The parents of six children who were taken into the care of the HSE in a provincial city two and a half years ago failed in their court application for access to their children. Instead, the judge ordered that access should take place at the discretion of the HSE. Full care orders had been made for the children, whose ages range from 15 to four, because of abuse, neglect and domestic violence. The court was told that some of the children had been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and the HSE feared that access with the parents could re-traumatise them.
A social worker with the HSE said there was a disparity between the parents and some of the children over the account of events that had taken place in the family home which led to the care orders being made. One of the girls, Child B, had sought access with her mother and there had been one access meeting with her recently. This was for the child’s therapeutic needs and there had been a lot of preparation before it took place.
Apart from that meeting, there had been no formal supervised access since the care orders were made two and a half years ago. The eldest child, A, had mentioned from time to time that she wished to see her mother but access with the parents would “need to proceed with caution” as the child could be further traumatised. The social work department was working towards a goal of supervised access with the younger children before Christmas.
There were no plans at this stage for any form of access with the father. The Gardai had sent a file to the DPP but a decision not to prosecute had been made. The two oldest children, A and B, had made disclosures of sexual abuse. Both parents had emphatically denied any form of abuse and the father had been deemed by a HSE psychologist to be at a moderate risk of reoffending.
Child C had an intellectual disability and he was in the same foster placement with his brother D. The foster carer said D was very guarded in what he said about life with his parents and would try to avoid his mother if he saw her on the street. C had made no reference to wanting to see his mother when he was told his sister B might be seeing her. C was very settled in his placement and progressing very well. If C had access at the moment it would jeopardise D’s stability. The three older children were attending a psychologist. A had not been engaging but the other two were doing so. The parents were also attending therapy to assess the viability of their relationship and prepare them for access with the children.
The mother’s barrister produced a letter which A had written to her parents in the last few weeks in which she said she loved her parents and wanted to see them for their birthdays which were taking place in a few weeks. The social worker replied that it was not unusual for children in care to have an idealised view their parents. “We need to bear in mind what they have disclosed and that they had described living with them as hell,” she said. “A will need a lot of preparation and we are working towards Christmas.”
The barrister said A had had a chance meeting with her mother and had told her that she had written the letter and that it was en route. “Was there any trauma for A at that meeting?” the barrister asked. The social worker said it had been a very informal encounter and she had not heard anything from the foster carer about any trauma.
The mother’s barrister reminded her that the HSE had had over two years to prepare A for the meeting and the social worker replied that A and the parents had been in therapy. The concern was the difference in accounts of events and the hope was that the parents in therapy would acknowledge their responsibility. When the barrister reminded her that the DPP had decided not to prosecute the parents, the social worker said the children had been assured that they were believed and were told the decision not to prosecute was so as not to traumatise them. The barrister suggested the decision not to prosecute was taken because there was insufficient evidence to put before a jury.
The social worker, answering a question from the judge, said the hope was that the children could progress and move on and that their story was believed. Judge said: “We’re at this impasse.” She suggested to the social worker that since E and F were quite young a lot of work did not need to be done with them. She said the court was concerned that A and B should re-engage with their parents during their care period.
The father’s barrister asked the social worker if the father would be included in the Christmas access and she said he would not be as it was still a concern that a psychologist had classified him in 2011 as being at moderate risk of re-offending. He had not acknowledged doing anything wrong.
The barrister pointed out that there had been no allegations against him by the four younger children and asked when would the HSE give him access. “Nothing has changed to reduce his risk of sexual re-offending and the mother is at risk of re-offending in relation to neglect,” she replied.
The HSE psychologist who is working with A said access needed to be approached with caution. There had been serious allegations of sexual abuse in relation to her and the impact of access could be to show her that parents could get away with abuse without acknowledgment and remorse. “I don’t think it’s in her best interest until there is a significant shift by the parents and an acknowledgment of the harm they have caused the child,” she said.
There had been no accountability for what she had suffered. It was not unusual for a child to express a wish to see her parents. The psychologist thought her role in the family was that she had been responsible for bringing up the children and she would probably continue that in an access situation.
The father’s barrister said in two and a half years’ time A could have as much access as she liked and it was quite clear there were going to be no more admissions.
Psychologist: “You can’t say this with certainty.”
Barrister: “It’s highly unlikely they’re going to turn around now and say the abuse was more extensive. Where do we go from here?”
The psychologist for B said the child had post traumatic stress disorder as well as an anxiety disorder and access had been an issue for her since she first met her two years ago. A number of her foster placements had broken down and she had expressed a need to meet her mother to address a number of issues that had arisen during therapy. The access session had been highly structured with B’s needs in mind. She had not seen her parents for some time and she had been trying to process all the events that had happened. She had a huge fear about it but it was emphasised to her that it was only a meet and greet session. She had told the psychologist directly that she had no wish to meet her father.
The psychologist expressed extreme caution about future access. B wanted to get answers from her mother and she had some cognitive understanding that her parents had a different story to give. She saw her need for access as being paramount for her at the moment but she needed security and consistency in her placement.
B was a child who was repeatedly traumatised by physical, emotional and sexual abuse. It was not uncommon for children with an attachment disorder to struggle with relationships and have a lack of trust in the care-giver and it was very common for a child like this to have a number of placement breakdowns. The therapy takes place over a long period of time and further preparation for the next access visit would now take place. The psychologist told the father’s barrister: “Even raising the issue of her father in a session is very difficult for her.”
A therapist from a resource centre gave evidence of sessions which he had conducted with the parents to look at the viability of their relationship. He had also met with the children. There had been 13 sessions with the parents so far and, after six or seven sessions, they indicated they wished to remain as a couple. The sessions had also looked at the possibility of supervised access.
He said he was working with the couple in an environment where the abuse was being compartmentalised. There was an acknowledgment of physical and emotional abuse but sexual abuse was strongly denied by both parents. They had looked at potential re-engagement with the children. Some of the children clearly had signs of post-traumatic stress disorder and the parents, while they wished to have access, were aware of the potential impact on them.
Given that the children alleged particular experiences, he said some acknowledgment could be given in a general fashion. The parents’ position was that in order to engage with their children they had to satisfy certain conditions and satisfy the therapists “and that can be very complicated.” When it was put to him that the parents had admitted abuse and neglect but had denied sexual abuse he replied: “It’s an impasse that’s not uncommon in these situations.”
The mother’s barrister said the DPP had decided not to prosecute and was of the view the allegations were not of a sufficient level to be put in front of a jury. “Is it not theoretically possible that it didn’t take place?” she asked. He said they must have memories that something happened and it could be the case they hoped for some therapeutic process which would help the family.
He said both parents had been cooperative at the sessions and had engaged quite well with the process. He was asked how he would feel about access with the younger children since there were no allegations of sexual abuse against them and the parents had acknowledged physical and emotional abuse and he replied that the views of each child had to be taken into account.
The judge said that since there was no admission of sexual abuse, the options appeared to be access which could re-traumatise the children or no access at all and when the children were eighteen there could be some form of access with the parents and the children would still be very vulnerable. She asked the therapist for his view on the way forward in terms of the children’s welfare and that of the family as a whole. The therapist said they should look at some possibility of healing before the children came out of care. He was having a further meeting with the parents next week.
The mother told the court she had an unplanned meeting with A recently. She had difficulty in recognising her daughter. A had hugged her and they had a short conversation in which A said she had written a letter to her and her father. She seemed very happy and bubbly and introduced her to her foster mother. A had referred to the possibility of meeting both her parents next month at the time of their birthdays. She said she would love to see her daughter and would abide by any conditions.
She said she was expecting all sorts of questions from B at the recent supervised access meeting. She was careful about what she said and was surprised at some of the things which her daughter had said. For instance she asked if she had become engaged to her father and if she could be a bridesmaid at the wedding. The mother said she was happy about this as she had been told her daughter did not approve of her parents being together and had been opposed to a wedding. “To me it was a big difference to what I was told,” she said. They talked about school and discos and about what she wanted to do with her life.
The mother was asked by her barrister if she would accept and abide by professional guidance on how to “handle issues which you say didn’t happen.” She said these were things they were working on in therapy. “I’ve acknowledged things were chaotic but I’m not going to acknowledge things I didn’t do.”
The judge asked her how did she feel about meeting with B and she replied that she had been delighted and that B had “got a bit hyper.” “Can you understand why the matter is complex?” the judge asked her. “I can understand but why has it taken so long? For the last two years of her life she hasn’t seen me”. She said she understood the children were quite traumatised and she was not saying “it was all made up.” She was quite prepared to continue with her therapy. “I do understand that things could have been a lot better and things which we should have done differently and this is why we are here,” she said.
The father of the children gave evidence that social workers had told him he would never see his children if he didn’t admit to sexually abusing them. “I’ve admitted emotional and physical abuse but why should I admit what I haven’t done?” he asked. He told the judge he accepted that access should begin with the mother.
The HSE solicitor submitted that access needed to be processed on a child-by-child basis. The access with B was part of her therapeutic process. She said the HSE accepted the therapeutic process was not going to bring about any change in the impasse but, in relation to preparing the children for access, the fear was the re-traumatisation of the children. “Their truth is not being accepted,” she said and the preparatory work with the children “had to take account of no admission.”
The mother’s barrister said discovery had been sought of reports from three psychologists and notes of all attendances by psychologists and social workers but they had got no reply from the HSE despite several reminders. It was, she said, a matter of concern particularly where the recommendations of psychologists were being relied upon by the HSE.
One psychologist had stated in April that requests for access with the younger children should not be ignored. There was no evidence of any disclosure by E or F and no suggestion whatsoever that either child would be affected by meeting with their mother. It was of great concern that the mother’s relationship with the two children had evaporated. “There’s absolutely no objective reason why she hasn’t seen her children. It’s unprecedented in any HSE area in the country,” she said. The mother wanted immediate access to all her children and the denial of access to E and F was “without any justification”.
The father’s barrister said his client wanted supervised access and acknowledged that it should take place with the mother first. He asked not to be isolated completely. He had acknowledged physical and emotional abuse and it was necessary that he had a forum in which to put forward his apology to the children.
The court should separate out the allegations which the children had made. There had been no allegations of sexual abuse by the four younger children. He also asked the court to give great weight to A’s wishes to meet her parents at the time of their birthdays.
In her judgment, the judge ordered that access by the parents to the children should be at the discretion of the HSE and that it be considered on an individual basis. It was a complex case in which the needs of the children must be prioritised and their needs must be assessed separately. It was a case of finding what was in the best interests of the children.
There seemed to have been an assumption that getting the parents to agree to undergo therapy would “give rise to the parents admitting everything”. They were acknowledging “everything except sexual abuse”.
The children were going to be 18 and would have to contend with some type of relationship or non-relationship with their parents and it would be a lot safer if it were done while they were still in care. She asked if there was a possibility that parental contact with the younger children could be speeded up. She ordered that all therapeutic services were to continue to be provided with individual counselling for the parents and they were to be provided with regular updates on the children. A guardian ad litem for the children was re-appointed for a full review and all reports were to be made available to her.
The judge directed that the case be mentioned in court within months for a progress report on parental access when a date would also be fixed for a full review of the Care Orders.