The District Court in a rural town granted an interim care order for a young teenager where there were no drug or alcohol problems but the teenager was missing school and was socially isolated.
Present in court were the mother and the maternal grandmother. The solicitor for the mother told the court that the mother had decided to represent herself and the solicitor then left the court. As a lay litigant, the mother asked the judge to allow a McKenzie friend to assist her in court. The judge checked that the proposed McKenzie friend was aware of the responsibilities and limitations of the role.
The court hear that it had previously granted a supervision order but the mother had refused to collaborate with the social work team. The principal social worker said that in the last three months the teenager had not attended school an average of a day per week without apparent medical reason. She said that the child, who was very bright, was not achieving because the school homework was not being supervised and completed. The principal social worker pointed out that there was no table in the house for the child to do the homework and that the child’s hygiene was very poor. In relation to extra-curricular activities, the principal social worker told the court that the child was leading a very insular life and that the mother had failed to encourage the development of his/her social skills.
The judge questioned the basis on which the interim care order was sought and added: “The child has not been assaulted. There is no alcohol problem in the house.” The principal social worker answered: “She [the mother] doesn’t allow us to go to the bottom of things.”
Judge: “In your opinion, should I grant an interim care order?”
Social worker: “What we would like is for the mother to work with us.”
Judge: “How can I force her?”.
When the judge asked what would happen next if an interim care order was granted, the principal social worker said that the child would be placed somewhere in the country with a foster carer. The judge demanded more evidence and stressed that the court had an obligation primarily to the child.
The mother told the court that she had been available in her home for every appointment with the social worker and that she had not seen the principal social worker for the last two months.
The social worker told the court that a year ago she had started working with the mother helping with practical matters in the home but that she would reply “we can look after ourselves”. The social worker described concerns about conditions in the house. She told the court that the house had no light in certain areas, that it was cold and often there was no evidence of having had dinners.
The judge pointed out that lights can be fitted and that if the child had had food in the canteen there may not have been a need for another meal in the evening. “Where is the biggest problem? Can you not sit down and have a conversation?” asked the judge.
The court heard that the mother was quite intimidating and that she had told the social worker that she was a “whore” and to “fuck off”. “Can you respond?” asked the judge to the mother. “She says you are abusive to her when she calls in and points out sanitary, social or food deficiencies,” added the judge. The mother said she did not use bad language.
Judge: “Why do you think she would lie? Do you think she is out there to take your child off you?” “Yes” responded the mother. “What would her motivation be? Why would she be exaggerating?” asked the judge. “I would love to know that myself, judge,” replied the mother.
The mother told the court that the child had not attended the school on different occasions for medical reasons, albeit uncertified, such as a cold or hurting her knee. She explained that she had left the door of the house open on a few occasions because the social worker had previously accused her of trying to avoid her. The mother said that the child played sports and had a friend going over to the house.
“Two hugely contradictory versions,” said the judge, noting that the mother had not cooperated by engaging in constructive conversation with the social worker despite the supervision order. The judge asked if the social worker had spoken to the child. The court heard that the child had been coached to say certain things and did not have much to say when “trying to tease things out”.
The judge noted that the situation had not progressed adequately in the previous months despite five court hearings. On balance, the judge found in favour of the CFA and granted a twenty-eight days interim care order. “I want my child’s voice to be heard” said the mother. “I am not ruling out the possibility of meeting [the child] in due course but not today,” replied the judge. When the mother was reminded that she needed to cooperate, she replied: “I can’t cooperate any further”.
A guardian ad litem (GAL) was subsequently appointed.