An Interim Care Order was extended for a young girl who has been with her current foster family for four years and who had been in four different placements before that. There was a suggestion that the child was not sufficiently encouraged by her foster mother in relation to access and contact with her father and that the foster parents may have coached the child.
The parents of the young girl were unmarried and the father was not the guardian of the child. Under Irish law, an unmarried father is not automatically the guardian of his child. He must apply for guardianship under section 6A of the Guardianship of Infants Act, 1965, as amended, if the mother does not consent to the father being appointed guardian.
A social work team leader outlined attempts by the HSE to reintroduce access between the child and her parents. The father’s barrister read out a report of the guardian ad litem from 2010, in which it was stated, in relation to re-establishing access with the child’s parents: “There is a window of opportunity and this is closing. This must happen swiftly.”
The father’s barrister also told the court that the father had been presented with a report from the HSE that included the term “sexual abuse” in the heading even though there was no allegation of sexual abuse against him. The court was told of the negative effect this had on the father.
The court heard that the child had displayed violent behavior towards other children, showed signs of hair loss, self-harm and bed wetting around the time that access with her parents was changed.
The father’s barrister asked the social work team leader whether the foster parents had told the child anything about her potential change of circumstances or court proceedings concerning her. The social work team leader replied that he didn’t know if anything had been said by the foster parents but that the foster parents would have undergone training in relation to how to deal with foster children. The father’s barrister told to the court that in fact the parents had not undergone any such training at this point. She said: “They [the foster parents] actually hadn’t [undergone training]. Maybe they were in the dark [and] didn’t know you are not meant to go home and discuss everything from a meeting with the child.”
A social care worker told the court that fostering relations training sessions had been set up for the child’s foster parents but that they never completed the course because they lived too far away (approximately two hours from Dublin). Subsequently foster care training was provided to the foster parents at a location near where they lived which enabled the foster mother to attend the training.
The father’s barrister argued that the signs of stress displayed by the child (bed wetting, violent behavior, alopecia) may not be related to access with her parents as suggested by the HSE but may have resulted from the child’s awareness of court proceedings concerning her that were taking place. She asked: “Is it not self-evident that there is a connection [between court proceedings and child’s stress]? The dates are at pivotal times.”
The court was told of a reunification plan between the child and her father. The judge asked whether the foster parents were ever told of the reunification plan and the social work team leader replied that he did not tell them and he did not know if anybody else did. The judge said: “I have to make a decision in relation to this child. There is a serious question arising … whether or not a child may have been coached.”
When asked by the judge whether the social care worker perceived the foster family to have difficulty with the possibility of reunification she replied that they did. The social care worker went on to say that she did not feel that the foster family dealt with their attachment to the child and their difficulty with reunification appropriately.
The GAL’s barrister read out a social work report in which it was stated that the child’s foster parents required ongoing support in order to continue fostering. The barrister also said that the GAL was advising an independent review of the whole case.
A social care worker stated: “There is a clear understanding now that if children’s contact with birth families is promoted they settle better. If the cross-over doesn’t take place it can be very difficult. If a child knows that foster carers have a relationship with their family they are more happy and content. ”
The court was told that the foster mother became angry and upset when reading a letter that had been sent to the child by her father. The court also heard that when the child received a gift from her father the foster mother asked the child not to open the gift and suggested that it be changed for something else because the child already had something similar.
A social worker told the court that the child’s foster carers admitted that they knew very little in relation to the child’s background and circumstances. One social worker read a quote from a research document in relation to the cross-over between birth parents and foster parents: “If this cross-over isn’t happening or isn’t possible the child will never be able to feel totally secure and will never be able to explore dual family membership.”
When asked by the GAL’s barrister whether there were gaps in the level of support that was given to the foster family the social care worker replied that there were. She agreed with the GAL that reunification should not take place in the near future and that stability was important for the child at present.
The court was told by the social care worker that the child badly needed to see her mother. Since access with her father had recommenced the child had not seen her mother. The social worker said that she received a telephone call from the child’s foster mother to tell her that the child enjoyed the access with her father and that she was looking forward to seeing her mother. The social care worker told the court that there was no access planned at that point with the child’s mother and it was her assessment that the child was fantasising.
On the last day of the hearing, as the evidence had not concluded, the Interim Care Order was extended on foot of a social worker’s evidence that grounds continued to exist which required the child to remain in care. The court was told that the child is still on a priority list and there would be another multi-disciplinary meeting during the summer. The full care order hearing will resume in a number of months.