The CFA brought to the attention of the District Court in a rural town an emergency change of foster placement in circumstances where there had been non-accidental injury and suspected sexual abuse of a preschool age child, A, while he was in foster care.
The child and his younger sibling, B had been on interim care orders over the previous six months due to allegations of neglect against the children’s mother. The mother was expecting a third child. The mother had supervised weekly access and the father, who did not live with the mother, was seeking access and had brought an application of access and guardianship before the court. Both parents were present and legally represented.
The CFA told the court the CFA was taking the matter very seriously and outlined the sequence of events over the previous ten days. At access with the children’s mother ten days previously both the CFA access supervisor and the mother observed significant bruising around A’s face. When asked, the foster parent was unsure as to how the bruising had occurred but thought it may have happened when the child fell on a wooden toy.
The CFA social worker was concerned about the explanation and the child was brought the same day for a GP consultation, where the GP found the injuries to be inconsistent with the explanation. The mother’s solicitor told the court that the mother was not permitted into the surgery when the child was being examined and the CFA social worker said: “Non-accidental injury is very emotive [and this was] to reduce the possibility of upset and upsetting the child.”
Mother’s solicitor: “The mother was excluded, the child [was] in distress, the first thing [is] to put more stress. What do you say?”
Social worker: “I believe the decision was made in the child’s best interests and [there was] no malicious intention, the fact the mother was residing in hospital with the child [later] was evidence to that point”.
The court heard the child was then referred to the local consultant paediatrician where he was admitted to hospital for further assessment for five days. The mother stayed in the hospital with the child. Hospital staff observed the mother as appropriate with the child, the social worker told the court. The consultant paediatrician confirmed non-accidental injury and based on the child’s responses to bruising on the back of his legs and buttocks raised the issue of child sexual abuse.
A Garda strategy meeting was held two days later, and it was agreed that a garda specialist interviewer would interview the child the following day in hospital in the presence of a CFA social worker and the hospital’s sexual assault unit’s forensic physician. The child made no disclosure regarding how he sustained his injuries. The forensic physician could not rule in or out child sexual abuse.
The CFA social worker told the court the CFA child protection team was assessing both the concerns of physical and sexual abuse and told the court that no action would be taken regarding the foster carer’s two birth children until their assessment was concluded.
“The priority has to be the welfare of the children… The facts are a child was injured. How this happened is another day’s work. I want to make clear that there are fair procedures,” the judge said.
When asked by the judge how the children were coping the CFA social worker told the court that B did not make strange and A had settled well, which was not an expected response. There was a query regarding attachment issues. This was the children’s third foster care placement. When asked by the judge why the children could not return to the emergency foster carers they had been with for the first three months, the CFA social worker told the court the foster carers did not meet the fostering standard of no more than two unrelated children and there were two children there already.
The father was not informed his child was in hospital until he saw it on social media, his barrister told the court. The CFA social worker agreed that this was an oversight
The court heard the children’s father had not been living with the children since the birth of the youngest child and had been seeking access with the children since they went into care. He had only seen the children once since.
The CFA’s proposal of deducting a half hour from the mother’s two-hour weekly access with the children for the father was not acceptable to either the mother or the father, the court heard. The mother’s solicitor told the court that his client had done nothing wrong and access was being reduced for a traumatised child who had been in the care of a statutory body.
A newly appointed GAL recommended caution in commencing access with the father given the trauma child A had been through and was recommending time for the children to settle in their placement and for trust to develop before the reintroduction of their father. She was concerned regarding the number of care-givers and the indiscriminate style attachment of the children. “If [you] introduce a figure at a time of fear, there is a possibility that the child could associate that person with the [fear] and undermine the trust,” the GAL said. The GAL told the court that A was going to need a lot of comforting to reduce his stress and she understood the father’s wish to see the children and she did not want to compromise this long-term goal.
Father’s barrister: “I put it to you that it is a little bit early to make recommendations. [It is] not a re-introduction. The father has been in their lives. He has been co-operating with the CFA for five months. With respect, you are newly appointed. “
GAL: “I have a duty to bring to the court’s attention about the access and the stress [for the child]. I acknowledge that the father has put the children’s interests before his own.”
The judge adjourned the matter regarding the father’s access for two weeks until the next child care date.
Judge: “The CFA moved as quickly as they could following processes regarding A and B. the mother stayed in the hospital. [There are] concerns regarding access and trauma. I appreciate the GAL is new. I would be concerned that father’s access is tagged on and the child is stressed. I’m putting it back [two weeks] to allow more discussion and a better picture of what is in the interests of A and B in terms of access with Dad. “
When asked by the father’s barrister to hear the guardianship application, the judge adjourned the application to the next date also.
The father was also seeking to be assessed as a carer for the children and was waiting for a parental capacity assessment to commence. The court heard that a CFA social worker had met the father for the first time in relation to his assessment on the day before court. When asked by the father’s barrister, how long the assessment would take, the social worker said: “It is difficult to answer, depends on family history and fact checking… It would take 12-16 weeks and possibly more if further investigation [was] needed” he said.
The court heard the father had some involvement with An Garda Siochana regarding possession of drugs and had been on probation. The CFA made an undertaking when asked by the judge to keep the father informed of progress on his assessment.
On the next court date, the court heard the GAL and CFA social worker had met with the father and two supervised weekly accesses had been proposed to commence in the following fortnight. The children were being prepared by their social care worker for access through photos and drawings. A child-in-care review was planned to which both parents had been invited. The father’s assessment was also making progress and the father had supplied background information. The court also heard the mother was due her baby shortly and had been admitted to hospital. The guardianship application was put back to the next month’s court date and access put in for mention on that date.