Hearing begins of interim care order application for three children of teenage parents

A hearing of three applications for interim care orders began in Dublin District Court for three very young children from one family, where the mother was still a teenager.

The mother was present in court, with an advocate and a lawyer. The father, one year older than the mother, was also in court, with his advocate and lawyer. Evidence on this first day was heard from the assessor who had completed a parenting capacity assessment. Also present in court were the social workers on behalf of the Child and Family Agency (CFA) and the guardian ad litem (GAL) and the GAL’s legal representative.

The two older children, a girl A, who attended pre-school and a boy B who was an infant were both subject to interim care orders. The first two applications were for extensions of these interim care orders, and these were granted by the court for 28 days on the consent of all parties.

The CFA also asked the judge to list dates for full care order hearings for A and B, as the parenting capacity assessment had stated that reunification could not be reasonably pursued. This application for full care order hearing dates was supported by the GAL.

The mother’s solicitor said this was premature. The mother had only just given birth to her third child and there had been no opportunity to implement any of the recommendations of the parenting capacity assessment.

Counsel for the father said he had not been given an opportunity to address any of the issues raised in the parenting capacity assessment. The judge stated that given how long the court lists were and how blocked the system was, there would be time for the recommendations of the assessment to be implemented. He listed dates for the full care order hearings for A and B in Spring of 2023.

The third application concerned a newborn girl, child C, for an interim care order. Both parents fully contested this application. Evidence was heard from the parenting capacity assessor and would be heard from the social worker, the GAL and both parents.

History

The parents and A and B had been known to social services and a safety plan for A and B had been in place. An initial parenting capacity assessment was started but not completed whilst the mother had attended a mother and baby unit with child B. The parents, together with A and B, had been living with the father’s grandfather who had become very unwell, and an ambulance had been called.

The paramedics who had attended to the grandfather had had significant concerns about the welfare of A and B. The paramedics called An Gardai Siochana who removed A and B under section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991, which permits a member of an Gardai Siochana to remove children if they have a reasonable belief there is an immediate and serious risk to the health and welfare of the children and where waiting for the CFA to apply for an emergency care order would not give enough protection. Since that time A and B had remained in the care of the CFA. They had been placed with foster carers and had had access with their parents.

A parenting capacity assessment had been completed. Parenting capacity assessments can include clinical interviews with parents and where appropriate with children or significant others, such as grandparents. They can also include psychometric assessments of social, emotional and psychological functioning, cognitive assessments, structured or actual risk assessments. Structured child and parent observations and interviews may be filmed or recorded verbatim so they may be analysed by an independent third person to avoid bias. This is known as ‘blind coded’ or ‘blindly coded.’

Evidence of the assessor who completed the parenting capacity assessment

The assessor listed her qualifications, which included Masters’ level degrees and she had completed a six-year training course to become a qualified psychologist. She had worked with children and families in various positions and had over 15 years of experience of completing parenting capacity assessments.

The assessor pointedly and repeatedly told the court the assessment she completed had been in relation to the parenting of children A and B only, and it did not include the newborn child, C. She stated that whilst some of her observations were transferable the court must be cognisant that C was not included in her assessment.

The assessor had been given detailed terms of reference that had been agreed by the CFA, the GAL and the parents and they included the following:

  • Assess if the mother or father together or separately would be able to parent A or B
  • Assess the mother’s and father’s access with A and B
  • Assess the effect the childhoods of the mother and father would have on A and B
  • Assess how the mother and father would be able identify the needs of A and B

The assessor said she had examined and tested the parents using intelligence quotient (IQ) scores. The autism spectrum quotient 10 items (the AQ-10) test, infant care index tests, and other approved tests and scales to measure parenting ability. She had interviewed the parents and observed access. She had transcribed verbatim the parents’ interviews and filmed an access visit.

These were then passed to an independent third party with similar qualifications to herself to be blindly coded. This independent third party had been given no information about the parents or the children. This was done to avoid bias and ensure that her results were fair and accurate.

She met with the mother on eight occasions and the father on four. She said they engaged well in the assessment. Her report was over 40 pages long and the solicitor for the CFA asked the assessor to talk the court through it.

The mother

The mother was young, had limited cognitive capacity and her intelligence quotient (IQ) score was 63 which was the first centile and highly suggestive of learning difficulties. The assessor explained this meant the mother had limited cognitive capacity. It would be difficult for her to acquire new knowledge and she would have an inability to apply new learning. In lay terms, the mother would find it difficult to learn from her experience and would make repeated mistakes.

The assessor said the British Psychological Society had stated that a parent who had an IQ of 59 or less would not be able to parent without help. An IQ score may vary by four points in either direction. This meant the mother’s score could have been as high as 67 but it could be as low as 59. This low score would increase the risk of a mother’s child being neglected not because she did not care or love them but because she did not have the knowledge that was necessary to meet a child’s needs.

The mother scored six on the autism spectrum quotient 10 items (AQ-10) test. This score recommended that a referral to a specialist for full assessment should be considered. The mother’s perceptual reasoning score was in the 0.0 – 0.3 percentile and this meant she did not have the ability to see cause and effect. She was unable to recognise that one action was a result of, or would result in, another and because of this she would not profit or learn from experience.

The mother also had self-deception which enhanced her perception of how good a parent she thought she was. Another test demonstrated the mother had very rigid thinking, made her mind up very quickly and her mind would not be changed. The assessor said most people who complete these tests on average ask at least three questions regarding the meaning of certain questions, but the mother asked none. She completed it very quickly and her scores identified she had no attachment issues, no anxiety issues and no mental health difficulties.

This would demonstrate she had not engaged with the questionnaire, and this may have been because of the cognitive difficulties she had. However, this pattern was repeated in interviews where neither parent showed any insight into the reasons for A and B being admitted into care. They blamed others for this. They identified nothing in themselves that had to change for A and B to be returned to them.

The mother had had an exceedingly difficult childhood and the assessor said she was unable to obtain a coherent, detailed story. The mother was described as guarded, she spoke quickly and did not give anything away. The mother struggled to tell the assessor of any relationship that was warm and affectionate. The one significant relationship was with her grandmother who died when the mother was 12.

The mother said she had friends and liked school. She met the father when she was 15 and became pregnant when she was 16. The assessor said the mother answered superficially and this was most likely to protect herself from pain.

The assessor said: “It is telling that the mother and the father both requested they be admitted to care, that tells you how bad things were. But when talking to them they did not accept this and said their childhoods were fine.” This type of history was a huge risk. The mother’s childhood was filled with trauma, unresolved loss and grief. Her children A or B may trigger in her conscious or unconscious reminders of this, and the mother would not be able to respond appropriately.

The assessor referred to the evidence of the access that she had witnessed and that had also been blind coded. When the mother played with B, he would not make eye contact with her. The mother became stressed, her voice started to become shrill, and she was upset. She tried harder to control him and elicit the response from him that she wanted. This meant she was not responsive to his cues. The mother wanted eye contact, but B was not interested.

The mother then suddenly and without any warning or notice to B moved him. It was a shock to B, and he became distressed. This sudden movement without warning or context for an infant causes stress and anxiety. It demonstrated the mother was unresponsive to B when he did not do what the mother wanted him to do. The mother became upset when A would not call her mummy and although the mother tried to hide this, there was obvious stress but also much sadness.

The father

The father scored slightly higher on the IQ test which placed him on the third centile, this was not suggestive of a learning difficulty. However, this test also demonstrated that his listening comprehension was poor, and he lost meaning when information was presented to him quickly. An AQ-10 test was not done.

The father was interviewed, and an access was observed and filmed. Both the interview and access were blind coded. During the access the father tried to get B’s attention, when the child did not respond the father became agitated and flicked B’s soother. He then tried to gain B’s attention with toys, but B would not respond or engage. The father then started to raise his voice and use his body. He started to demonstrate hostile behaviour.

She said that throughout the access there were no moments of quietness or stillness which would have demonstrated intimacy or comfort. As the father became more stressed, B withdrew. He struggled to identify the needs of A and B. He was unable to comprehend that A and B may have different needs or views to himself. He wanted the children to play with the toys that he wanted them to play with.

The father’s childhood was also described as dysfunctional, traumatic and chaotic. He described his first memory as being battered and hit. He had suffered some form of abuse in his home, foster homes and care homes. He had asked to be taken into care when he was a teenager. He had grown up in a home with intergenerational trauma and violence. The person he had believed to be his father was actually his grandfather.

The death of his grandfather was a significant and profound loss to him. He reported significant abuse from his mother’s partner. Despite this he idealised his mother even though she had not protected him. He reported that he used to drink copious amounts of alcohol, this was most likely a coping mechanism.

The assessor said he disassociated from these experiences but when he talked of them, he spoke in the present tense, and it was obvious he was reliving them. He would then catch himself and said everything was fine now. These memories dysregulated him and this would influence his parenting ability. He also had an unrealistic view of his parenting ability.

He reported he smoked weed but that this was not an issue as everyone does. He minimised the effect this had on himself and his behaviour and the effect it would have if he were caring for the children.

He had a controlling manner towards the mother and to A and B. He spoke over the mother and made decisions for her. He had not demonstrated an ability to police himself and there had been issues of domestic violence. However, the assessor said he was co-operative and did what she requested. The assessor said like the mother she had no doubt he loved the children.

Summary

The childhoods of the mother and father were so traumatic, chaotic and abusive they would need to recover from that before they would be able to parent their own children. Neither demonstrated the self-reflection to recognise the impact their childhoods had on themselves as individuals and now on A, B and C. They were detached to the impact their childhood had had. They demonstrated a pervasive lack of insight.

They were disadvantaged cognitively, the mother to a greater degree than the father. They believed all they had to do was to turn up to appointments and then their children would be returned to them. They showed no awareness they needed to make drastic changes. They were also still so young and needed significant input to address the impact their own childhoods had had. These changes might come with time and appropriate therapy and support, or they might never come because of their cognitive ability.

At present they were unable to meet the needs of A and B and were not able to keep A and B psychologically safe. Reunification could not be reasonably pursued.

The assessor had recommended that the mother be referred for a full autistic, psychological and possible psychiatric assessment. The assessor was unsure as to what type of therapy might best suit the needs of the mother. She had suggested a narrative therapy to help ascertain this. She had also recommended a referral for a speech and language assessment, referral to mental health services, and that she undertake a basic parenting course.

She had also recommended an advocate for the mother but had then become aware the mother had been allocated one. For the father she recommended engagement with drug addiction and domestic violence services for men. The father needed to undertake a parenting course. Information for the father was to be given in bullet form. Both parents benefitted from brief reminder texts, that figurative speech was not to be used and all information was to be repeatedly given.

The assessor said these results were transferable to C because the parents had not changed and saw no reason to change. They demonstrated no recognition of any problems. The mother and father could meet the physical needs of a newborn, such as changing and feeding, but as a child grew and demanded more attention, the parents demonstrated no evidence they would be able to respond appropriately. The parents were not able to regulate themselves.

The assessor observed an access with C and both parents at the same time attempted to win the attention of the newborn with squeaky toys. The parents told the assessor of C’s favourite television programme. The parents were caring for C and had been receiving three visits per day from various professionals including the public health nurse (PHN), social workers and other support workers. The assessor said at this point, because of the age of C and the three daily visits she believed C to be safe.

The mother’s solicitor told the court that the parents had recently changed social work areas and had new social workers with whom they parents had formed good working relationships. She said the recommendations of the parenting capacity assessment had not yet been implemented. The mother had seen her general practitioner (GP) who had made referrals to the adult mental health services and to the speech and language services. The assessments recommended by the assessor had not been started.

The mother’s solicitor asked: “Would you not accept that the parents were and are under the microscope? Everything they do and say, every gesture and remark was and is being assessed, how were they supposed to do?”

The assessor replied: “Yes, I accept that but that was why I had the access and the interviews blind coded, to ensure that I was being fair.”

The mother’s solicitor: “Why have you said reunification is not to be reasonably pursed and then made all these recommendations, if the children are not to go back to their parents what is the point of all these assessments and therapy?”

The assessor: “The mother needs to make sense of and understand her own childhood. She cannot will it away. It will revisit her and her children and impact them if she does not address it. She needs the assessments to ascertain if she has an intellectual disability so that the right therapy can be given to her.”

The mother’s solicitor: “Surely the mother needs a roadmap for reunification?”

The assessor: “No, I do not agree with you. The mother needs assessments, therapy, help and she deserves all this, but recovery will take time, it will not happen quickly. It is not a question of just turning up and attending appointments but recovering from a very traumatic childhood coupled with a potential learning disability and the children cannot wait. A predictor of the future is what has happened in the past and for the mother the past has not gone well.”

The mother’s solicitor: “With all due respect the mother’s past was in the care of the CFA, which she has only just left, she is only 19, so perhaps it is unfair to hold her past against her, we have all made mistakes when just starting out in life. With regards to C, is she safe with her mother as of today?”

The assessor: “The mother has no safety network.”

The mother’s solicitor interrupted and asked: “What do you call three visits per day from professionals?”

The assessor: “[C] is less than a month old, there is a very good package in place to keep C safe, it has been a very good start, my assessment is less that one year old, significant changes have not been made. I accept how difficult this is, the mother loves her children, she can meet the safety needs of the baby of feeding and changing but as children grow their needs are different and from my assessment, she could not meet the needs of A and B. I must remind the court that my assessment did not include C, but I saw no insight in the parents, they do not think they need to change, and I see no change that would make me think she will be able to meet the needs of C but again, my assessment did not include C.”

The mother’s solicitor said C was safe at home with her mother. There were three visits per day from professionals and the parents had fully engaged with the safety plan.

The father’s barrister said some of the points she had wished to raise had been raised by the mother’s solicitor but asked the assessor if it was possible for a professional safety network to be scaffolded around the parents to enable them to care for C. The assessor said that her assessment had not included C and therefore she would not be able to comment.

The father’s barrister: “Yes, your assessment may not have included C, but the CFA are relying on your assessment to remove a newborn baby from her mother. Therefore, in your opinion is C safe at the minute with a scaffold of support and safety network and three visits per day from professionals?”

The assessor: “Yes, I think with three professionals visiting daily at this point C is safe, but I cannot say how long those three visits will be maintained or if the mother will be able to meet C’s needs as she grows.”

The father’s barrister informed the court that there had been no issues of domestic violence for almost one year. He had engaged with services, he recognised he was controlling and hoped to address this in therapy. She said he was committed to working with social services and would undertake random drug tests and attend any recommended counselling service.

The assessor was finally crossed examined by the GAL’s solicitor who asked what the risks to C were now and into the future. The assessor said that the mother will struggle as C becomes more demanding. Now there was a routine, three professional visits per day and the needs of C were basic, being fed and changed.

The mother had not demonstrated that she had learnt from her experiences. Her IQ is so low she may not be able to do that, it would be a drip-by-drip effect. When C triggered a response in the mother or did not respond the way the mother wanted her to, she would not be able to meet the baby’s needs, and this would cause emotional harm. It would be difficult to see at first because the child would be fed, clothed and clean but the emotional and psychological needs of C would not be met. She said she believed the parents would respond in the same way to a stressor with C as she had observed them respond to A and B. The parents would dysregulate, become stressed and upset and resort to controlling behaviour. They would not be able to be sensitive to the cues of C if the baby did not meet their expectations.

The hearing was adjourned.