Full care order for unaccompanied minor fleeing war

An application was made by the Child and Family Agency (CFA) for a full care order in respect of a teenage boy who came to Ireland as an unaccompanied minor from a war-torn country. The District Court judge was satisfied to make the order until the child reached the age of majority.

The child had requested to meet the judge and he met him accompanied by the guardian ad litem (GAL) in advance of the hearing. The child had also requested to remain in court during the hearing of the full care order and he was permitted to do so. As the child was an unaccompanied minor in Ireland there was no attendance by the parents in court or representation on their behalf.

The judge told the legal representatives for the CFA and the GAL that he had read the papers in advance of the hearing and that he had met with the child and that the matter appeared to be “relatively straightforward”. The judge welcomed the child again to the court who was present sitting with the GAL.

The social worker allocated to the child who was part of the CFA’s unaccompanied minors’ team gave evidence in support of the application for the full care order until the child reached his age of majority. The solicitor for the CFA asked how the child became known to the CFA. She told the court that the child had come to Ireland approximately six months prior to the hearing under the Irish Refugee Protection Programme (IRPP). (This programme accepts refugees directly from refugee camps in Europe and the Middle East, whose asylum applications are then processed in Ireland.) The court was told that the child had left his country of origin and prior to coming to Ireland he was in a refugee camp in Greece.

Social worker: “Social workers went to Greece and brought some young people home to be taken into the care of the CFA”.

The social worker said that the child had been in his foster placement for approximately five months, that it was a long-term placement and he was settling in very well. The CFA solicitor asked the social worker whether the child had any contact with his family. She said that the contact was very intermittent and was every couple of weeks through Faceook messenger. The social worker was asked about the child’s refugee status and she said that the application was currently in the process but that she had “no concern, just a matter of waiting”.

The witness outlined the child’s education circumstances and said that he was enrolled in a school in the same locality as his foster placement. In respect of the child’s health there had been CFA approval for dental work that he needed.

Social worker: “His English has come on. When he arrived he had no English whatsoever and has made very good progress.”

Judge: “I spoke to him myself and I am happy that his English is very good.”

The social worker confirmed that she was satisfied that the foster placement met the needs of the child at that time and his needs were being taken care of. She also confirmed her opinion that without a section 18 full care order that the health, welfare or the development of the child would likely be affected or impaired and that the order was required until the child reached the age of eighteen.

The judge said that the child’s parents were not in the jurisdiction and had no legal control over him as he was an unaccompanied minor in Ireland and that he “has to have the order which is the bottom line”. The judge said that the child needed to know that he had stability for the next few years of his life as a minor.

The judge was concerned about the suggestion of discharging the GAL if the care order was made and to be reappointed at the time of considering the after-care plan. He said he was minded to keep the GAL appointed and “would be slow to discharge” the GAL when the child’s refugee status had not been finalised. The solicitor for the GAL confirmed that it was fair to say that the practice in the District Court was often to discharge the GAL after a full care order was made with a standard default re-entry but that it was a matter for the discretion of the District Court Judge.

The judge continued to outline his reservation about discharging the GAL where the child had no parents and no family in Ireland and nobody else. The judge said that his view was that it was an “unusual set of circumstances to warrant the continuation of the GAL” and that he would be “very slow to discharge the GAL in a case like this”.

The judge asked the social worker if there was any prospect of the child being able to stay with the foster carer after he reached the age of eighteen. The social worker said that “he is part of the family now” and that he could stay until he finished his college education. She confirmed that there would be standard re-entry provisions in respect of the placement but that it was a long-term placement.

In response to questions by the GAL’s solicitor about whether the placement required long-term matching the social worker said that there did not appear to be any impediment to it. She was happy with how the child had settled into the placement and that it was fully capable of meeting his needs as a long-term placement. She confirmed that there would be a referral for after-care planning when the child reached the age of 16 and would return before the court when he reached the age of 17.

GAL solicitor “The court is concerned about the child’s status, when do you anticipate it being regularised?”

Social worker: “A difficult question. Sometimes we might get the answer straight away.”

The judge asked about whether the child had a document to travel rather than a passport, and said that once the child got his status that he would be entitled to a document to travel.

The solicitor for the GAL proposed a timeline of 12 month to balance the concerns about a default re-entry if the child’s status was not regularised from a certain date. The judge said that he had a shorter period of three months in mind and that the situation was unique where unaccompanied minors had no parents with them and it was not yet certain who would press the matter forward and he was concerned it would take time. The social worker agreed and said that the CFA had approximately 150 such children and she agreed that they “should be prioritised” in respect of finalising their refugee status applications.

Judge: “Placements break down. If children can’t travel if the foster family can’t travel.”

The solicitor for the GAL asked the social worker if any of the children in the same group as the child had had their status regularised. She confirmed that some of the children had but that the Ukrainian crisis had placed huge pressure on the system. Previously in her experience she had “never had someone wait longer than two years”.

The GAL solicitor confirmed she was satisfied that the child had a committed team to progress the matter and she was comfortable with the proposed default re-entry in twelve months, but it was expected to have his status finalised in advance of that. She suggested lifting the in camera rule in respect of some of the information before the court so that it could be provided to the Department of Justice to assist. The judge agreed with that proposal that progress on refugee status was part of “integrating into society” and he was concerned that if it was not finalised and there was a school trip he might be “the only boy who can’t go abroad”.

The court-appointed GAL had prepared a report for the court in support of the CFA application for the care order. She said she believed it was proportionate for the order to be made for the full term of his remaining years as a minor. The GAL said that it had been “lovely to get to know the child” and that he had done extremely well. She described how when they first met he was a “quiet boy” and she had seen him progress all the time and they talked about the things he liked and disliked and the different cultures in Ireland.

The GAL said that the child was very well supported by the allocated social worker who was very committed to him and the foster family was also very committed to him. The GAL was satisfied following her meetings with the foster family that he was “appropriately placed going forward” and he was very well integrated into the foster family and was “part of the family”. She described how the foster family had got the child a PlayStation for Christmas as a surprise and that they were really delighted to have him and enjoyed having him in the family.

The GAL confirmed that the child was integrating well into the school, he was happy in the school and he wanted to do well. She said that he had an Irish exemption in school and he got help with his English. The GAL said that it was a small class at the school “so a good bit of individual attention for him”.

GAL Solicitor: “[The child] had a difficult journey [from his country] to Greece and then on to Ireland?”

GAL: “Absolutely, when I met him first he showed me pictures of [the refugee camps] and what it was like for him there. Now conversations are about here and now and he has done really well to integrate. He remembers his time in [the camps] but it is not at the forefront.”

The GAL outlined how the child was encouraged to engage with his own culture and that she had gone with him for Halal food in an ethnic restaurant.

GAL: “He is encouraged to engage with his own culture. He is aware of the Mosque and different restaurants that serve the food he likes. He has learned about our culture and I have learned about his culture.”

The solicitor asked the GAL about the court’s apprehension about discharging her and for the continuation of her appointment. She said that her experience was that the social worker was very efficient in the case and that she would be happy with a default re-entry if the child’s status was not regularised within twelve months. The GAL was very hopeful that the child would continue to grow and develop in his foster placement and said: “I know that he will be very successful”.

GAL: “It has been lovely to get to know the child and to know about his culture and I commend the social work team.”

The GAL commended the social worker for progressing any funding requests and said that everything had been efficiently done by the CFA unaccompanied minors’ team to a very high standard. The solicitor for the CFA asked the GAL no questions.

The judge was satisfied to grant a full care order pursuant to section 18 of the Child Care Act 1991 until the child reached the age of majority. Although the judge had reservations, he discharged the GAL and directed that the matter was to be re-entered before the court in the event that the child’s refugee status was not clarified within twelve months. The judge thanked the child for attending and he thanked him for the card the child had given to the judge and he wished the child “the very best”. The judge also lifted the in camera rule in respect of information to ensure that the child’s refugee status was progressed and for documents to be forwarded to the required offices processing the application.