The judge in a District Court in a rural town set a full care order hearing for an infant three months later than scheduled due to delays with the completion of a parental capacity assessment report.
The judge said he was “extremely concerned” that a delay in the full care hearing was “prejudicial” to both the child and the mother. The expert had had eight months to complete the report.
The infant had been in foster care since she was a few weeks old due to concerns regarding neglect and failure to thrive. The GAL told the court the infant was making great progress, meeting all her milestones and was quite settled with her foster carers with whom she had a great relationship. She was satisfied that the foster carers had all the necessary supports.
The court heard evidence from a parental capacity assessment expert commissioned by the CFA who said that a number of factors caused delay in completing the assessment of the parents involved. The mother became pregnant with another child after the assessment was commissioned and the terms of reference and scope of the assessment widened to include a risk assessment regarding her unborn child and the mother’s older children.
The court heard the mother moved address and the assessor had to liaise with three different social work departments. In addition the assessor, who worked with a colleague, was only available two days in any week for parental capacity assessment as she and her colleague worked part time.
When asked by the CFA solicitor, the assessor said that she would not have a truncated report available for the original hearing date as she needed to undertake interviews and analyse these in order to get a “true reflection of parenting capacity in the context of the other children.”
The parental capacity assessment expert said she “was mindful of safeguarding all of the children involved.” She explained that the assessment process happened in sequence with meeting the infant’s parents before meeting other relatives.
When asked why the assessment did not commence until three months after it was originally planned, the expert said the mother asked for a pause in the assessment until after she had her baby. It was important that the assessor could observe the mother with her new born baby, the infant in care and her other children so as to “provide a true picture of the parent’s capacity,” she said.
The court heard the father of the new born baby, the mother’s partner and his mother were protective factors with the new-born baby.
Some of the factors which caused delay were foreseeable, said the judge.
Judge: “It was not unreasonable 14 months after a child comes into care to set down a section 18 [hearing]. In the UK [this] happens six months after children come into care. We are looking at an international yardstick.”
Mother’s solicitor: “There is not a wide consensus about the UK. Yes, undue delay is prejudicial.”
Judge: “I have given a time frame for the report to be completed and now there is an application. The child is in care for over a year. [You are] asking me to manufacture a situation to keep a child in care. I’m extremely concerned. In the Constitution the child has rights and interests and if the case doesn’t proceed when set down and the child is kept in care when reports [are] not available and no inquiry relating to section 18 thresholds, this compromises everyone.”
The mother’s solicitor told the court that her client was consenting to the interim care order. The judge was satisfied on the social worker and GAL’s sworn evidence as to the truth and accuracy of their reports that the threshold for the continuation of an interim care order had been met.
The judge found that the six-month delay with processing the parental capacity assessment and developing its scope must rest with the assessor and the CFA. The delay was too long for the child, he said. He found the assessor worked part-time. The only conclusion he could draw was to “question the capacity of the assessor to complete the parental capacity assessment in time.” This should be a “consideration of the CFA in any future parental capacity assessment,” he said.
He had made findings of delay and “it was up to the GAL and the mother if they wished to take further action”, the judge said.