Full Care Orders were granted for four children in a District Court in a rural town. The parents, a married couple, opposed the order.
A garda told the court that she had received a number of reports of domestic violence. The oldest girl, aged seven, was protecting her mother from her father. When the garda called to the house the younger children had dirty faces and dirty nappies. The mother already had convictions for child neglect and abuse, and the oldest girl was being hit by her father. When brought to the Garda station the mother denied there was domestic violence despite having marks on her face. She also refused to go to a refuge.
The father had 29 previous convictions for public order offences, assault and threats to kill going back over a decade. The mother had 14 convictions, including for cruelty to children and being intoxicated in charge of her children. On one occasion one of the children had fallen out of an upstairs window and had to be taken to hospital.
On another occasion the mother had come to the gardai saying she had to get away from her husband or he would kill her. She reported having been knocked out, kicked in the groin and forced to have sex when she did not want to. There were serious concerns for her safety. The garda said that since the Gardai had first come into contact with the family some years earlier there had been very little improvement in the circumstances of the mother and the children. The mother was extremely vulnerable and had an intellectual disability. The father’s convictions all related to intoxication, criminal damage, assaults and threats to kill.
The social worker said the family was known to the social work department since 2007. Concerns were expressed by GPs and public health nurses. The eldest child, A, was admitted to hospital following her fall from the upstairs window. A package of support was put in place for the family to stop the children going into care, including after-school facilities. Both parents were referred to parenting courses and addiction services. Buggies and stair gates were provided, along with taxis to school and the family resource centre. About €800 a week was going into the house from social welfare, child benefit and the mother’s disability benefit.
Two years ago a Supervision Order was obtained, with the conditions that the mother get treatment for her alcohol addiction and attend ante natal appointments and the children have regular GP checks and vaccinations; that the father attend a course to help him deal with his violence and a parenting course.
However, the parents were unable to maintain these conditions. They would do so for short periods, especially when a court hearing was coming up, the social worker said. The most recent Supervision Order was made around the birth of the youngest child a year and nine months earlier, who was born with a serious heart condition and remained in hospital for a long time. At this point the other children were in wet nappies and the house was cold. It was clear the mother could not cope.
She relied very much on the father. “He does not have to say anything to control her. All it needs is a look,” the social worker said. “She has accepted on occasion she is the victim of domestic violence, then she denies it. There is a very chaotic environment in the family home, including alcohol and drugs.”
The social worker said she did not think the father had the ability to meet the emotional and developmental needs of the children. He accepted there was domestic violence and did attend a number of anger management sessions, but his engagement was superficial and he was still involved in public order offences.
The children described the fighting and the eldest said her mother wore a lot of make-up to cover up bruises. She often asked the school if she could go home because she was worried about her younger siblings. She also said her mother hit the baby. She said she was angry with her parents and wanted to remain in care.
She was now seven and since she had come into care her health had improved, she was no longer thin and gaunt and her school work had improved. She used to hoard food, but was now eating well. However, she was hyper-vigilant and trying to mother her siblings. She had behavioural issues and a lot of long-term needs.
The second child, B, had come into care aged three. He had very limited speech and was diagnosed with a mild learning disability. However, following educational intervention and a lot of work from his carers he no longer had such a diagnosis and was now very articulate with a large vocabulary. He was doing very well and was very attached to his carer. He no longer hoarded and gorged on food, except around access visits with his parents. He was very anxious around access, very tuned in to his father’s expression, and expressed a fear his carers would send him back to his parents.
The third child, C, was nearly two when she came into care. She was extremely dirty and her bottle was rancid. Since coming into care her speech and weight had improved.
The social worker said that the social work department’s concerns were alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, criminality and questions concerning the ability of the parents to change. These concerns all remained and if the children went home the potential they had in their lives would be severely hampered.
The solicitor for the parents said the father’s mother was available to give support, and he had attended 20 counselling sessions in anger management. The social worker responded that the department had been involved with the family since 2007 and they would do something for a short time and then stop. The grandmother had not come forward to the department to suggest support. During the father’s anger-management course the mother presented to her doctor with bruising. Despite the courses the parents did not address the issues of why the children are in care.
The social worker dealing with the youngest child, D, who had been in hospital for almost a year after his birth, said he was born with a congenital heart defect, had a life-threatening difficulty and was fed for a long period through a tube. There were serious concerns over the parents’ ability to care for this child and there were also concerns over his attachment to them. Foster parents had been identified and he moved into their home about a year ago. He was now able to eat, but because he had been fed with a tube for so long he had an over-sensitive gag reflex and his food had to be pureed. His developmental delay was significant, there were concerns he had foetal alcohol syndrome. He was receiving speech and language therapy.
His parents clearly loved him very much, but the social worker said she did not think they could adequately care for him and give him the therapeutic care he needed. She recommended a long-term care order.
The father told the court that he engaged with some services and was doing a vocational course. He said he and his wife did understand the gravity of the situation. Their four children were gone. Referring to access, he said they just saw the children once a week for two and a half hours, and this meant a lot to them. It was hard to manage four children in a small room.
“I know there are a few problems to be sorted out. Give us some time and we’ll sort it. We’ll have to start doing what the social workers want us to do and get on together. Give us time to prove we can before bringing a full Care Order. I understand access is hard for the children. It’s hard for us.”
Asked about the domestic violence, he said he acknowledged “about 30 per cent” of the incidents. He denied he had an alcohol problem, but acknowledged his wife did. “I suffer from anxiety. I’m a hyper-active person. I’m under a lot of stress since the children were taken into care.”
The solicitor said there had been concerns about the family since 2007, but the children were not taken into care until 2011. “We are a married family. There are rocky periods in every family. The relationship at the start was fairly rocky. There have been big changes in the last three or four months,” the father replied.
Asked if he accepted domestic violence put the children at risk, he said: “In a way, yes.” Referring to the fact the second child had been diagnosed with a learning disability when he came into care, and did not have one now, the social worker asked him if he accepted there was a lack of stimulation in the house. He said this was not true, “some children are just slow at the beginning.”
The HSE solicitor said the family had had a chance. There had been two Supervision Orders, the first for three months. They had not cooperated with the social work department. If they had there would have been no need for a second one. Then they got an Interim Care Order. The HSE had regular and consistent concerns.
“You don’t accept you have an alcohol problem. You don’t accept most of the allegations of domestic violence. You don’t accept the children have problems with stimulation. So how will you change?”
“I accept there’s a need for improvement. I don’t accept there’s a lot of problems to be addressed,” the father replied. “On behalf of my wife and myself, there are lot of negatives, but a few positives. Let us build on the positives.”
The judge granted the Care Orders until the children are 18. She also ordered the HSE to provide the necessary therapeutic services for the parents and the children, to facilitate access, do everything to foster the relationship between parents and children and provide all assistance to the parents to participate in a meaningful way in decisions relating to the children. The father should get counselling and anger management so that he had an understanding of domestic violence.
Speaking to the parents, she said: “I know this is difficult for you, but this decision is being made in the best interests of the children.”