The District Court in a provincial city granted an interim care order after hearing evidence of physical abuse and sexualised behaviour by four children who had been admitted to foster care under an emergency care order. The court had previously granted an emergency care order and an interim care order where two of the children (B and D) were found to have suspected non-accidental burn injuries.
There were four witnesses: the parents, a CFA social worker and a Garda specialist interviewer in child protection interviewing. Both parents were legally represented by their solicitor. The parents were from a non-European country. The mother had lived in Ireland for 11 years and the father for 13 years. The father was the father of the three younger children, all pre-school, and the court was told he also acted as a father to the oldest child [A], who was of primary school age.
The burn injuries
The court heard the parents originally thought the cause of the burns on D and B’s hand and arm to have been caused by a hair tongs, but now considered the burns to have been caused by a sitting room radiator. Neither parent witnessed any incident. The toddler’s burn was noticed by his mother when dressing him. The mother’s teenage sister [X] was in the sitting room with the children immediately before the older child showed his parents a burn mark on his hand. The parents were elsewhere in the house. The mother denied that she was blaming her sister.
Judge: “Tell us what you said.”
Mother: “[I said] ‘since you’re not convinced it is an accident, go and ask [X] and get her side.’ I’m not saying [X] did it. She could not hurt her children.”
The parents told the court as part of their culture the burns were not a big injury. They treated the injuries themselves and they told the creche, who made a referral to the CFA regarding the burns. When the mother was asked why she told the creche, she said she had nothing to hide. In hindsight, the parents said they should have brought the children for medical treatment.
The children were seen at the local hospital and on the original application for an emergency care order the hospital paediatrician gave evidence that the burns were non-accidental in nature. The CFA had made a referral to a burns specialist since the last court date. The court heard the burns could be accidental, but a deliberate injury could not be ruled out. In the doctor’s view the children had come into contact with a hot object for a period of time and both children had come into contact with the same object.
A garda specialist interviewer explained her role in building up a rapport with children and trying to get evidence. She built a rapport through a general conversation and sitting on the floor and letting the child use a colouring book. She gave evidence of a clarification interview with B where the child, when asked about his marks, disclosed that his mother “did it a long time ago in his room. It was at night-time. It is a thing you get in the kitchen. It happened one time. It made me sad.” The garda told the court that the child was crying, upset and hysterical when his family was discussed and as his welfare was a paramount consideration she went back to [building] rapport with the child. There was a detective and social work team leader in the room. The detective took notes.
CFA solicitor: “When you heard what he had to say, whether true or not, from his demeanour, did you believe him?”
Garda specialist interviewer: “Yes, very emotional, not planned, relieved, nervous of what he said.”
CFA solicitor: “He said, who, where, when and the kitchen thing.”
Garda specialist interviewer: “He said it is in the kitchen and [you] can put it in the oven.”
The garda specialist interviewer told the court that she had interviewed hundreds of children since she started her job in 2010. When asked by the parents’ solicitor whether she thought it was a possibility the child’s version of event was a fabrication, the garda replied: “[It is] a possibility but from his demeanour and the way he spoke, [he] came across as genuine.”
The mother told the court she believed words were being forced into B’s mouth when she was asked why she thought he was telling a Garda he never met. She also added the child lived with the foster carers and had not told them or the social worker. The father told the court he believed the child was telling lies.
CFA solicitor: “You heard evidence from the Garda, his mother did this [and she] did it in the bedroom with a kitchen utensil [which was] green,”
Father: “[That is] absurd. If it happened, he would scream and wake up [his older brother] as he is in the same bedroom.”
Older child alleges his mother’s partner punched him on the nose
The CFA social worker told the court that A and B were in the same foster placement. Since the last court date on one occasion when A had gone to soccer, B mistakenly thought his brother had gone home and became upset saying he was “afraid daddy might hurt him.” When the foster carer asked A about this the boy told her sometimes his Dad had punched him on the nose. He also alleged that his mother had him kneel for hours and it really hurt.
Judge: “You’re saying [there was] never an injury to [A’s] nose.”
Both parents admitted that in the past they had smacked the children as this was part of the culture of their country of origin. As children they had been smacked. When asked about her own childhood the mother told the court she was passed from one family to another and did not have a good relationship with her mother, who also lived in Ireland. She saw the damage this can do and did not want this to happen to her children.
CFA solicitor: “Your mother brought an application for a protection order in the last year”
Judge: “[That is] not relevant. I dealt with it and I didn’t see any relevance.”
The parents had done a parenting course with Barnardos two or three years previously and understood physical punishment was not part of Irish culture and was unacceptable. Both parents denied the stepfather had ever punched A. The mother said the school would have noticed if such a thing had happened. The mother said they used the naughty corner where the child faced the wall as part of their disciplinary approach. Both parents denied using the kneeling approach for long periods. “The parenting course helped us to adapt and we are willing to work with Barnardos going forward,” the mother said.
Concerns regarding sexualised behaviour of C
The social worker told the court that since the last date the foster carers had reported concerns regarding the sexualised behaviour of the pre-school child in their care. The child was observed sitting up and down on a teddy bear and putting a rabbit in her private parts and saying, “daddy’s monster”. The child was also reported to be afraid of cooking utensils. The foster father reported that the child put her hand on his knee and moved it up his leg. When sitting on a lap she put her hand down the foster carer’s top. The foster carers kept a diary of this behaviour.
CFA solicitor: “In your experience how unusual is this for a three-year old?”
Social worker: “Yes, very unusual.”
The protocol used for assessment of this behaviour was a referral to a community child centre, a medical assessment and a referral to An Garda Siochana. There would also be a strategy meeting with the gardai. The court heard that this child and her younger sister were in the same foster placement. The foster carers had 10 years’ experience and were coping.
Both parents told the court that they had not noticed any sexualised behaviour. When they were told by the social worker on the previous day they went to the child’s creche. The mother said: “Because I was shocked and terrified, my first thought was to contact the creche.”
The creche later sent a letter to the court.
The father told the court he found the behaviour very worrying and disturbing. The mother was visibly upset in giving her evidence.
CFA solicitor: “I don’t want to distress you. [What] the child is saying and doing is worrying.”
Mother: “Because she is living with strangers. What is the foster home doing? The thoughts [which] are going through my head. The child never complained.”
The solicitor asked the mother, who was visibly upset, to take her time and take some water. The mother agreed with the CFA solicitor the best thing for her daughter was to have her assessment. The mother said she wanted to find a way to comfort her daughter and to overcome whatever the situations was. She agreed that she was worried. She added she was worried she was not there. “[It is] just weird and strange what she is going through.”
“Give me a chance to be a great mother, a good mum,” the mother asked the court. The mother said she would consent to her daughter being assessed regarding her sexualised behaviour but said she wanted to be there. “She is too young to be exposed to these things. I will only consent if I’m there. I want to witness everything which is going on,” the mother said. The father told the court the children coming home was a number one priority.
Access with the parents
The CFA social worker heard the children were having supervised access with their parents and the two younger children became upset when detaching at the end of access but recovered in the car on the way home.
The mother told the court the children were missing their culture’s food and should be with their own family rather than an Irish family. The children were upset, and she said this was not reflected in the social work report. “These children are my life. I miss them so much,” she said.
Child safety plan and social worker concerns
Both parents told the court they were willing to co-operate with the CFA and a proposed child safety plan and had given a number of names of people in the community who could be part of a network of support as part of the child safety plan.
Mother: “I said I will work with the CFA. The door is open. [They] should give me a chance to work with them. “
The CFA social worker explained to the court the purpose of the child safety network was to keep children safe while at home. Of the names given by the parents, just one person attended a previous child safety meeting. The social worker told the court that another attempt would be made with the names given by the parents. “I would be very worried about the children going home. [We] need time for further assessment,” she told the court.
Interim care order granted
Judge: “I appreciate the position of both sides. The CFA seek to extend the ICO. [The mother] very understandably wants her children home, and now. Originally the children came into care as a result of an emergency care order. [There were] unexplained marks, two on one child and one on another child. The marks were similar. It should be said [the parents] first highlighted [this] when they told the person in the creche [who] then made a referral to the CFA. It should be said the mother co-operated at every hand’s turn.”
The judge said the medical finding regarding the burns injury on the two children was a very serious concern and the court heard about sexualised behaviour and this conduct was put in a diary. “The court is somewhat astonished that [it was] not told of the behaviour on the two previous occasions.” the judge said.
The CFA solicitor said he had only heard a few days previously and suggested the foster carers may have been waiting for a pattern. The social worker giving evidence was a different social worker to the previous date and the judge said this was an old gripe of the court and he accepted what he was told. “[It] was not acceptable, [the] turnover. [It] takes from continuity and the smooth running of cases,” the judge said.
“The evidence of [the Garda] can’t be ignored. Even if on its own, I would say to the court [it] must grant an ICO for a further [period]. I’m very glad to hear the parents are prepared to work with the social work department. In fairness [it was] always their position,” the judge said.
“I’m going to make an interim care order. I know [it is] a source of great disappointment to you, on the basis of the best interests of the children. I accept the parents went to the creche, [that] is not a criticism but a criticism of letters of this type [from the creche]. [This is] not a meeting. This is a court at the end of the day and [people] can’t just put their thoughts [in a letter].”
The CFA solicitor asked and was granted consent for the principal social worker to sign consent for the assessment at the community child centre in the absence of consent from the parents.
A third 29-day interim care order was granted when case appeared again before the local district court a month later. The social worker gave evidence that a further assessment was being done by a paediatrician with all four children with regard to suspicious burns injuries of two of the children and sexualised behaviour of the three-year-old, Child C. Examination of C proved difficult, the court heard, and the paediatrician implied that the sexualised behaviour and vocabulary was unusual in a three year old. A decision had been made by the paediatrician to have all four children assessed and two of the children were still waiting for dates.
An outline of the assessment work to be carried out was handed up to the court, in addition to a recent paediatric report on C about her sexualised behaviour. The social worker also confirmed that there were ongoing Garda investigations regarding disclosures of physical abuse and a pre-clarification meeting had been held by the garda with two of the children, A and B. A separate meeting was to be held with each parent in conjunction with An Garda Siochana. A piece of work also needed to be done by the social worker in order to get the children’s views and perspective. The CFA solicitor told the court the matters at play related to possible physical, emotional, sexual abuse and actual burn injuries.
Parents unhappy with foster carers
The parents’ barrister told the court the parents were extremely concerned that C, aged three. exhibited sexualised behaviour with the foster father and that this was not properly investigated. The paediatrician was being influenced by the foster carers who attended the appointment, he said.
Parents’ barrister: “In her opinion [the paediatrician] seems quite clear she took a lot into consideration of what was said by the foster carers about the allegations. Am I right in saying the doctor formed her opinion based on what was being said by the foster carers?”
Social worker: “No, not completely, the doctor noticed that C got upset when examining her around her private areas. She should have been used to her nappy being changed.”
Parents’ barrister: “Could it not be the case that the child has been moved out of her home and the child has been affected? The doctor is satisfied [to do] no further follow up. The information is being given by a third party. On the other hand, the doctor has an opinion based on what was given to him by foster parents.”
Social worker: “Yes.”
The parents’ barrister referred to the display of sexualised behaviour described in the social worker report such as C placing her hand and moving her hand down the inside of the foster father’s shorts and thigh.
Parents’ barrister: “You didn’t investigate the report given to you.”
Social worker: “I spoke to the foster parents.”
Parent’s barrister: “Are you saying a foster father let a child do that?”
Judge: “She can only go on what she was told.”
When the parents’ barrister asked why the foster father allowed C to put her hand through his shorts and did not react when she moved towards his groin, the social worker said she understood the point he was making. The parents’ barrister put it to the social worker that while the social worker was concerned about it not being safe enough for the children to go home, there were concerns connected with the sexualised behaviour of C in the foster home which the CFA had not investigated and about which they should be concerned. Furthermore, the creche where C attended for more than half her life had never noticed such behaviour, while the foster family of three weeks had, he said. A copy of a creche report was handed up to the court.
In response, the social worker said she had assessed the concerns regarding the sexualised behaviour and had spoken to the foster parents and the child. The parents’ barrister was blowing the situation out of proportion, she said. The parents’ barrister disagreed and put it to her that the sexualised behaviour formed the basis of the ICO application. When children are in foster care and feel safe those behaviours can come to the fore, the social worker said. The court was told the foster carers had ten years’ experience.
Parents’ barrister: “So, C [is] not comfortable in creche. The creche says this behaviour did not come about when changing nappies.”
Judge: “You made that point.”
The mother told the judge she was not fighting the ICO, but she wanted the children moved from the foster carers to another placement while the assessment was ongoing.
Mother: “Would the children remain in my care if a child did that in my home? I’m scared of my children in that home.”
Judge: “I don’t share your concern. The matter is being looked at. Everything that can be done is being done expeditiously.”
When asked by the judge what the parents could do in the situation, the CFA solicitor told the court that the parents could make a complaint to the CFA.
Time frame of assessment
Whilst acknowledging the parents were consenting to the paediatric assessment and co-operating with the CFA, the parents’ barrister asked why the case could not be prioritised and done in the next four weeks before the next ICO. The Garda investigation was a criminal matter and that could happen separately, he said.
The social worker and the CFA solicitor told the court that a timeline of assessment had been given to the court and a safety plan needed to be drawn up for the children. “I would be surprised if the CFA unduly delay [matters],” the judge said.
Parents fully co-operating with access and assessment
The court heard the parents fully cooperated with the CFA regarding access with their four children and had seen the children twice since the previous month’s ICO and were happy with how access went. In addition, the parents had consented to further paediatric assessment of the four children.
The mother told her barrister that she was concerned about an injury to C’s finger and a mark on her face. The mother was concerned that C had sensitive skin and needed special cream. The social worker told the court that the children were medically examined on being taken into care and C was being treated for eczema. She was not the social worker who took the children into care, she said, but the information would have been recorded.
The matter is back again next month.