An access hearing was held for a six week old African baby, who had been taken into the care of the HSE at one day old. The mother had five hours of access daily, her four other children were also in care. The HSE were seeking to reduce access to three hours, three times per week, on the basis that the baby now needed to develop an attachment to its foster mother. The judge ordered an independent parenting capacity assessment for the mother.
A full care order application would be heard within a month’s time for the four other children, and the HSE would seek to join the baby to that application at a future date. The judge refused to reduce access due to a conflict of evidence, which needed to be resolved.
The team leader told the court that her function at access was as an observer and assessing the quality of the contact.
She said the appropriate access should be reduced to three times weekly for three hours. Initiation of contact by the mother with the baby such as facial contact, cooing, laughing and talking was an absolute minimum during access. In her opinion it was very difficult for the mother to initiate that type of contact.
She was very preoccupied with the cleanliness of the baby, and the cleaning routine could go on for as long as 45 minutes, but sometimes it was only five minutes. Sometimes she would clean the baby before greeting her.
The team leader had observed the baby sleeping on her knee, but the mother’s arms were folded rather than with a hand resting on the baby or stroking the baby. At the last three hour access the baby had breastfed for only ten minutes, although she was constantly on the breast. She had observed the baby to be asleep on the breast with its mouth open. “She isn’t looking to be fed…she goes home starving and cries if the bottle is taken out of her mouth. She takes up to five ounces of milk formula feed,” said the team leader. The mother had always refused to express milk, if she had that milk would have been used instead of formula.
In relation to the four other children, the clinical psychologist “has stated clearly that the mother does not have the ability to empathise or form attachments,” said the team leader. Given that context she had concerns regarding the level of safety if the baby was to return home, as well as the quality and level of relationship she could build, therefore they would have to proceed with a care order for the baby [E].
She said she had a serious concern about access because the baby had never had the opportunity to develop her own routine. “E is almost in limbo and not being provided the opportunity to form a secure attachment with the foster carer and has spent so much time out of the home,” she said.
“The purpose of contact is to allow the child to have a familiarity with the parents, it’s not necessarily about building up an attachment. The purpose of the foster placement now is about building up an attachment with her foster parent. It is absolute imperative a baby can build up a secure attachment. This is going to be her template as to how to function as an adult, for her to be emotionally secure and have good outcomes, or you deal constantly with the fallout, it’s a disservice to [E] if she doesn’t build up that attachment. She will be six weeks’ old tomorrow, the process of attachment starts now,” said the team leader.
A strategy meeting had been held before the baby was born, quite late into the pregnancy when the decision was made to apply for an ICO. It was based on the clinical psychologist’s two reports, the GAL reports and the access reports, she told the mother’s barrister.
She had met with the social worker, the GAL and the psychologist the last day they were in court and reviewed the case, and they had decided a Full Care Order would be applied for.
“Are you telling me this decision was made out in the corridor when the baby was four weeks old?” asked the barrister.
“The best indicator of what happens in the future is based on what happened in the past. We have substantial risk factors in the family of origin that have never been addressed. In order to explain why we believe this baby is at risk we have to constantly refer to the other children,” said the team leader.
While she accepted that the family access worker reports were all positive, describing positive interactions between mother and baby, such as smiling, cuddling, kissing, initiated by mother, this was not her view.
Had she suggested ways the mother might better attune to her baby, asked the mother’s barrister. Had they sought supports and interventions during the six weeks since the baby had been born? The team leader said they had not.
The team leader said that attachment was a two-way process, she based her belief there was no attachment because the mother did not have the ability, there was a familiarity. She told the court she was a qualified psychotherapist and had done training courses on attachment with extensive training in this particular area. The mother’s barrister asked if the baby was not hard wired to attach to its mother.
“No, no writings would indicate that,” answered the team leader.
“Is it not in the baby’s best interests to develop an attachment to its mother?”
“Yes if all the criteria are met, but in this instance the baby is not at home and the reality is the attachment is going to be built with the foster carer,” she replied. “The foster carer has been identified as the potential long term carer.”
The team leader told the father’s barrister that she accepted the access reports were in stark contrast with her reports, but that the context had not been provided in those reports. She did not accept that the parents had initiated contact with the baby on the basis of what she had seen.
“So the foster parent is going to be the main carer and so you are going to reduce access to stop an attachment forming?” said the father’s barrister.
“I’m saying the mum doesn’t have the ability to form an attachment.”
“It appears from your evidence that you want to pre-empt a court’s decision with regard to the care of [E].”
“No, the longer we keep this situation uncertain we are putting her emotional well-being at risk,” said the team leader. “This is based on what this baby needs now.”
“Isn’t it in the child’s interests she bonds with her mother as opposed to her foster parent?”
“That process is not going to happen because the child is in care.”
The mother told the court that she wanted her baby home and did not mind being supervised, she would agree to any supervision, and someone could stay in the house.
The GAL told the court that the clinical psychologist questioned the mother’s ability to form attachments. She also agreed there were concerns about the mother’s ability to attach to her baby. She had observed access for seven hours in all and had not observed the mother make any attempt to make eye contact, she is silent with the baby, she told mother’s barrister.
The GAL said the baby was asleep and the mother was silently moving the baby.
“Would you have her wake the baby up?” asked the mother’s barrister.
“You’re here to represent the interests of this six week old baby, do you believe she should be given every opportunity to form an attachment with her mother?”
“To form an attachment, but I have to take on the opinion of [the clinical psychologist],” she replied.
The barrister said it was extraordinary that she did not speak to the family support workers who had written excellent reports. There was a conflict in the evidence as she was supporting the HSE application – when there was evidence supporting the mother and father – she had not sought both sides. Had she ever sought another opinion other than that of [the clinical psychologist]?
The GAL said his was an independent opinion and that she had recommended him.
The judge extended the ICO. She said there was a complete conflict of evidence before the court with regards to reports and oral evidence which needs to be resolved. The issue of access was adjourned for one week.
When the case returned the following week all the parties agreed to identify an independent attachment expert and seek a new assessment, as the parents were not happy with the historical reports from the clinical psychologist, who although an independent expert, had been procured by the HSE.
The case was once again adjourned so all the parties could each propose two experts in a list of experts. It would be entirely at the discretion of the judge on the day to choose the name.
“They can be Marty Mayo therapists, trained Marty Mayo therapists will equally perform this task, it doesn’t matter where they are procured from… what the court expects from an expert is to be entirely independent,” said the judge.