Four child care cases were heard at part of a list of 37 general family law cases in the District Court of a rural town. All four child care cases involved children already in care.
The first case was adjourned for three months on consent. It involved a 16 year old boy who although under a Care Order has been living at home with his mother since September 2015, after he ran away from care. The child entered care in 2013 due to concerns about school non-attendance and parental neglect and since then has had a number of foster care placements. He is no longer in education and due to his age is no longer required to attend school.
The court heard that despite repeated home visits, the social work department has had ongoing difficulty engaging with this child. The boy refused to return to care and threatened to self-harm. On one occasion he was noted as saying the only way he is leaving home is “in a body bag”.
The guardian ad litem (GAL) had recently had a more successful engagement with the boy. The boy described the GAL as “an honest broker”. The GAL report notes that the boy appears to be stable and being at home is where he wants to be. The GAL did not feel it would be in the child’s best interest to be returned to foster care but believed supports needed to be put in place. The GAL set out a series of recommendations in a written report submitted to the court, including that someone other than a social worker should engage with the child.
The CFA solicitor agreed with this recommendation and said the agency would co-operate with this individual to develop an educational plan for the child. The GAL said the boy is “intelligent and articulate”. He noted that the boy said “no one listens to me” and “I’m kind of an outsider”. It was noted that his mother finds her son intellectually challenging. There have been concerns that the mother is intimidated by her son and that he has been aggressive towards her.
The judge queried who will keep on an eye on the boy? The GAL responded that the individual is not yet identified but believed it needed to be someone who the boy could talk to about how he sees life. The GAL said the boy “needs an outlet, to be able to ventilate”. The CFA solicitor asked the GAL was there is anything else they could be doing. The GAL suggested put in place supports for the boy’s mother. The judge adjourned the case for three months and ordered the CFA to take on board the recommendations outlined in the GAL’s report.
The remaining three cases involved the extension of Interim Care Orders (ICOs). In the first of these three cases the social worker gave evidence that the threshold for an ICO continued to be met. Supervised access continued with the child’s mother and the child is happy with this. The child is getting on well in school and was happy and content in her foster placement. The ICO was extended and a date for a hearing is being sought to enable the child’s father, who does not live in this jurisdiction, to attend. The judge agreed to hear the case, if on consent, during a criminal law day to facilitate the father’s presence.
The next ICO case related to three children aged eight, 10 and 15 of age and was consented to by the children’s parents. The judge once again advised the mother of the children to seek legal representation. A family support worker gave evidence on behalf of the CFA that the grounds for the ICO still existed, in her opinion. The GAL gave evidence that the children were beginning to make disclosures she would consider concerning. Access is being closely supervised.
The final case was the longest and most contested of the child care proceedings heard that day. It concerned two children aged seven and nine years of age and involved three matters – an extension of an Interim Care Order, applications concerning access and a medical examination. The children have been in care since June 2014 under a voluntary arrangement. In December 2015 they made allegations of sexual abuse against their parents and a number of others. The parents denied these allegations. A Garda investigation is ongoing and both the children and the parents have been interviewed by the Gardaí.
A credibility assessment undertaken by a clinical psychologist and the CFA social worker, based on the DVD tapes of these interviews, deemed the allegations to be credible. The judge granted an extension of the ICO. A date for a Care Order hearing was set for one months’ time.
In her evidence the GAL said she found the children to be “severely emotionally damaged”, “extremely conflicted” and that they demonstrated “no connection to feelings”. She said: “I can’t describe the amount of work that needs to happen with these children”.
An application under Section 37 of the Child Care Act 1991 was lodged by the parents to resume access with the children and the parents stated that they would consent to this access being supervised. The children previously had weekly unsupervised access with their parents, however after the allegations were made this access was stopped. The application was opposed by the CFA and the GAL in light of the allegations made by the children.
The parents do not speak English and the social work team does not speak the language of the parents. Since entering care two years ago the children are speaking their native language less. The social work department did not “feel confident” to supervise access between the children and the parents given this language barrier. The social worker expressed concern that if supervised access was granted the social workers could not identify what the parents were saying to the children. She was concerned about the impact on the welfare of the children and that the parents may seek to influence them in relation to the allegations they have made and the Garda investigation.
The GAL noted that for access to be safe and secure for the children, it would need to be supervised by someone who understands not only the language of the family but also someone who can understand nuance, power dynamics and the unspoken work. She said a qualified social worker speaking the family native language was like “hen’s teeth”.
The social worker stated her belief that the Garda investigation should be completed and the children provided with therapeutic support before access could be resumed. She did not rule out access in the future. A referral has been accepted for the children to be seen by a sexual assault unit but this has yet to take place. The sexual assault unit will also provide the social work team with guidance on the therapeutic needs of the children and on the issue of access with the parents.
The GAL said there is a need to see a shift in the parents’ understanding of what they are being told by their children. If access is granted to the parents who the children say caused them harm, the GAL posed the question: what does it mean to the children? One of the children has stated that she does not wish to have access. The other child expressed a wish to have access, but from observed behaviour the GAL questioned whether or not this was indeed the boy’s wish.
The judge denied the parent’s application to have access. In his ruling he focused on the effect of such access on the children. He referred to the GAL’s comments that the children did not feel safe in the early stages of access due largely to unsatisfactory access arrangements, and concluded that it was not in the children’s best interest to resume access.
The CFA solicitor made an application to dispense with parental consent to enable the children to undergo a medical examination. The parents consented to the medical examination, stating their belief that the examination would exonerate them of the allegations made against them. However, the parents expressed grave reservations that the examination would take place in the local region.
The CFA solicitor noted the parents’ unhappiness that the choice of medical examiner was not known to them until today. The parents’ concerns were there would be an objective bias on behalf of the doctor given his relationship with the social work team. The CFA social worker argued the doctor was the consultant paediatrician for the region, he is the appropriate expert to carry out the examination and his report would be based on medical fact not opinion. “No one else in the area has the expertise he has,” the solicitor said.
In addition, she noted that the children have already met with the doctor. She confirmed that although the doctor would be working for the CFA he is not an employee of the CFA. The CFA agreed to communicate the parents’ concern to the doctor. The solicitor commented that it would be unreasonable for the children to have to go to another area to access another suitably qualified medical expert.
The judge granted the CFA application to proceed with a medical examination. He said there was no evidence of actual bias in relation to the doctor identified and, referring to the evidence of the GAL, he said it would not be appropriate “to start ferrying” the children around the country.