A short Care Order of 14 months was granted in the District Court, for a young child, where the CFA had sought an order until the child was 18.
The child’s mother, who was very young, had had her son while in care herself. Her own mother, who had been a long term drug user, had died when she was nine and her father was little known to her. She had been signed into voluntary care by her grandmother in her mid-teens, but had started drinking and smoking hash in her early teens.
As the mother was a child in care during her pregnancy, she had lived in a mother and baby unit when her son was born
The following year, the baby was taken into care after the mother had been seen smoking heroin down a lane by a Garda. It had been late evening after a very hot day and the baby had been in the buggy beside her, looking grubby and distraught, with no smell of sunscreen and the Garda had said that the baby looked red from the sun on his cheeks and legs.
The Garda had found no bottles or ointment for the baby in the buggy. The mother had been intoxicated, aggressive, in possession of cannabis and had given a false name and address.
During the ECO hearing, the Garda produced six child protection notifications in relation to the baby over seven months.
The ECO had been granted by the judge due to “on-going concerns of the placement at the mother and baby unit, suspected alcohol and drug misuse, not meeting [the child’s] needs…also referred to various child protection notifications made since [late] 2012, three still outstanding, three completed, does not show adequate insight…protection or providing for his needs.”)
After her infant was taken into care, the mother was placed in a residential unit. She had no external family support available to her apart from her grandmother and two older siblings, one of whom was a heroin addict.
The young mother was moved out of her residential unit on her 18th birthday, and had to find private independent living. This, the guardian ad litem felt, would have had a significant impact on her.
Support structures had been put in place for the mother while her child was in care and the CFA paid for her private rented accommodation. She successfully attended a drug treatment programme with one short relapse. Full care order dates were vacated as a reunification plan was put in place. However the mother relapsed into drug use.
The clinical psychologist and key worker in the mother’s drug treatment programme both felt that there was now a history of chronic relapse and the young mother needed to attend residential treatment in order to succeed in coming off heroin. They said she had a beautiful relationship with her son and innate parenting skills. If she could successfully attend residential treatment and supports were put in place for her, it was possible she could care for her son. However, it was now up to the mother to make the decision to attend residential treatment and move away from her circle of friends who were using drugs.
Every access had been attended by the mother and each one had been positive. Everybody involved in the case commented on the strength of the bond between the mother and son and the determination of the mother. What she needed now, said the clinical psychologist, was the maturity to make the decision to move into residential treatment.
The Full Care Order hearing
The CFA applied for a Care Order under Section 18.1.b and 18.1.c. The mother’s solicitor told the court that the mother had said she was not currently in a position to care for her son, however she did not accept that Section 18.1.b and 18.1.c applied to her. The solicitor told the court that while the mother was consenting to certain threshold matters there were aspects of the statements of facts that she was not agreeable to.
The CFA were not open to talks in respect of a Care Order of a lesser duration, the mother’s solicitor told the court. An advocate from EPIC (Empowering People in Care) attended the hearing with the mother.
The social worker allocated to the mother and baby until 12 months prior to the FCO hearing told the court that there had been a number of child abuse notifications in respect of the baby after his birth.
1. The baby, at one month old, had been left overnight with a person unknown to the social work department (the paternal grandmother) with no clear plan of when he would be collected. The mother had struggled to understand the department’s concerns.
2. She spent long hours out of her placement with the baby, returning at curfew time and refusing to say where she was and with whom.
3. Notifications due to being under the influence of alcohol. The Gardaí reported attending a house where she was under the influence while the baby was in her care. She had struggled to see the impact it would have on the child and was unable to have insight into a lack of routine for him.
4. The mother was involved in a serious physical altercation in the presence of the baby.
5. In late 2012 the Gardaí had been called to a violent, drunk house party where the mother and her son were asleep on the floor. The mother had not agreed with the social worker that it was an inappropriate place to bring the child and place him in harm.
6. In 2013 an anonymous report was received stating the mother was using heroin on the boardwalk in town while the child was in her care. There were also allegations of physical abuse.
7. In mid-2013 a benzodiazepine tablet was found within reach of the child’s buggy, the mother denied it was hers. The crèche where the child was attending reported the mother did not appear to be very coherent at drop off.
8. One month later, the mother was found smoking heroin in the city centre by the Gardaí.
The social worker told the court that after the child was taken into care, the next few months were difficult for the mother. She had missed access and was sleeping rough although she had her placement. A lot of time was spent trying to re-engage her but she was denying drug use and did not see her alcohol use as an issue.
However after four or five months, the mother admitted to having issues with drug use and began to participate in her aftercare plan. A lot of professionals were involved and she slowly began to address her drug problem, attending the drug treatment programme at a drug project.
The social worker told the court that she was participating very well in access, there was a clear, positive bond there, a routine had started to improve and she was presenting well. In early 2014, things were picking up, urinalysis was coming up clear, opiate use was not an issue and she was “overall presenting very, very well. This had been one of the good luck stories and she had managed to turn things around. Unfortunately [she] has now relapsed this year”.
The addiction was having a significant impact on her ability to care for herself and her child, as well as that her mood fluctuated quite a lot, she was sometimes withdrawn and verbally and physically aggressive towards others. She had no routine while struggling with her addiction, said the social worker.
Before the relapse, the Care Order hearing dates had been vacated on the basis that the mother had improved, the social work department were seriously considering reunification and a plan had been set up and commenced. There had been a significant period where she “had got clean, so to speak. There had been incidents of drug use but on the whole at that point she was making progress to the point we felt it was necessary to put the dates back.”
The social worker believed that with continued perseverance that the mother could once again succeed in her treatment plan.
The clinical psychologist who had carried out the recent parenting capacity assessment told the court that the mother’s parenting knowledge ranged from adequate to good and that in itself her knowledge of parenting was not an issue and she was well within the average range of intellectual ability.
In relation to the mother’s history, the psychologist said that she had been in her grandmother’s care from the age of nine and that she was unused to structures. Her own mother had not always been present and was a long term drug user. She said the difficulty was that the child’s mother had become involved in drinking and substance use at an early age and that all of her friends were still using drugs. Her sister was a heroin user who not yet engaged in treatment.
“Despite being surrounded by drug users she felt with will power alone she could manage to stay clean. She is a young mum, I feel she was over reaching and it was impossible,” said the psychologist. Her insight was limited in the sense that she underestimated the risk of relapse and her strategies were poorly developed. She would need to make quite radical changes in her life but was not willing to remove herself from the contexts where she might be at risk of alcohol and drug use. She underestimated her risk of relapse.
When she first met with the mother she had been drug free for a six month period and the doctor had therefore felt she had the capacity to gradually resume parenting with regular drug tests for the first year of his return to safeguard both parties, as well as extra parent education.
However a pattern of relapsing was now clear. “It looks like a chronic relapsing pattern that would require dramatic attention for her to achieve freedom from drug and alcohol use, there is a pattern of relapsing,” said the psychologist. “When you’re at this stage you have to re-think, a much more dramatic intervention is needed … options like residential treatment, there needs to be realism. It’s a serious addiction problem. There is her huge desire to have her son in her care, even in the face of that she had difficulty maintaining her drug and alcohol free status.”
However, there were huge positives, said the psychologist. The mother had made huge efforts to try and meet the requirements, and was very impressive in ways. “There is a lovely relationship between her and [her son], the addiction is a powerful force which over-rides the other in aspects of the case.”
She felt that the mother now needed to tackle her addiction and needed to be more ruthless in changing her social life. “She was trying to become methadone free which is why she is in the situation she is in now,” said her solicitor.
“It was a mixture, she moved from 5 mls to nothing, increasing her susceptibility to relapse, but there are huge other factors. In terms of maturity, she needs to learn to take advice,” said the psychologist. “I feel some boundary has been crossed, it needs more radical input than going back to the same, she is re-engaging with the same services, in order to stop a re-lapsing pattern she really needs to think, it requires a drastic change in her lifestyle, such as a residential treatment programme.”
The stakes were very high, said the psychologist and it was gone beyond hoping for the best. She said that it would take at least a year for the mother to make the drastic changes needed and maintain an alcohol and drug free lifestyle.
Current social worker
The current social worker told the court that the mother had had her first overnight with her son over the last Christmas period, followed by a second overnight two nights later. The mother was living alone in private rented accommodation and supports had been brought in from a residential placement. There had been an extended transition plan of three months, however she relapsed in January.
Between the start of January and mid-May there had been 18 samples for urinalysis and 12 were positive for opiates, eight for cannabis and some for methadone. It was a matter of major concern that she had relapsed in January. She was now back on a methadone programme.
A lone parent allowance for rent had been given to the mother due to the reunification plan, said the social worker. When the plan did not work out, the payment was extended for three months. A community welfare payment had then been agreed but there was a delay in achieving it and a notice to quit had been served by her landlord. This had been retrieved in the last four days of notice to quit period, however the mother was under financial pressure to make up a rental payment while also buying drugs to sustain herself when stabilising.
The social worker told the court that the child had been referred for long term matching to his foster carers, his needs were being very well met in a warm and loving family where he was happy and contented. She told the court that a Care Order until the child turned 18 was in his best interests as the mother would not consider long term rehabilitation and the child’s life could not go on hold.
“[The child] needs the stability and security of a long term order,” said the social worker. “Her determination to be drug free for his stay in December caused her to rush her [methadone] programme. [She] is a parent with incredible strengths and an innate ability to parent.”
Reunification would be considered at every Child in Care Review.
Mother’s solicitor: “If [the mother] becomes stable, would you be open to working with her again in the future?”
Social worker: “I hope she does continue to work with us, I particularly want to be able to support her around her housing at the moment. “She is bright, warm, kind, understanding, and really, really determined to overcome her addiction, if she can apply that to her education and other areas of her life she will do very well.”
She told the court that the statutory Child in Care reviews were every six months for the first two years and once a year subsequently.
Judge: “You are positively motivated towards the mother, that is evident, and you put to me this child needs stability and certainty, but until he is in the five to six age bracket he won’t be fully aware of this, so as regards the impact on the child, which is what we’re here about, does it really make a difference whether there’s a Care Order till he’s 18 or a care order till he’s five?”
Social worker: “It’s my belief that providing [the child] with a Care Order doesn’t undermine [the mother’s] ability to bring it back to court but not making it would undermine [the child’s] right to stability and security.”
Judge: “If a shorter care order is made the court of its own motion can extend the order until the child is 18, are you aware of that?”
Social worker: “No.”
Mother’s key worker from a Youth Project
The mother’s key worker from her methadone treatment programme told the court that the mother had come to them in 2013 wanting to get her life sorted and get off all the drugs. At the time she was at early stage heroin use, and on tablets and weed. She worked very hard and eventually came off all the drugs.
She had been really excited at seeing her son at Christmas. “She was down to the 5 mls and rang me, ‘I’m off it, I’m not going to take the last 5ml,’ she said. I said: ‘Really, we need to talk about this,’ Personally I thought this was a bit quick, so did the doctor.”
The key worker gave the same evidence as the psychologist regarding the urinalysis samples for 2015 being positive for opiates, cannabis and methadone. She described how they had put the mother back on 10 mls of methadone when she had relapsed but then she had stopped coming to the clinic. However, she was now back with them again and a care plan had been devised.
“She said: ‘I want to do this, I don’t want this life, I want to do this again, I want to get clean’,” the key worker told the court. She was now on 20 mls of methadone and struggling to stabilise, “but she’s getting there, sometimes she’s late but she’s making it.” The doctor at the clinic was seeing her every week.
The policy at the drug treatment programme was to give 50 mls of methadone maximum, “if they don’t balance on 50mls they get moved onto a clinic.” The methadone was slowly increased so the person could slowly go down off heroin. “The doctor will decide at the next appointment whether she stays where she is or goes up,” said the key worker.
They were recommending that the mother go to a residential treatment centre to get time out for herself and get away from everyone, she had to also learn to bypass triggers.
Mother’s solicitor: “She doesn’t feel one hundred per cent ready to take [her child] home with her, as a drugs counsellor, do you believe they can be a good enough parent while stabilising?”
Key worker: “There is people out there on methadone programmes but stabilised.”
GAL solicitor: “Is the programme’s goal is to detox?”
Key worker: “Yes and to look at other areas such as education, it’s about taking the drugs out and looking to fill it with something else.”
GAL solicitor: “Have you talked to her about residential treatment as stabilising in the community didn’t work?”
Key worker: “I did, but [she] is not ready for it. It has to be about her as well as her son, we talked about where she was going to go, education and stuff like that, for the first time she showed an interest in doing something. This time around it’s a bit of both.”
GALsolicitor: “If there was an external deadline set of one or two years for now, to tackle her present difficulties within that timeframe, would that be beneficial or cause difficulties?”
Key worker: “It carries risks both ways and it depends on where a person is at.”
Judge: “It’s gone beyond continuing in the same way and hoping for the best, a more radical input is needed to stop the addiction, what do you think about that?”
Key worker: “It’s about how much she wants this herself, I believe she can get clean, it’s to maintain it, she’s to attend appointments herself and go to the chemist herself.”
Judge: “Environmental factors are contributing factors, including her social network, she needs to review her social contacts, do you agree?”
Key worker: “I’ve suggested that she go to the gym, go to a course, meet new friends. I felt she kept to herself, she has to look at the fact it’s about making new friends. In fairness to her she stopped seeing old friends, when she relapses she goes back to them.”
Judge: “Her mother died when she was eight.”
Key worker: “She wouldn’t have a lot of people outside of her friends, her grandmother. It’s been quite difficult for her.”
Guardian ad litem
The Gal told the court that she had been working on the case for 22 months. Before the child had come into care when the mother was doing well, she did extremely well with him. However, he had observed a lot of incidents that had upset him, shocked him and traumatised him. He had suffered from alopecia when he had gone into care which his doctor had said could be stress or diet related.
“He has a beautiful bond with his mum, he refers to her as mama and the foster carers [by their names], they are very committed to [him] and were very supportive of reunification plans,” said the GAL.
She felt that a shorter care order would bring uncertainty into the boy’s life, “the focus is always about him going home rather than his paramount need being met”.
In relation to time, the GAL told the judge that a child of his age would not have any sense of “forever or two years”.
“So basically we can only deal with now, that’s your position?” asked the judge. “Yes,” confirmed the GAL.
She felt the child needed permanency. “It promotes us to develop healthily in the world, if that is disrupted or questioned again, it may bring up feelings of uncertainty or being let down, he may become angry or confused. The focus may turn to returning home rather than settling into his foster home.”
She told the court that his mother was doing very well at access. “[He] has a mum who absolutely adores and loves him and loves to see him, [she] is so good with him, it’s a pleasure to see them together.”
“My hope is huge for [her],” said the GAL. “[The child] needs his mum to be healthy, he needs her well, I really hope that [she] can turn things around in her life, she has unbelievable potential, she has always engaged extremely well, she is wonderful to her son when she is available to him, but my fondness for [her] cannot take over my concern for [the child] – my concern for his early years and his right to legal permanency with a full Care Order.”
There have been huge attempts already to reunify this little boy and they had not been successful, said the GAL. She also felt that residential treatment could assist the mother. There were also things in her childhood that needed to be dealt with, that she continued to struggle with.
The GAL noted again the relationship between the mother and child. She told the court that she had observed them in the back of the car together going to access. “[His mum] has a beautiful calm nature with [her son] which is also his nature, they have a beautiful interaction.” He had been asking the foster carers for his mother when access was reduced.
The GAL reiterated that the mother had to stand on her own two feet and address her difficulties and at that stage the department could look at reunification.
The mother wanted to give evidence as she disputed the evidence that had been brought at the ECO hearing by the female Garda. She did not agree that her son had been in the buggy by himself out on the road by the lane, while she had been down the lane. She also told the court that she had not been smoking heroin. She said she had gone down the lane to get her sister, she had been calling her but she had not heard her.
“I went down to get her and that’s when a Garda cycled by and saw us,” said the mother.
Judge: “Was your sister smoking heroin?”
The mother: “Yeah, I think she was.”
Judge: “There was also evidence that [your child] was over exposed to the sun and a heat rash.”
The mother: “I think that was his eczema, he has it on his neck.”
Mother’s solicitor: “What your hopes are for the future, what’s your plan in respect of rehabilitation and your own aspiration for your education and your son?”
The mother: “Well for starters I’m looking to go back to finish my Leaving Cert in September. With the methadone course I’m on I’m waiting to go up another dosage so I can cut off all drugs. I’m looking into putting my name down for a Leaving Cert course.”
Judge: “You’ll have to hurry up about it, they’ll be starting in September.”
She told the judge that she had spoken to her drug treatment key worker about it and she just needed to go and put her name down. “I just want to do what I can to get [my child] back. The main reason for me going downhill this time was that I rushed myself, so in future, when I am coming down from my methadone I’ll know better to take it slowly.”
Judge: “And what do you think of the opinions given to me that it’s up to you to sort it out now, if you get yourself sorted you can come back to court and apply for the return of [of your son], what do you think about that?”
The mother: “I know that I can come back in to court and apply for him again but I think a Care Order till he’s 18 is just going overboard.”
Judge: “What do you think of everybody telling me that he needs stability?”
The mother: “I know that he needs stability, he does have it at the moment. I know that it’s in his best interest to see as much of me as he can as possible [in access], I think he has stability and it’s good for him with the access.”
The judge reserved judgement on the case until the following week, whereby she then granted a Care Order for 14 months.
Threshold criteria for a Care Order (under Section 18 of the Child Care Act 1991)
Section 18 of the Act of 1991 set out the criteria for taking a child into care.
(a) The child has been or is being assaulted, ill-treated, neglected or sexually abused;
(b) The child’s health, development or welfare has been or is being avoidably impaired or neglected;
(c) The child’s health, development or welfare is likely to be avoidably impaired or neglected;
And that the child requires care or protection which he is unlikely to receive unless the court makes an order.
The CFA sought the Care Order in this case under Section 18 (1)(b) and (c).
From the Judge’s written decision:
“Fact-finding and decision:
27. The court must resolve the disputed relevant facts in this case before it can reach its conclusion on the issue it has to decide. After Hearing and weighing all the evidence adduced the court makes the following findings of facts;
“Save for the disputed incident, dated the [X date] 2013 where I find as a fact that the child by virtue of his mother’s actions was in an entirely inappropriate situation, I find that this child by virtue of his mother’s drug addiction and lifestyle was placed in situations where his health, development and welfare was being avoidably impaired and neglected and that due to the current relapse of the mother, if the child was returned to the mother at this time it is likely that his health, development and welfare would be avoidably impaired or neglected. I am satisfied that these matters have been proven by the Agency on the balance of probabilities.
“The next matter I must now decide is a proportionate response in light of the constitutional and Convention law applicable and the overriding requirement that the welfare of the child is the paramount consideration. I am not convinced at all that the Order sought by the CFA and supported by the Guardian ad litem is necessary or proportionate in the current circumstances where the child is now aged three years eight months and by the evidence adduced will not be formally made aware of his care status until age five to six.
“The child’s situation is currently stable. At this time he does not require certainty as to his legal status. I am not satisfied, on the evidence, that there would be an adverse impact on the child’s welfare in making an order for a shorter duration than to his 18th birthday. The contention that his stability and permanency needs now require a care order until he is 18 years old are not borne out by the evidence.
“I order a Care order for to expire on the [X date] approximately two months short of the child’s fifth birthday and at a time when the mother will have turned 21 and certainly be then confirmed as being in the adult stage of life with all the responsibilities that come with adulthood. The Respondent Mother must now grow up, take responsibility, act her age, get real and take on her responsibilities both to herself and her child. She must do this immediately with no delay.”
See Archive 2013, Volume 3, No.19 for the ECO report.