An Emergency Care Order (ECO) was granted for a teenage African girl in the District Court. Her mother did not attend and was not represented. The father did attend and opposed the application.
The teenage girl had come to live her with parents from another jurisdiction for the first time four years ago. Her parents, who were now separated, also had four young children, one of whom had severe special needs. There were allegations against the mother of physical and emotional abuse and the teenager also alleged that her father had threatened to poison her if she made allegations against her mother.
While the father accepted it would not be in A’s best interests to give evidence, he did not accept the truth of the allegations and wanted the CFA to conduct an investigation. The judge said he had to deal with whether or not there was an immediate and serious risk to the health, development and welfare of A [the threshold for an ECO].
The social worker
The social worker told the court that she was satisfied that the mother had refused to attend the hearing on an informed basis. The mother had not been willing to sign A into voluntary care that morning and the social worker said she had been concerned about leaving A in the house.
The social work department had got involved with the family in late 2014 when A had reported allegations of physical abuse against her mother to her school counsellor. The social worker had interviewed A on the day of the allegation and was provided with many details similar to those provided to the counsellor.
There was some confusion around days and dates and A had been unclear about how many times she was hit when describing the incidents. She described being hit with a cane on a number of occasions within the previous six months and said that in early 2014 she had been repeatedly hit with a flower stem from a garden down the road.
The mother had admitted to the incident in early 2014, she described herself as “flogging” her daughter because she had stolen money from her and would not admit to it. She told the social worker that she was “beating the truth out of her”. However in terms of on-going incidents she denied any further abuse.
According to the social worker when A had made allegations to the school counsellor about incidents of physical abuse occurring in late 2014 her mother had been very upset and A had stayed with her father over the weekend “to give them breathing space”. At that time A had told the counsellor there were a lot of marks on her body from on-going beatings at home but when she was assessed by a GP she had told him that the marks were from being beaten by teachers in Africa. The GP was satisfied with that account as the marks were historical.
The social worker had gone through a safety plan with A and she had a mobile to call An Garda Síochána if she felt unsafe.
Early this year the social worker had received a fax from the counsellor containing allegations of serious incidents of physical abuse, including being hit over the head with a glass bottle in late 2014 after the social worker had left the house. A alleged her mother had told her that if she ever said anything to anyone in the school again she would be beaten and that her father had said he would poison her. Her mother had also hit her with an iron cane but she was not able to say how many times.
A alleged that over Christmas she had been the only one of her siblings not to receive a Christmas present. Her mother had told her their relationship was over and that she would end up in boarding school with only one slice of bread a day.
The teenager had said that she was worried about getting poor results in her Christmas tests because if her mother found out she would not get fed properly for a week. She alleged her mother had said: “I’ll mash you like a mashed potato” if she told anything else.
When the social worker interviewed her she was anxious. She was again assessed at the doctor’s surgery, this time by a different GP. He reported a slight swelling on A’s forehead and a mark on her arm and her leg but he was unable to confirm physical abuse. When the social worker had spoken with the mother about the allegations she had become extremely frustrated and openly angry.
Social worker: “She didn’t wish to speak with me about [A] anymore, she believes she is making it up, she said that after she addressed the initial allegations. On each occasion I meet with her she talks extensively about [A’s] behaviour, lying, stealing and coming to the attention of the Gardaí. She said she was kidnapped when she wasn’t, she was caught shoplifting in Tesco and in town, and that the school had issues with her telling lies and stealing.”
The social worker told the court that the Garda had recalled the incident when she claimed she was being kidnapped and he could confirm she had not been. He could also confirm that she had come to the attention of the Gardaí.
There had been notes written into her journal by her teachers about A telling lies about her homework and stealing a euro at lunchtime. Her mother had taken this very seriously.
The social worker felt that the mother had a lot to deal with with five children, one of whom had severe special needs and another was a toddler. She did not have much insight into what A was experiencing. “The level of fear in [A] is very worrying,” said the social worker.
She had seen her that morning and her mother would not allow her to go to school. A had pleaded with her not to leave her on her own. “I might be killed,” she had said.
“She honestly believes she will be poisoned and die,” said the social worker. “Yesterday the mother was telling [A] to get out” and asked the social worker to remove her. “She is at the end of her tether with her. Her first 10 years were without her parents in [the other jurisdiction] so she is only living with them for the past four years.”
The social worker had not seen or heard any affection towards A from her mother and she also spoke about her negatively. She referred to her as being evil and the devil child, she said she was a bad influence and did not want her infecting the others.
“She is happy for [A] to leave the house,” said the social worker. The mother had told her: “You can take her now but she won’t be coming back.”
Judge: “What is the immediate and serious risk and what are the grounds for believing it?”
Social worker: “At this time we can’t confirm the allegations, the story is confusing and there is evidence lacking but we are concerned about her emotional well-being. We don’t know the full extent of what she experienced in [the other jurisdiction] – being beaten by teachers, the mother would say she didn’t have direct contact with her at that time.
“Her mother doesn’t seem to show any compassion for her history, trauma and what she is experiencing right now, if she is left in this situation this could have serious repercussions in terms of her mental health.
“Last Sunday she alleged her father hit her 12 times on the bottom with an iron bar. The father has made it clear he doesn’t believe the allegations against the mother, so he is not a safety factor at this point.”
He was not putting himself forward to have her stay due to a lack of space. He only visited the family on Sundays. The social worker did not believe her safety could be looked after in the family home.
A was going to be referred by the GP to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health services for assessment due to the emotional trauma she had experienced through physical abuse in Africa.
Father’s solicitor: “The GP can’t substantiate the physical marks, the father allegedly struck her 12 times with an iron bar. Is it possible she told you this to gain your attention? You are charged to take those allegations very seriously.”
Social worker: “There is some level of doubt and we can’t confirm the allegations at this stage. What she is saying is extremely serious and coupled with her presentation of being very fearful of being left in the house, I can’t ignore that.”
The social worker felt after her visit this morning that the risks were serious enough to meet the threshold for the ECO. She said that there did not seem to be much of a relationship between the mother and daughter. Four years ago A had begun living with a family that she had never had any contact with and the mother was not taking that into account in relation to her behaviour.
The father denied the allegations relating to him, said the social worker.
The father told the court that he had moved to Ireland in 2000 and his wife had joined him the following year, without A. She had a nanny in the other jurisdiction and her school fees were paid for. He had not really had any contact with her over the 10 years and her mother had had none. They had not known that she was being beaten at school.
He did not know if she was happy in her present school, but he thought so and he was not aware that the teachers were reporting concerns in terms of her education and schoolwork. He also did not know that she had come to the attention of the police for shoplifting incidents.
He told the court that he was going to take her out of her current school because of the influences there, things were distracting her and she was “going down in her ability.” He supported the referral to CAMHS.
He knew that she had forged a teacher’s signature in her copybook and had been shocked. The father told the court that he had talked to her and said that maybe she would have to go back to Africa. “You are bringing more trouble,” he had told her. He had not hit her or threatened to poison her and had no concerns about her returning to her mother’s care.
Father’s solicitor: “[A] doesn’t want to return home, your wife has indicated she doesn’t want her to return?”
Father: “She said it with anger. Ninety per cent of what [A] says are lies, that energy that’s pushing her looking for freedom is a very scary energy that I don’t like.”
Father’s solicitor: “Why is she saying all these things to the social worker, the school counsellor and the allegations to the GP?”
Father: “She has bad influences from the school, ‘if you go the police, you can do that’… she is looking for a way to get freedom which is too early for her age.”
The father told the CFA solicitor that he was aware of the first incident concerning his wife hitting A when she had stolen her money but that he did not believe what she was saying at the moment.
CFA solicitor: “If you know that it has happened before why do you believe your wife over A that it is happening?”
Father: “If you communicate with her for one minute you will know she doesn’t know what she is talking about, in fact she talks like a child of two years.”
CFA solicitor: “What is your view of the social worker’s evidence that [A] was frightened?”
Father: “She is afraid she is not going back to her school, she doesn’t want to leave. Secondly, she is scared since I am coming on Sunday that I will shout at her about going to school and lying.”
CFA solicitor: “Why does she want freedom?”
The father told the court that the school counsellor was influencing her as well as one of her school friends who was in foster care herself and he was very angry about this. Rather than going to the school about his concerns he was going to take her out, the school was “destroying her”.
He had threatened to send her back to Africa but he did not think that would instil a sense of fear in her although she had been beaten in school there.
“In [Africa]…it does happen, even the sons of the President are flogged by the teacher. She can’t behave this way in Africa, in three days she would be a different person,” said the father. He himself had never struck his daughter or seen his wife do so.
The judge ruled that it was in the interests of justice to admit the hearsay statements under Section 23 of the Child Care Act.
He had heard hearsay evidence regarding reports to the police by A of being kidnapped, allegations to doctors where marks were not consistent, he accepted there were issues in the school with regard to lying and concerns with regard to lying.
Taking the allegations of physical punishment as a whole and weighing that under previous statements when she changed her story he could not give any weight to the allegations. But he said the issue that gave him difficulty was that the allegations had been made. The difficulty then arose regarding the action of the mother who had said her child could not go home. The child had demonstrated subjective fear and while that was not sufficient to ground the ECO he remained with the problem that the mother said the child is not to return home because she has made the allegations.
He could not take the risk if no order was made that the child would attempt to go home and be turned away from the door.
Judge: “No doubt from the evidence there are serious issues for this family. Much of the evidence given would be more appropriate as an ICO where there is a different threshold (neglect by the parent).”
The judge said he was constrained to grant the ECO on the evidence that the mother had said A could not go to the family home.
The Interim Care Order (ICO) hearing
The CFA brought an ICO application the following week which was uncontested. The solicitor for the father had no instructions and the father had told him that he had other things on that day which were more important. The mother had told the social worker that she was feeling down and wanted to go to the GP.
The school counsellor told the court that she had mainly seen A this year but had also met her towards the end of last year. On that occasion she began to make disclosures immediately and told her that she was very frightened about anybody finding out she was talking to the counsellor because she would be punished if her mother found out. The counsellor informed her that if she told her anything about her safety being in question she would have to tell someone and A asked her not to.
A said when there were notes home in her journal her mother beat her and called her evil. There had been a note the day before and her mother had beaten her with a cane 8-10 times on the bottom and back. She said the marks were very sore and she had headaches and couldn’t concentrate in class. She told her that she would plead with her mother to leave her alone and that her siblings could hear the beatings. Two days later A showed the counsellor old scars on her body and told her that her mother had made them with the cane.
CFA solicitor: “In terms of what she said to you, in terms of being beaten with the cane, did you form a view as to credibility?”
School counsellor: “I was shocked because I could see the marks. I asked her did she hit you hard enough to cause bleeding, she said yes, her mother had given her a beating with the cane.”
CFA solicitor: “In terms of her presentation, did that give rise to concern?”
The school counsellor: “She was terrified, fear was the biggest emotion she was struggling with, she was constantly saying: ‘Please don’t tell anyone.’ I told her I had to, she said: ‘Please don’t, you can’t…’”
There were no inconsistencies on the three occasions she spoke with her late last year. When she met her again the previous week she told the counsellor that she had been hit over Christmas, she had been hit with a glass bottle over the head when social workers had left the house. Her mother had also hit her for not being fast enough going out the door in the morning. She was very worried about her report card because her mother had told her not to come home if she did badly in her exams.
Her mother had told her that if she disobeyed her she would have no food until the following week and that telling what was happening at home was an abomination. Her father had threatened to poison her and said: “If you die at least all the [A] stuff will be over” and they would be very happy.
Children in her class had reported that food was an issue for A, she was always looking for it.
During her conversations with A she did not prompt her in any way and she did not find her to be over-dramatic. She did not feel it was attention-seeking behaviour but more that A had reached the point where she could not take what was happening to her anymore.
CFA solicitor: “What is your opinion as to the veracity or credibility of statements?”
School counsellor: “I believe that she was extremely frightened, it certainly had me taking it very seriously.” She had no reason to doubt her.
The counsellor had seen her on six occasions altogether and A had been very consistent, she said over and over again that she could not take it anymore.
Judge: “It has been suggested to the court that [A] lies constantly and this was an issue in the school, are you aware of this being an issue in the school?
School counsellor: “I am aware it is an issue with her parents but not about it being an issue in the school.”
Judge: “Is there a problem with her lying in school, does it happen?”
School counsellor: “Yes, very rarely, in relation to getting a report, I’m aware that she has scribbled out a bad comment she got in a journal.”
Judge: “There was a suggestion she forged her parent’s signature?”
School counsellor: “Yes, it was around not getting into trouble when she went home.”
Judge: “Are you aware of any involvement she may have had with the police?”
School counsellor: “Not really, other than she stole €800 from her mother last year, I’m not aware of anything else.”
Science and maths teacher:
The science and maths teacher described A as being quiet and of being no trouble in the classroom. She said that she was a disorganised child, very messy and quite weak academically. “She tries not to get herself into trouble.”
On one occasion they had to bring her mother into the school because A had scribbled out an entry into her journal by her form teacher. A had been very distraught in front of her mother that day, she was crying silently. Her mother was giving out a lot to her and had become quite aggressive towards the teachers by the end of the meeting. A had got down on her knees and pleaded with her mother when she gave out to her but her mother completely ignored her at all times. The teacher had been concerned for her welfare.
She told the court that A was not a problem in the school, any incident was very minor, over homework and those incidents were really out of a fear, it was not that she was trying to be bold. Her behaviour was perfectly normal like most other good students and she would not describe her as bold or disruptive.
The social worker told the court that together with her team leader they had asked A to go over certain incidents again this Monday which had occurred last week. She provided them with all of the same contextual information and details, with a slight confusion over which morning one incident had taken place.
On Monday, A had seemed much clearer regarding the allegations. The social worker had also had more of a chance to speak with the school in relation to her behaviour.
“There is more of a picture built up as to what is going on. When I speak with her I believe what she is saying because most of the details that she provides are consistent and because her expression of fear and anxiety is believable, clearly saying she is terrified of going home,” said the social worker.
At the emergency case conference (the day previous to the ICO hearing) both parents said it was acceptable in their culture to physically punish children when they were misbehaving. The father had said if the children were misbehaving they would be flogged.
He had also said that it would not have been traumatic for their daughter to experience physical abuse in [Africa] and that it had already been decided that she would return there regardless of the possibility of further abuse. This showed serious lack of insight into her emotional well-being and her need for safety.
The social worker felt that A would be subjected to further emotional abuse if returned home. She was still demonstrating the same level of fear about returning home and the social worker was concerned about her emotional well-being and her current and future mental health due to the current level of anxiety she is experiencing.
“Every small misdemeanour is dealt with disproportionately by her parents,” said the social worker. In her opinion the emotional abuse reached the threshold for experiencing harm.
There was also an element of conditional parenting. A’s mother would not give her lunch last Tuesday when she had disobeyed her that morning and had asked a sibling to make sure she that she did not eat at lunch time in school. They did not buy her Christmas presents and she was not treated the same as the other children.
Her mother was now keen for her daughter to be returned because she did not want her being brought up in foster care but the social worker felt that she was at risk of further emotional and physical abuse.
The judge granted the ICO under Section 17.1a and found the hearsay evidence admissible.
He was satisfied the parents were on notice and had chosen not to attend. The evidence was uncontested with regard to her welfare.
Statements had been made again by A of emotional and physical abuse.
At the child protection conference the parents had confirmed their views regarding the appropriateness of physical punishment and their support of it, said the judge.
First issue – physical abuse
Regarding credibility, the judge said he was aware of what the father said on the last day with regard to the child lying, that A had made an allegation to police about being kidnapped and that she had lied about stealing and that she was lying about what was happening.
“The fact that somebody lies about one thing doesn’t necessarily mean they are lying about something else,” said the judge. There was consistency in her allegations regarding physical punishment and the parents were very forthright at the conference in their agreement regarding it. On best evidence, on the balance of probabilities she had been subjected to physical punishment which amounted to ill treatment.
Although physical punishment was not against the law in Ireland, it was a matter of degree as to whether it amounted to ill treatment. His first finding of fact in this case was that on the balance of probabilities the physical punishment amounted to ill treatment.
Second issue – emotional abuse
Judge: “I am satisfied there is reasonable cause to believe that there has been emotional abuse in this case, on the basis of the treatment that the child described she received from her mother – conditional parenting as it was put. It is the case that parents would be very justified in being very unhappy, angry about what everybody accepts occurred with regard to the theft, the stealing [of her mother’s money]. But these things happen, they have to be dealt with by parents, the manner in which it has been dealt with over the period of time which has elapsed since the occurrence of the incident is outside the bounds of what I would regard as appropriate in dealing with the incident that occurred.
“It is appropriate there would be a level of discipline, but it is also appropriate that the parents would provide a way forward rather than being stuck on that particular issue as a permanent feature of parenting. All of this is on the balance of probabilities, absence of evidence from parents, which may have to be dealt with further in the future if the parents engage.”
He said the third issue was that the parents did not attend court.
The judge was satisfied that the concerns raised by the social work department were genuine. He said that the issue of a cultural mediator had to be explored.
Judge: “A child protection matter had arisen in this jurisdiction and has to be dealt with it on that basis.”
He said that although there had to be an understanding of the culture of where the parents came and from where they had derived their parenting model, it was extremely important that was put in the context of this being a child protection issue.
The ICO was granted for 29 days.
A guardian ad litem was appointed by the court for the child. Referrals had already been made to CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services). The parents were put in contact with cultural mediation.