A short-term Care Order was extended in a rural town for two children of primary school age, who had only recently met their father. The father, who was from the Middle East, had not been aware of their existence previously. He expressed severe frustration at the delay in being assessed as a suitable carer for the children.
The mother, from a European country, was seeking the lifting of the in camera rule so that she could share the file with her government, as she wished to ask her government to pursue a claim that her human rights had been violated in the care proceedings. The children had been taken into care shortly after their birth due to her problems with alcohol and social isolation.
A psychologist who examined the father, who was seeking to care for the children, outlined how he had recently been made aware of the children’s existence. The mother, whose relationship with the man split up before the birth, was unaware if he was still in the country and her earlier attempts to contact him were unsuccessful.
The father’s solicitor said he was very frustrated about how long the proceedings were taking. He had been told he was the children’s father more six months earlier, access did not take place for six months and was then stopped pending further psychological tests.
Asked by the mother’s solicitor what was happening about the assessment of the children’s attachment to their foster parent, the psychologist said they had been with this person since they were 12 weeks old, access [with their mother] had been started and stopped, the children’s primary attachment to their foster parent had not been diluted in any way. “Now they have to manage their relationship to a third adult, their Dad. While that is being established we have to measure their attachment to their primary carer.”
Mother’s solicitor: “You say [in your report]: ‘No human being will not mourn removal from an attached primary carer’. Yet we are told in court every day when children are taken from their primary carers that they have ‘settled in well in foster care’. Is there not a contradiction there?”
Psychologist: “Yes, children always do mourn the loss of their primary carer, for example a nanny.”
The team leader said she accepted the father was frustrated that things had not moved on. The children were very upset, they were wetting the bed, having nightmares. Their social worker was unfortunately off work. “I decided, rightly or wrongly, to wait until she was back before pushing it on.” When it was realised the social worker would not be back quickly the case was allocated to another social worker.
She said she thought it was in the children’s best interests to remain in care at least pending the assessments. She said she saw the need to increase access between the children and their father in order to assess what kind of arrangements might be appropriate in the future, for example, shared care. Access would be fortnightly at the moment, but they would offer more regular and increased access so that he could build a more normal relationship with them, helping them with their homework, etc.
In relation to the mother, there was a regression in the social work department’s relationship with her. There had been unsupervised access, but it returned to supervised because of concerns the children themselves had raised and the levels of distress they were showing. They said she had said she wanted them back and they thought she was looking to remove them from their carer. She told them about the father whose existence they had previously been unaware of. The social work department had been in the course of taking advice from a psychologist about how to introduce the subject.
The plan at the moment was for fortnightly access with the mother, with a view to increasing it.
Asked about an allegation the mother had made threats to the children against a social worker, the team leader agreed that they had not mentioned this to a psychologist, who was very senior and had made great progress with them.
She agreed the first access meeting with the father had gone very well, and he was very sensitive to their emotions. However, moving to being cared for by him would involve some kind of loss for them of their present carer.
The father’s solicitor asked the team leader what efforts the social work department had made to locate him. He was living in a small rural town and had an unusual foreign first name. Even without knowing his second name, how many people of that name and that nationality were likely to be living in that town?
Team leader: “It was very hard on the basis of the information we had.”
The solicitor put it to the team leader that it was only when the father started court proceedings to get access that it was granted. She disputed this. The CFA solicitor said of the delay: “It’s regrettable but an explanation has been given.”
Referring to the application to lift the in camera rule, the judge said she would need to hear submissions, and set a date two weeks away.
Asked about her attitude to a further extension of the Care Order, the mother said the case had been going on for years and nothing happened. The mother pointed out that the judge had ruled a year earlier that the children could go home, the mother agreed they could wait until the end of the school year, and then the CFA appealed the discharge of the Care Order.
Asked if she had ever threatened anyone, she denied it. “I don’t hate social workers. I hate what they are doing.” Asked if the gardai had been in touch with her about the allegation, she said they had not.
The father told the court he had been offered a job abroad, but he turned it down when he discovered he had the children. He consented to Care Orders for three months, but the promised access did not materialise. “I am not happy about any of it,” he said. He said he believed he was in a position to parent the children full-time.
He said he was also concerned about the delay in attempting to contact him. The children had been asking about their father, it was in their notes.
Asked if he understood the impact a dramatic change in the children’s circumstances would have on them, he said he did, but nothing was happening. All he heard was excuses. Solicitor: “Do you think it would be in the best interests of the children to go back to you tonight?”
Father: “They need their parents. They accept me. We don’t need another two months or six months. They belong to their real parents. If they have a connection with their parents it will only take them a few months to settle.”
The children’s guardian ad litem told the court that Section 3 of the Act [affirming the central place of a child’s birth parents] was crucial in any child care proceedings. That was the case two years earlier when reunification of the children with their mother had been considered. Unfortunately that broke down. The same consideration applied now with the father. The matter could have been dealt with quicker and better.
However, what concerned him was the lack of insight on the part of the parents into how the children could be impacted by the decisions being made in the court. There was an assumption they were resilient enough to be able to step over the door and be OK.
“There are problems which are not resolved for these children. There are times when they are happy and buoyant, and times when they are anxious and bed-wetting.” The father needed to consider what they wanted.
“The access was lovely to watch. They were relaxed, liberal in the use of the word ‘Dad’. But this was contact, not day-to-day care. Any [reunification] plan has to be at a slow pace with the cooperation of everyone involved. We don’t have that yet. These children have been in this situation for seven years. We need to make sure they are fully prepared to make any transition the court may decide.”
He told the mother’s solicitor that the children have never told him they did not want to see their mother. Sometimes they were non-committal, they did not want to talk about her. There had been an occasion when they stayed with her overnight without consent, and they were still talking about it. She had never addressed this with them, or tried to find out how to make the experience better for them. “It descended again into a blame game.”
Referring to an alleged incident during an access, he said the mother did not take on board that the children were upset and comfort them. “I don’t know what happened. But time and time again they are distressed and I hear that distress. They are communicating it and it needs work.”
The father’s solicitor said he was prepared to undergo the proposed assessment, but only with a strict timetable.
Extending the order for three months, the judge said: “I heard evidence on previous occasions. The father is not the first person I heard experiencing frustration delays from the CFA and he won’t be the last.
“There is evidence of the mother disengaging from the process. What is not in dispute is that the children love you [the mother] and you love them. I urge you to get over the impasse and re-engage. On the basis of the evidence I don’t believe not extending the Care Order would be in the interests of the children.
“The court makes orders for a period and things are meant to be done, and then they are not done. I’m not here to rubber-stamp delay. I extend the order with very, very serious concerns.”
She extended the order for three months on the basis that when the application for lifting the in camera rule was made in two weeks there would be specific proposals relating to access and all assessments were to be carried out on or before the expiry of the extended order.
“If I’m finding it frustrating I don’t know what it’s like for the parents,” she said.