A district judge in a rural town granted a full care order for a preschool age child, A, until she is 18 years old. The child had come into foster are as a baby under an emergency care order and had been on a one-year care order previously with a plan for reunification with her mother and the mother’s partner.
The court heard that the mother, who was legally represented, had two older school age children B and C and a baby, D, who was born after A went into care. At the time of A’s birth, the mother’s two older children were of pre-school age. The father of A was unidentified and not involved in the proceedings.
The court heard evidence over three days from two Child and Family Agency (CFA) social workers, an independent social work attachment expert, a psychologist, a guardian ad litem (GAL) and the mother. There had been difficulty securing funding for the psychologist to give evidence on the parental capacity assessment, but this issue had been resolved on the morning of the hearing, the mother’s barrister told the court.
The baby had been born six weeks premature with feeding problems, the social worker told the court. After the baby was discharged home the public health nurse (PHN) had been concerned about the baby whom she thought looked emaciated and a referral was made to a consultant paediatrician. Both mother and baby were admitted to hospital for a period during which time the baby gained a substantial amount of weight. The hospital staff noted the mother was difficult to wake and had slept though the baby crying on three occasions in one week, the social worker said.
The baby was considered very vulnerable and the CFA had considered a legal route, the social worker said, but as the mother was very co-operative an intense support package was put in place. This involved family support workers’ help with appointments and parenting of the older children, the PHN calling in twice a week, the family support worker at the weekend, the social worker visiting regularly and regular medical checks, she said. The mother did not keep her outpatient paediatric appointments regarding the baby’s weight, the court heard.
The court heard the mother had previously lived with her parents who were supportive and then secured accommodation a distance away and was isolated. The mother’s barrister told the court the mother’s partner, who was not A’s father, had been in prison for two years and was now engaged in mental health and addiction services and was supporting the mother in co-parenting A and their three other children. The CFA social worker told the court the mother’s partner was resistant to social work involvement and made it clear he did not think this was necessary.
“The mother and her partner were polite but not completely honest about the baby’s discharge plan from the hospital, [they] said they were going to the mother’s mother and mother’s partner’s family, but when [the social worker] carried out a home visit all the family were there and there was a strong smell of cannabis,” the social worker said.
She said on another occasion the PHN had observed 20 beer cans in the front garden and the baby unattended.
A child protection conference was called and the baby was put on the child protection register, the court heard, and a plan was agreed with the mother and partner that the baby was to be brought to hospital if any loss of weight occurred. “There were concerns about whether the mother understood the level of concern,” the social worker told the court.
The court heard the baby came into care on an emergency care order following concerns about her care. There was then a one-year care order granted by consent to allow reunification of A with her mother. A had been with the same foster carers throughout this time.
Mother’s barrister: “Was [the mother’s] mother ever considered as a carer for A? Wouldn’t it have made sense for A to stay beside her birth family?”
Social worker: “I wasn’t the social worker at the time. There were some worries around neglect by the [maternal grandmother].”
Mother’s barrister: “But this didn’t disqualify the grandmother from caring for the children and the subsequent baby D remained in her mother’s care.”
The court heard the mother suffered with post-natal depression and she had been encouraged to attend her GP and mental health services. The social worker said the mother disengaged from mental health services. The mother’s barrister told the court the GP notes referred to the mother receiving treatment for depression.
The social worker accepted the mother was feeling overwhelmed and issues around sexual assaults as a teenager by her mother’s boyfriend had come up for her. A file had been sent to the DPP and counselling had been recommended for the mother to deal with this, the court was told. The social worker agreed with the mother’s barrister that the mother was only ready to deal with counselling about the issues now and had not been previously.
The reunification plan involved individual and couple counselling, increased access and a parenting capacity assessment, however, the mother and partner did not follow through on counselling, the court heard. The GAL told the court couple’s counselling would have helped the mother and her partner deal with future challenges of reunification of a child they had not cared for in three years.
The social worker said there were difficulties with parenting and the mother had not sustained access and had missed half of the arranged accesses with A. Repeated suggestions had not been followed through by the mother and there had been no sustained improvement to keep the child safe, the social worker said. There was a difference between what the mother wanted and what the child needed, the social worker said. “A call needs to be made [on the case] now,” the social worker said.
There had been a lot of positives and the GAL was very clear on that, the court heard. She agreed with the mother’s barrister there had been no active alcohol or drug use, the three other children were in their parent’s care and the couple had a good relationship with the foster carers.
The GAL did not agree with the mother’ barrister that it would be in A’s interest to have a shorter order to allow the mother an opportunity to go through therapy and have increased access. However, she did clarify it would be in A’s interest in terms of her relationship with her mother for the mother to engage in supports.
The GAL agreed with the CFA solicitor that she was supportive of a long-term order until A was 18 and that reunification would remain a consideration at each child in care review. The mother told the court she wanted to be given a fair chance for reunification with her daughter.
The court heard the mother had a gentle tone with A at access and was patient with her. The mother had missed half of the access visits and the CFA decided to reduce the weekly access to every six weeks to improve the quality of access for A, the social worker told the court. The access supervisor and foster carer came to access which took place on CFA premises.
The social worker told the court A had become distressed after access with her mother, soiling herself, losing balance and needed more reassurance than normal. Access was decreased on the recommendation of an attachment assessment, commissioned by the CFA. There had been a marked improvement in A when access was decreased, the social worker said.
The psychologist who observed access for the purposes of a parenting capacity assessment told the court she felt access went well and was not in agreement with reducing access and had told the CFA this. When asked by the mother’s barrister the psychologist said she could not explain why A became upset after access and said her concern was more to do with seeing what could be done to improve the situation for A.
She said the mother was attuned to A and engaged affectionately in the way she spoke with her and played with her in a soft way, allowing her to lead the play. When the psychologist asked the foster carer to leave the room, A barely noticed, the psychologist said. Access was relaxed and A sang a little song to herself which would not have happened if A had not felt comfortable. She told the court that if given exposure to seeing each other and doing this with the mother in a therapeutic way with videos A would feel more settled in her relationship with her mother.
Psychologist: “I think, noting A’s distress after access [the mother] needs to be supported in making access more therapeutic and to be attuned [so she] would have the confidence to calm A down even if the foster carer wasn’t there. If you see a child every six weeks there is no way any parent can improve or work on the relationship. For the mother’s sake she needed them to be able to spend more time together. I think access in an access room is always more artificial and [she needs] help to develop a more normal relationship, not to be always stuck in a room for an hour and to do normal things like going to the playground.”
The psychologist wondered why the mother was not giving A a more affectionate goodbye at the end of access and the mother told her she was told by the CFA not to hug the child as this might overwhelm her. The psychologist said she felt this was inappropriate.
Psychologist: “They hugged, and it was heart-breaking. The mother was so upset when she said she wasn’t allowed to give a hug.”
The psychologist said A did not want the access to end and the access supervisor told the psychologist she could not believe the access went so well.
The mother’s barrister asked the psychologist how she saw the access increasing.
Psychologist: “This is always difficult to answer. In order to improve the relationship access increase is best done with theraplay to promote attachment and videotaped and you can go back and look at what went well.”
The psychologist told the court theraplay was a gentle way for children who might resist touch and closeness, through play to get used to being touched and she recommended access should be increased gradually.
She said it was important regardless of the court order that A should have a relationship with her siblings and with her mother and this should be part of her life even if she lives with her foster carers rather than confronting her with this when she is eight or nine.
Psychologist: “I think it is good for her to have a relationship with siblings, if now just friends to play with, but going forward as an adult to have the relationship with siblings, a bit unconventional not living with them but they are her family. “
It was important along the way that there were boundaries and it had to be managed and A was not told things she was not able to understand, she told the court.
Parenting capacity assessment
The psychologist told the court that at the outset the type of report she produced was limited by funding. She used psychometric testing to help understand personality and she also observed access. The tests used were divided between establishing psychological stability and establishing good enough parenting from a parenting assessment manual.
She told the court the tests picked up the fact the mother did not admit to difficulties normally admitted to and this was not an unusual finding as parents wanted to present themselves as best they can. The tests suggested the mother had low self-esteem and was psychologically insecure and struggled with her mental health she said. The mother liked the ‘tried and tested’ and felt safe in what she knew and insecure in what was new, the psychologist said.
The psychologist had concerns regarding reunification and said an issue for her was not the mother’s ability to engage with A but more the dynamic she was in with the other children and her partner who was not as invested with A as he was with the other three children.
The mother’s partner had taken up 11 accesses in the year the psychologist said. The mother’s barrister told the court he had stood back to allow the mother more access. The partner was offered an appointment by the psychologist but did not take it up, she told the court.
The mother did not trust professionals and trusted her own family, and this made things harder, the psychologist said, for her to engage in therapy. The mother’s patner was a strong character, and the mother was very much influenced by him.
Psychologist: “The mother on her own would do quite well to follow guidance but in this dynamic to manage all these different relationships, [it would] be quite a lot to manage and I would have concerns for A.”
A long-term care order
The CFA solicitor told the court it was very clear from the evidence that A was safe and secure in her placement and the mother had not shown her commitment during the previous one year care order, whether though inability or unwillingness and this was unfair on A, he said. He accepted the mother would engage in counselling when she was ready, but A could not wait, he said.
He told the court there was no medical reason given for A’s initial failure to thrive and a variety of experts had reported the mother was not able to follow through, the most recent evidence was there were too many variables, and this may or may not be possible in the future. He said the court could be satisfied that a care order until 18 would be proportionate.
The mother’s barrister said if the court made a shorter care order this would keep all eyes focused on A’s interests and would keep access open. The European Court of Human Rights in the YC v UK case stated family ties could only be severed in exceptional circumstances and it was not enough to show that it was more beneficial, and it was not a comparison between the foster care and the mother. She referred to a recent Irish adoption case GK and CK where Mr Justice Jordan had commented the CFA should have engaged with reunification.
The barrister for the GAL said if the court had concerns about proportionality there were ways around this by building in a more stringent review of access and the GAL could remain involved.
The judge gave her decision the following week and said the threshold had been met for a section 18 care order until A was eighteen. She directed that access should not be further decreased and supports should be put in place for its increase, a stringent review of access to take place in one year and the GAL to be reappointed in advance.
She said A had suffered neglect and the mother had low mood, was unable to provide an adequate and safe environment and had limited ability to engage with professionals. She said she was satisfied the threshold had been reached to interfere with a parent’s constitutional rights where A was not likely to receive the care and protection she needed.
She referred to case law and parental ties could only be severed in exceptional circumstances and that it was not enough that a placement was more beneficial but she was satisfied such exceptional circumstances existed and that the care order was proportionate. The evidence against the mother was compelling. She was coming to terms with her own history of sexual abuse and adulthood and parenthood the judge said. The judge observed she was concerned about the absence of the mother’s partner and that he did not give evidence in court.
The judge gave credit to the mother for how she conducted herself in a very difficult time and she said she had no doubt she loved her daughter. The judge said she did not come to her decision lightly.