker, the GAL told the mother’s solicitor, attempting to seek a resolution rather than changing schools.
The child did not describe her mother as a loss to her, but she did describe that she missed her teacher.
“The picture she drew for me was one of a little girl who was very isolated and lonely and not managing well at all, she was clearly saying she did not want to go back to the school,” said the GAL.
“The children are running at her, running into her, hurting her, taking things out of her pencil case, chanting at her that she should be buried deep in the ground,” said the GAL. If she was made go back to the school, the adults in effect would be bullies.
The mother’s solicitor asked if the foster carer had planted the idea of the new school. Her client believed that the school had been nominated to convenience the foster carers, that the child might have grasped it for reasons unrelated to the other school.
“The bullying she is being subjected to is very real, I would be gravely concerned for her emotional well-being if she was to be made return. She is [very young], she is barely managing at the moment,” replied the GAL.
The mother told the court that she believed it was not right for her child to change school, being separated from her mother was far worse and was the main thing causing her stress. The problem was more psychological and the change of school was not going to do anything to help the child.
Did she accept that her child was being bullied, asked her solicitor. She said she had not verified that she was being bullied and had not spoken to anyone at the school. She was not contacted by anyone at the school. She was being asked to consent to a transfer to a new school about which she knew nothing, that was the main reason for her objection as she knew nothing about the proposal, but she had got some information today since she came to court.
The HSE solicitor said the GAA and other activities would be put in place even if she did move schools. There were small classes in the proposed school, there would be no difficulty in obtaining information about what she would be doing. The HSE solicitor asked the mother if that would allay some of her fears in relation to the lack of information?
“I would like to know as much information as possible about the school. But I am very hurt, because I have put in a lot of effort into this school that she is currently in,” replied the mother.
The HSE solicitor told the court that the child had missed 35 days between 2011 and 2012, and was referred to the educational officer. In relation to the bullying, the mother said she “had no way of knowing if she was being bullied, children are children, they have arguments, they are cruel, they also make up very quickly.”
“This is not a once off argument, this is a sustained campaign of bullying against your daughter,” said the GAL solicitor.
The mother said she did not believe that her daughter did not want to see her.
In his decision, the judge said: “First of all we should remind ourselves we’re talking about a [young child]. The guardian represents accurately the feelings of [this child]. I am satisfied that [she] is being subjected to cruel bullying of an extreme nature. I am horrified by the level of bullying and equally horrified that the school has no policy of dealing with bullying in the school. I don’t know if it would be of any assistance but if the HSE informed the school principal there is evidence of extreme bullying or need for a policy in place to deal with such cruel behaviour on the part of students – and that that is entirely inadequate and unacceptable.
“It is clear too from the evidence of the GAL that the bullying has gone on for far too long and too far to reasonably expect [the child] to return to the school, and that therefore a new school is needed and that I am acceding to the application of the HSE and that they identify a new school and put in place the supports identified by the GAL for the child.”