The District court granted an interim care order (ICO) in respect of a toddler because of the mother’s alcohol addiction problems and the father’s inability to provide stable accommodation. The child had entered care a few weeks earlier under a voluntary arrangement. The withdrawal of the mother’s consent triggered the Child and Family Agency’s (CFA) application for an ICO. The mother had also a young adult child, from a different relationship, who continued living with her and worked nightshifts.
The father had been involved in the child’s life since birth but did not have guardianship rights. He worked full time and was temporarily staying with a friend and family. The father, who did not qualify for legal aid, represented himself. He told the court that he needed his savings to put a deposit for permanent accommodation in order to care for his son. “His inclination is that the matter goes ahead in circumstances where he is not putting himself forward as a carer,” said counsel for the CFA.
The solicitor for the mother told the judge that her client “fully contested” the interim care order application. She was hoping that the child would remain with her with a safety plan. “It is not a situation where the parents get on. We have been through a number of safety plans,” said the CFA solicitor. The latest safety plan involved the father staying in the mother’s apartment at the weekends to look after their child. The judge noted that the case had been adjourned in two occasions.
The child had been placed in short term foster care and was deeply traumatised. The judge asked whether the order sought by the Agency was proportionate with regards to the trauma that could cause to the child. The CFA solicitor answered that the Agency would have considered all factors before making an interim care order application. A guardian ad litem (GAL) for the child had not been appointed.
The court heard evidence of the mother’s history of addiction to alcohol and of her efforts to deal with it. During the hearing, three members of An Garda Síochána, the social worker and the social work team leader gave evidence that the child had suffered neglect due to the mother’s issue with alcohol abuse.
Garda Evidence: removal of child pursuant to section 12
Garda A said that at the weekend the father had to call the Gardaí at 10.30 pm. When they arrived the mother was asleep but she had been arguing with the father. “You could smell the alcohol from the bedroom she was sleeping in,” he said. The toddler was in the sitting room where he was being supervised by his father.
The following evening the Gardaí had to call to the apartment again at 11.15 pm. The toddler was still awake and the mother was arguing with the father. She was intoxicated and abusive and refused to cooperate with the Gardaí and the father.
Garda B said that two months earlier they had to remove the child pursuant to section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991. They arrived at the house at 5 pm and knocked the door several times but there was no answer. After they were eventually allowed in, they found the toddler sitting in the cot with a full dirty nappy. It was very dark and there was a strong smell of vomit. There were two empty bottles in the cot and a tablet computer. The mother, who was heavily intoxicated, was asked whether she would give her child voluntarily but she refused. The apartment was in disarray with dirty clothes all over the place.
The mother’s solicitor said: “It was just an incident.” The mother would usually drink on weekends. Garda B accepted that she had not been in the apartment since. “When she is sober she is a very nice lady,” she said.
Garda C, from the child protection unit, said that in the last two years there had been nine incidents referred by the CFA, including the last two at the weekend. There had also been two section 12 applications, the most recent two months earlier. Garda C told the mother’s solicitor that he had not had direct involvement with the incidents referred by the CFA and that the mother had always engaged positively.
Social worker evidence: impact on the child
The social worker, who had qualified in another jurisdiction, had started working on the case almost a year earlier. She said that the situation was very unstable and recommended that the child should be taken into the interim care of the CFA. The father was not in a position to care for the child at that point because he did not have permanent accommodation. He was temporarily sleeping in the couch at a friend’s house. The maternal grandparent had told the social workers that she was not in a position to support her daughter with the care of her chid.
There was nobody else in the family in a position to care for the toddler. The paternal aunt took care of the child for a couple of months the previous summer as part of a private arrangement. However, due to the tension between the parents, the private arrangement did not last.
The social worker said that the mother had a long-standing history of alcohol abuse. Ten years earlier, the school rang the Gardaí because she was intoxicated when she went to pick up her older child.
When the solicitor for the mother complained about introducing historical evidence, the CFA argued that the social worker was entitled to form her opinion on the basis of the historic evidence of the files. “The files were handed to me,” said the social worker.
She continued outlining a series of incidents. A couple of years earlier, the mother had consumed alcohol to the point that she did not remember her child was in the house. On a different occasion, she called the father of the child because she thought the baby was dead. The previous year, the Gardaí were called because of antisocial behaviour. She was intoxicated and very abusive to them. A few months earlier the social workers received a report that the mother was found very intoxicated.
When asked about events that she had observed directly, the social worker referred to the same event as Garda B. She said that the maternal grandmother informed her that her daughter had been drinking all weekend while caring for her child. They went to meet her in the pub but she did not engage. When the social workers returned to her apartment accompanied by Gardaí, the mother initially would not allow them in.
After entering the apartment, the social worker said: “She looked at me and told me ‘Get lost. You are not from my country. You do not speak English. I do not want to work with a social worker like you.’” The mother had blurred speech and was very aggressive. There was a smell of alcohol and vomit. Although it was a bright sunny day, the child was found in the cot, lethargic and watching something in the computer tablet. The child was removed pursuant to section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991.
At the next case conference with the mother and the maternal grandmother the social worker stressed that the mother should attend a residential treatment as she had a problem with alcohol for years. The mother said she was not drinking every day. It was agreed that the child would remain with the mother who would abstain from drinking alcohol in the presence of her child and attend one-to-one counselling sessions. The maternal grandmother would supervise and the social worker would visit once a week.
Subsequently, the social worker went to the apartment in a number of occasions, sometimes unannounced, but there was no answer.
When she eventually met the mother, her speech was slow and she was very angry that the social worker had come to the house. “She told me that she could only talk to me in her counsellor’s office,” she said, adding that she then went to the counsellor’s office. The mother’s solicitor interjected to complain that the social worker’s report had included what the counsellor had said to her. “I can’t take evidence of what was being said, only the conclusion of a professional opinion,” the judge pointed out.
The social worker said she went to the mother’s house on a different occasion and found she had been drinking that morning. There were clothes on the floor and a smell of alcohol and vomit. The social worker dropped the child to the crèche and told the mother to go back home and clear the house because it was too dangerous for the child. When she met her that afternoon in the crèche, she was under the influence of alcohol. She was very aggressive and had a speech slur. The child was very frightened. “I went to check her house. It was cleaned,” said the social worker. She asked the grandmother to take the child with her.
Once she drank to the point that she passed out and the toddler tumbled over. An ambulance had to be called. It was decided that the father would look after the child at the weekends in the mother’s own apartment. Joining a residential treatment programme was discussed.
A month later the social worker went to the house with the team leader. “The house was upside down. There was toast on top of the sofa and a plate of cereal cornflakes all over the floor. She was wearing her bra, one strap was off,” said the social worker. Her adult child was there but he said it was not his responsibility. When they called in again that afternoon, the situation remained unchanged. Eventually the mother joined the residential alcohol treatment centre. It was estimated that the programme would take approximately six months. However, she discharged herself two weeks later and refused to return.
The social worker said that before Christmas the mother jumped off from the balcony in her first-floor apartment and was taken to hospital. The father was not in the position to care for his child because he had had a few drinks. The maternal grandmother could not look after the toddler either because her husband was ill. The child was placed with a foster family and returned to the father just for the Christmas break while he was off work.
While in hospital the mother signed the voluntary care agreement form consenting to her child being cared for by the CFA. The social worker admitted that the first access visit with the mother was very difficult for the child towards the end. “It was very traumatising,” she said. At the next visit, the foster carer had brought some toys and the toddler was more settled. However, before the visit ended, the mother abruptly removed her child from voluntary care. The maternal grandmother drove her daughter and grandchild away from the access centre. The social worker reported it to the team leader and the Gardaí.
At an emergency conference, the social worker said that the mother had refused taking time to take care of herself and attend a residential alcohol addiction centre because she wanted to do it by herself. Her parents and her adult child were willing to support her. “She is not taking into consideration the impact on the child,” said the social worker.
When the hearing resumed after lunch, the social worker told the court that the adult child was in full time employment, working nightshifts, and was unable to help. The maternal grandmother said to her that she would not be in the position to care for her grandchild during the six months residential alcohol addiction treatment.
“The child is at a crucial stage of development and it is necessary to have stability and consistency or it would impact negatively on his development. The child has an excellent mother when she is not drunk, but when she is drunk she cannot cope,” she said. The social worker admitted that the child had demonstrated a strong bond with the mother.
She said that the relationship between the maternal grandmother and her daughter was chaotic and “very unhealthy”. At times the grandmother would not look after her grandchild. For a while they were not speaking to each other. The mother was very bitter that the grandmother would post information on social media. They had been referred to family therapy but they did not attend.
The court heard that the child was doing well in the foster care placement and was very active despite mood changes. He was overweight and had been referred to a consultant as advised by the public health nurse.
Judge: “In terms of proportionality, what is the likely impact on the child? What would be the effect of a change on his current circumstances?”
Social worker: “If [the child] came into care and had consistency all the time, [the child] would grow up and all his needs would be met. If he is allowed to remain in this inconsistency, it is going to have a negative impact on him. The initial stage may be traumatic to him but maybe with time he would adjust.”
Judge: “Is it your belief that an order is required?”
Social worker: “Yes. The mother’s long-term abuse of alcohol has impacted on her parenting capacity. [The child]… has been known to social care services for over two years. I’m looking at the impact on the child if left in this situation.”
During cross-examination, the mother’s solicitor said her client disagreed with the social worker’s assessment and was attending individual and group sessions to address her problem with alcohol. “The long-standing addiction is difficult to treat unless she is in a residential service,” pointed out the social worker.
The mother’s solicitor asked how it was decided that the timeframe for residential rehabilitation should be six months to a year given that the child was so young. She asked whether there were other support alternatives for her client that would not involve separation. The social worker said that the mother had attended counselling but the situation did not improve.
When asked if the CFA had looked at external services that could be provided to support the mother, the court heard that the mother’s drinking habit flared at night and at the weekends. “We have called in out-of-hours to support her,” added the social worker.
Mother’s solicitor: “Have you made any suggestions of alternative services that she could engage with?”
Social worker: “Because the long-standing abuse with alcohol we felt that long term residential was preferable.”
Mother’s solicitor: “How has the separation impacted on the child?”
Social worker: “[The child] was very upset, kicking and fighting others. [The child] gets very upset in the presence of other strangers.”
The judge noted that the bond between mother and son was very clear from the evidence. The social worker said that the mother related very well with her son but it was not “for a long time”, which would result in a “disorganised attachment”.
Judge: “What would be the impact if you separate [the child] from his mother who has been the carer for the last few years?”
Social worker: “I accept that it will be difficult but she is not in a position to care for [the child] because her addiction.”
The mother’s solicitor said that her client was an excellent mother when she was not drunk. The safety plan involving the father supervising at the weekends in her own apartment did not help. The social worker accepted that it would be a very difficult situation to have the former partner in her apartment particularly as they had a toxic relationship.
The mother’s solicitor said the mother did not jump off the balcony but she accidentally fell off it. According to the crèche report, the child had told staff that her mother “fell and banged her head” and was in hospital. The social worker said there was no evidence to prove that she was not drinking when she fell off the balcony. The mother had been drinking two days earlier hence “she could have been drinking and we do not know,” said the social worker.
The mother’s solicitor tried to correct a statement in the social worker report that her client had said “the baby is dead” during a phone conversation with the father. The mother claimed she had said “the baby is in bed”. The father told the judge he could confirm that what she had said was “the baby is dead”.
In relation to the child’s weight, the court heard that the child had lost weight since the last appointment with the public health nurse, who was no longer seeing him. “For his age, he is very big” said the social worker.
The mother’s solicitor told the judge her client did not accept that her child was not as upset on the second access visit and that he had been removed abruptly from voluntary care.
Team leader evidence: no consistent family network support
The team leader said that, according to former reports, the mother’s alcohol abuse had an impact on the older adult child. A social work team had been involved in the case for over two years due to domestic abuse between the parents.
The team leader believed the threshold for an interim care order had been met because of the parents’ “action or inaction”. Emergency intervention under section 12 was necessary in the last year alone. It would be likely that the child would continue to be impacted by the situation. There was no consistent family network that could provide and maintain a safety network. The safety plan involving the father staying in the mother’s apartment at weekends was not intended to be a long-term plan.
After the child was taken into voluntary care, the mother guaranteed she would never drink again. The six months’ residential period to detoxify and attend regular counselling sessions did not materialise. In addition, her father’s illness had intensified her addiction. The court heard that she could get the most intensive treatment possible. “We would quickly look at reunification and hand back [the child],” added the team leader.
The court heard that the treatment she was attending weekly, two hours of individual sessions and an hour and a half group session, “would work only for those who have a strong community network of support.” The team leader accepted that there was a resistance to the residential treatment because it would involve being away from the child who was at a key stage of development.
When the judge asked if there were less intrusive steps that could be explored, the team leader said that family members were “not always able to agree” and when they agreed they were “not always consistent”. “Both parties are expected to engage in family therapy for it to work,” she said. Family members were not available at night-time or at weekends when the mother was drinking.
The Gardaí had been doing safety checks. There was one incident where the mother was in her pyjamas and the child had no clothes on. The mother had said that she was “just about to change him”. Another time, she was semi-dressed with remains of toast and cereal around and it appeared she had not washed for two or three days.
“We want the mother to be able to care for her child but her emotional availability to the child is not satisfactory because her relationship with alcohol,” the team leader said.
“This is all impacted by the alcohol. Sometimes she goes to crèche late. It is not contested that she is able to be a very good mother.”
During cross-examination, the mother’s solicitor said her client’s aim was to keep her child in her care to avoid any trauma. That was the reason why she was looking for a treatment in the community. The team leader doubted whether the treatment would be successful given that the mother had relapsed at the weekend after commencing it. “I understand the rationale absolutely, but ultimately she needs to do it to ensure that she is able to care for the child,” she added.
The team leader said that, when it became clear that the safety plan involving the father staying at her apartment at weekends did not work, another meeting took place to establish and fix the gaps and outlined another safety plan. However, events escalated when the mother was hospitalised.
Maternal grandmother evidence: husband no longer ill
The maternal grandmother told the judge that she was now in the position to take care of her grandchild because her circumstances had changed. The maternal grandmother was prepared to go to her daughter’s apartment in the evenings and weekends. “I will be able to support her 120 per cent, she was in a very dark place but I can see now that she is improving, she is in the right road,” she added.
Grandmother: “My plan is to go over to her house every day for two hours every week. She may have the odd drink at the weekend and I have no problem staying over with her.”
CFA Solicitor: “You haven’t followed through in the past and your relationship is chaotic. What has changed? Why are you able to offer the extra support?”
Grandmother: “My husband is not as sick as I thought he was. I do not have to go to hospital anymore. He is able to go to hospital on his own. I do not need to be there for him anymore. I love [my grandchild] very much.”
The grandmother said that her daughter was a completely different person when she was not drinking. She went through a very low time and was hanging around with the wrong people. “These people are out of her life and now we are doing the best that we can,” she said. She told the court that her daughter had blacked out because she had mixed prescribed medication with drink. “She wasn’t drunk. It was the mixture,” she said. The court heard that the state of the house had also improved as she was helping out.
The grandmother was asked about the incident when she drove away her daughter and grandchild during an access visit. She said that, as far as she knew, her daughter had written a letter to the social worker to inform her she was withdrawing consent for voluntary care. Regarding evidence that she drove off though the child had not been strapped in, she said she found out a short while later when they stopped in a garage to use the toilet. “I had a phone call from the police and I told them to meet me in my daughter’s apartment, which I did,” she said.
CFA solicitor: “You attended an emergency strategy meeting the next day. It was discussed with you whether you could care for [your grandchild] and you said that you wouldn’t be able to help.”
Grandmother: “I am in a different situation in the last few weeks. That’s why I am here to help my daughter.”
CFA solicitor: “She was doing well but she was drinking again at the weekend. The reality is she was very drunk and abusive even towards the child’s father.”
Grandmother: “Saturdays and Sundays. It is the weekend. I will be there. My husband is much better. He has retired and his illness is improving a little.”
Evidence from the mother: revoking the voluntary care agreement
The mother told the judge that both parents had tried to work out to be together “for the sake of the child”. She said: “I was quite stressed about what would happen.”
The mother told the judge that she had revoked the voluntary care arrangement. “He had stopped eating, he was a different boy… he was miserable and distraught. I was too weak to do anything when I was in hospital,” she added. The court heard that the mother had sent a letter to the social worker and had told them over the phone that she was taking the child. “I did not do anything wrong,” she said.
In relation to the alcohol addiction, the mother said she was attending a local group where she could avail of a counsellor to help her figure out “what is wrong that I keep going back to alcohol.” She was also attending alcohol addiction group therapy at the weekends.
Mother’s solicitor: “How realistic is for you to go to treatment in the community?”
Mother: “I have a lot of problems with everything. My determination is to keep my son.”
Mother’s solicitor: “The weekends are a trigger. What sort of safety plan you think is appropriate at the moment?”
Mother: “I can go without alcohol for months. They could check with the breathalyser anytime. My mother will be there, she wasn’t supportive before. My son will be there. I am going through all the processes that I need, psychotherapist, counselling, acupuncture…”
Mother’s solicitor: “There will be a clear framework of supervision linked to the Agency. What is your fear for your child if he continues in care?”
Mother: “My child will break down and will be destroyed for the rest of his life.”
Mother’s solicitor: “Is there anything else you wish to say?”
Mother: “I don’t want to lose him. I made a lot of mistakes. I am coming along slowly. Things are getting a bit better. I am learning the tools to cope. Living with [the father and ex-partner] at the weekend had been stressful.”
During cross-examination, the CFA solicitor put it to the mother that her difficulties were long standing as social services also invoked a section 12 over ten years ago. She said at the time she did not think it was such a big deal because she had her mother and father but now it was different. “I had debts and things like that. I was around the wrong people,” she added. The CFA solicitor pointed out there had been a pattern of disimprovement given that she had just relapsed two days earlier and her mother did not even know about it. She said she had not had the chance to talk to her.
CFA solicitor: “It has always been a chaotic relationship?”
Mother: “Yes, she did not realise how much I needed the help.”
CFA solicitor: “Was it her fault you did not get help?”
Mother: “No. I needed the support.”
The CFA solicitor commended the mother for her honesty as it was a very difficult situation. The mother disagreed that the best thing for her child was for her to go into residential treatment. She was facing her problems and she had the support.
The judge asked if consent to voluntary care was revoked in advance of the access visit. The mother said that she wrote a letter a few days in advance. The CFA solicitor confirmed that she was entitled to withdraw consent at any time. “Did she send a letter? Could the letter be produced please?” asked the judge. The team leader handed the note to the CFA solicitor. According to the team leader, the mother had agreed to attend the access visit and, if she still wanted to withdraw the consent, a meeting would be arranged subsequently to discuss the steps.
Evidence from the father: no guardianship rights
The father told the judge he was in full time employment. He cohabited with the mother for the first six months after their child was born but then “things went off”.
“What support do you give?” asked the judge. The father said that he had looked after his child at the weekends and full-time when the mother was in hospital. The mother had agreed that he could stay in her apartment. The child had been in foster care for the last five weeks.
“What happened last weekend?” asked the judge. The father said on Friday evening she had been quite distressed with the upcoming court case. She had stayed in a friend’s house on Saturday evening. When she returned on Sunday she was very drunk and aggressive. When he called the Gardaí, she left and then she went to sleep. “The previous weekend we had no problems,” the father noted.
“What about other weekends when she stayed in the house?” the judge asked. He said that the mother would become frustrated and at times aggressive when she returned to her apartment. On one occasion she told him, “this is not your house” and the child got “a little bit frightened”. The child was sitting safe next to his father. It took one hour for the Gardaí to arrive to the house and by this time she was asleep in bed. “She tends to leave,” he said. The father told the judge that he had no guardianship rights.
In relation to the phone conversation incident, the father explained that he called the mother and asked how the child was. He said that the mother replied, “he is dead”. The father panicked, called the maternal grandparents and went over to the apartment. He was very upset and anxious for few days after. When asked if he could have misheard her, he admitted he was “not one hundred per cent sure about that one”.
Father: “I would like to say that she is a great mother when she is not drunk, for our child’s sake, he loves her.”
Judge: “How do you get on with [the child]?”
Father: “[My child] is a ‘mini-me’…big with a bit of weight. A happy-goes-lucky little fellow. We are getting on more relaxed.”
The judge noted that the paternal aunt had previously cared for the child voluntarily.
The CFA solicitor told the judge that evidence from the father contradicted the mother’s statement that she had “turned a corner”. The mother’s solicitor asked the father about the support he provided for the child and referred to private family proceedings between them in the past.
Mother’s solicitor: “You were in court previously for maintenance and access. If you had an issue, why did you not apply for guardianship?”
Father: “I did not have any issue. It is only when she drinks. If my child is put into care then I will look into it.”
The mother’s solicitor emphasized that it was a difficult situation for the mother to have her ex-partner staying in her apartment at the weekends and that a safety plan with the maternal grandmother would be more beneficial. The father said that he was “well able” to care for her child on his own and that there was never an issue. “I have seen no changes in relation to her drinking pattern at the weekends,” he added.
The court heard that there have been difficulties in the past between the parents particularly in relation to maintenance and access. The mother’s solicitor asked the father what additional support he could provide to avoid his child going into care. The father said he had always been there for him. He worked during the week and looked after him every weekend. “I need to get accommodation to have a fixed address and then progress from there,” he said.
Mother’s solicitor: “It strikes me, and my client is quite concerned, that you prefer [the child] going into care. Have you taken any steps to avoid it?”
Father: “I tried to block it out.”
Mother’s solicitor: “You accept that because you work it is not an excuse not to have your child?”
Interim care order
“I am not entirely comfortable with making an interim care order but I am satisfied that the threshold has been met,” said the judge. Acknowledging that the mother had engaged in alcohol addiction rehabilitation services, the judge said the support network was not at that point “sufficiently robust” to prevent the child going into care and not “sufficiently tight” to support him. The judge noted that every effort that had been made to provide safeguards had proved insufficient. When the judge asked the father whether his sister could care for the child, he responded she was unable due to personal issues.
The judge said that the only alternative was a safety plan that would secure the safety of the child. The judge was not satisfied that the maternal grandmother moving into her daughter’s apartment would be a viable solution. “Is it possible to work a parenting plan where the mother vacates the apartment at the weekend formally? You haven’t work out those options with the social worker,” said the judge. The mother’s solicitor said her client was agreeable to vacate the apartment. “Are you able to do that now?” asked the judge.
The CFA solicitor said the father needed to apply for legal guardianship of his child, which could not be “magicked up” in one afternoon. Stating that the father should get legal advice, the judge said: “You know, there are mechanisms that would enable you to deal with this matter. This court will take on board private law proceedings for whatever proceedings are before the court.”
Noting that the father described the mother as “a really good mother,” the judge said: “Right now it seems to me that I have to make the order and you are going to try to enter arrangements to work out a parenting plan through mediation or otherwise. I am not confident, on the evidence that I have heard, that the support network is robust.”
The judge asked the CFA solicitor if the child would stay with the same foster carer. The short-term foster placement was no longer available. The foster carer, who was fostering for the first time, had become anxious since the mother and grandmother took the child away during an access visit. The CFA had identified another “very experienced” family that would match the child’s needs.
After a brief adjournment, the CFA solicitor said that the Agency would support a situation where the parents had joint custody arrangements in place. The father had been urged to obtain legal advice and to go to the free mediation services. The mother’s solicitor said that her client was in agreement to vacate her apartment at the weekends. The judge was concerned that the child had been very upset the last time he was taken into care. “Have you made a phone call to the foster carers? There is a lot of good will in this case. Would the foster carers agree to keep the child?” said the judge.
Following another brief adjournment, the court heard that the foster carers were not available. The maternal grandmother had proposed to take the child immediately on a full-time basis. The CFA solicitor said that the option had not been “formally considered” and it did not seem “a realistic prospect”.
The judge was not satisfied that the safety plan, as structured at that point in time, was sufficiently robust to meet the needs of the child and granted the interim care order under section 17(1)(b). The judge said: “It is clear to me that the child’s care and protection is unlikely to be assured unless the court makes the interim care order. It is extremely regrettable that [the child] is going to be upset again and that the original foster parents are not going to be available right now. Every effort should be made to make it an easy transition.”
The parents were encouraged to reach a “legally established” joint custody parental agreement with safety checks that would satisfy the CFA and would avoid their child being in care. The judge said: “I know that an application seeking to discharge this interim care order would be brought as soon as you have achieved a parenting plan.”
The judge appointed a named GAL from a list. A second GAL was appointed in case the first one was not available.
Long term needs of the child and proportionality
When the case returned to the District Court four weeks later, the mother, the GAL, a different social worker, the social work team leader and their legal representatives were present. The father had told the GAL that he would not be able to attend due to work commitments. The solicitor for the CFA sought a 28-days extension of the interim care order (ICO) on the consent of both parents.
The CFA said that the conditions that led to the making of the ICO continued to exist. A new social worker had responsibility for the case and had developed a good relationship with the mother, who had engaged in a new alcohol addiction rehabilitation program. She was very much focused on reunification and working with the CFA.
The social worker said the mother was enjoying the therapy sessions, which had been very helpful to her. The father had not yet got joint guardianship rights for his child. He was not homeless as he was staying on a “friend’s couch”. The parents had access to the child every other day for one hour and a half each time. The grandparents and half brother also had access.
The court heard that the child was getting on well in the foster care placement. There were other children and there was good rapport between them. In relation to reunification, the social worker said the mother was at an early stage of recovery and interagency meetings would take place to monitor the progress. The father would need to source suitable accommodation.
The social work team was considering a relative foster care placement with the paternal aunt, which the mother had agreed to. There was an upcoming meeting the following week to discuss the terms. In the past the placement had broken down under a private arrangement due to differences between the parents. If the meeting was successful the child would move in as soon as possible.
The social worker agreed that the access visits were very positive. She confirmed they would endeavour to promote the bond between the mother and her child.
The GAL had met the child the previous day. The toddler was very intelligent and articulate. He liked playing the guitar and was a great performer. The court heard that the child talked about his mother and missed her. The GAL was satisfied that the threshold to extend the interim care order was met.
However, the risk attached to not identifying a placement that would meet the long-term needs of the child would be greater than the risk the child was being removed from. Thus the intervention could become disproportionate. In relation to the father, the GAL said: “He hasn’t stepped up. It is a concern.” Acknowledging that the mother was embarking on a journey and she needed support, the GAL said: “She knows the issues and she knows what to do. She just needs to do it.”
Based on the evidence, the judge granted an interim care order extension on consent in respect of the child for a period of four weeks. The judge noted that the mother was trying to address her difficulties and asked the Agency not to rule out mediation if it could assist the situation. Medical and access directions remained and section 18 application was adjourned.
“Time goes very quickly in the eyes of a child”
The case returned to the District Court four weeks later. An application was made for an extension of the interim care order for a further four weeks on consent. The GAL supported the application. The mother was not present in court but she had instructed her legal representative. The father, who had no legal representation, could not attend due to work commitments.
The social worker said the concerns that warranted an interim care order continued to exist. The mother had stopped engaging with the alcohol addiction rehabilitation programme. Concerns that she would need residential treatment were reaffirmed. The mother had accepted that it was necessary moving forward. The social worker said that the father’s housing situation had not changed thus he did not think he could come forward.
When the child was told he was moving with his paternal aunt he was very happy and wanted to move immediately. The social worker said: “He settled in very well. Almost as if he never left. He is very happy to be around with his cousins and engaged in lots of activities.” The social worker was confident that the placement would not break down, as it happened in the past, because it was managed by the CFA. In order to avoid relationship problems, access for each parent was scheduled in different dates. The child was able to attend the same crèche because the paternal aunt lived within the vicinity.
The court heard that the mother did not attend some of the scheduled access but when she did it went very well. She remained very engaged, chatty and excited to see her child.
The judge asked the social worker about the child’s computer tablet. The child used a tablet with previous foster carers. He had requested it because it had pictures of his mother. During that placement new photos were coming through.
Judge: “What is your view regarding a child of this age having access to this tablet?”
Social worker: “At the time, it was not a problem. It had videos and images of the mother. He just remained connected to his mother. There was no thought it was harmful.”
Judge: “Was there Internet connection to this tablet?”
Social worker: “He had access obviously as other images were coming through. Measures have taken place so that it would not happen again.”
Judge: “Your view is that it is OK for a three-year-old to have a tablet?”
Social worker: “He plays games on it.”
Judge: “Thank you.”
The GAL told the court that the child was very settled with the aunt. He had concerns about the mother not showing up for access. She still had serious issues with alcohol thus a residential treatment appeared to be the way forward. The GAL said: “If the removal of her own child is not going to motivate her, I don’t know what is going to motivate her. It is hard and a serious concern.”
The father was a decent man and a hard worker, but his housing situation had not changed. The GAL said the best alternative was for the child to stay with the paternal aunt and her husband. The father continued access at the weekends. The placement with the paternal aunt was a different and positive dynamic because access was centralised and managed by the CFA. “A shift from the previous situation,” he said.
The child presented well and looked healthier. He was very bright, sociable and very funny. The mother’s absence had certainly had an impact on him. In relation to what could be done to ensure the mother engaged meaningfully with addiction services, the GAL said that the child’s removal had created momentum of the case. It was a serious situation and hopefully it would act as an incentive to engage.
In relation to the tablet, the GAL was not aware that an issue had arisen until recently. It could be that the child had his own tablet. He said it required serious monitoring and a piece of technology to control internet access. Solicitor for the GAL said “there is a question regarding how the images got to that account in the first place”.
The GAL told the mother’s solicitor that people with serious addiction problems sometimes take medication to help with the withdrawals. She had missed two access visits but the child was too young to understand.
Acknowledging the difficulties the mother was facing in overcoming her addiction, the judge emphasised that she needed to assess whether she was going to prioritise him and his care. The judge said: “Time goes very quickly in the eyes of a child. He will become embedded with a different family. His priorities may change. It would be terribly unfortunate for this case.”
The judge was satisfied that it was necessary and proportionate to grant the interim care order extension. The existing directions continued and a section 18 care order would be listed at the next occasion. The judged concluded: “The circumstances of the case are straight forward: either the parents step up or they don’t. The child’s care plan has to be put in place to avoid drifting.”
A path towards reunification
When the next extension of the interim care order came into court four weeks later, the mother was not present because she had commenced a three-month alcohol residential treatment programme. The father was present and had no legal representation. The mother’s solicitor had been instructed to consent to a 28 days extension.
The social worker said she had talked to the mother, who seemed to be doing very well, and she had agreed to a three months’ extension. The treatment was very structured and at times she would not be allowed any contact. The mother had access only once per week because the restrictions of the rehabilitation program. The mother’s solicitor said that his client was very hopeful that she would successfully complete the rehabilitation programme.
The child was very comfortable in the foster placement with the paternal aunt. He was very active and took part in all the family activities. The child thought his mother was in a house with doctors and that was why he was not able to see her a bit more often. The social worker told the court that the parental assessment was on hold given the circumstances.
The father’s attendance to access was consistent. The father continued to be unable to provide stable accommodation thus he was not in the position to care for his child. He did not have joint legal guardianship rights. The court heard the grounds that warranted the interim care order continued to exist.
Judge: “Are you going to look for housing?”
Father: “Yes. I am staying in a friend’s house at the moment.”
Judge: “You are not a legal guardian. It may be worth to look up the courts website.”
The GAL supported the extension of the interim care order. He said the child was doing very well. He was at too tender an age to fully comprehend the circumstances but for the first time he had a real sense that his mother was sick and she was going to get better.
The court heard the Agency’s primary objective was to reunite the child with the mother, who was a brilliant parent when she was not under the influence of alcohol. The second option was to reunite the child with his father or alternatively remain with the relative foster carers. It was hoped that the child would stay with his family in whatever context. The judge told the father: “You are very lucky. You better be nice to your brother-in-law.”
Given the evidence and that the application was on consent, the judge granted a three months extension of the interim care order with liberty to re-enter if necessary. Existing directions were to continue and section 18 was adjourned.
The judge concluded: “Could you please pass on to her that this court sincerely praises what she has chosen to do. It shows great bravery and she will have the support of the social workers and everyone involved. Thank you.”