Care Orders for two and a half years were granted in a District Court in a rural town in respect of three children with a recommendation by the judge that access between the children and their mother be broadened and made more frequent.
They had come into voluntary care in 2008 and the youngest child was in care most of his life. A guardian ad litem was appointed.
The judge asked the mother what the main grounds of objection were given that the children had been in care nearly all their lives. The mother’s solicitor argued that the legal threshold was no longer met and said that the mother’s situation was completely different now compared to the time when the children went into care.
The mother was no longer in a violent relationship and no longer had any difficulties relating to housing. The mother also had two other children who are not in care and whom she looked after. The solicitor said that the mother wanted the whole family to be together.
A social worker said that the children came into care in 2008 amid concerns about the mother’s violent relationship, about neglect, about her admissions into a women’s refuge and trouble managing her home, bills etc.
The social worker said: “We do not feel that the situation has improved enough to let her have them back”. The children had initially been in care under a voluntary arrangement but later came into statutory care. In 2010 the CFA had made an application for Care Orders until 18 but the court had granted Care Orders for two and a half years to give the mother a chance to “straighten things out”.
In relation to access the social worker said that the older girl sees her mum every week and the other children see their mum every month. Two of the children are in the same placement and the other child was on her own. The social worker said that a GAL was appointed in January 2008 so that someone could present the children’s views to the court.
The social worker’s worry was that the mother would not be able to care for all five children together given that concerns still existed about the mother’s ability to manage money, pay rent and bills. She said that the mother had been threatened with eviction on two occasions last year but conceded that she thought that the mother was paying any rent arrears that she owed. The mother’s solicitor pointed out that there were no rent arrears.
The social worker also said that although the mother was no longer in a relationship with her ex-partner (about whom the social work department had concerns), she was concerned that he lived close by and there was a history of violence.
The social worker also said that the children had told her that they wanted to continue to live with their foster carers. She said that the eldest child is going into secondary school and “will need support and boundaries and I am concerned about the mother’s ability to provide that.”
The CFA solicitor asked the social worker how the mother was managing with the two children who are in her care. The social worker said that the children seemed to be well cared for and had good school attendances. She said that she would be worried about “landing three more children in on that.” She said that the mother had a three bedroom house and that the added financial pressure and pressure of school might be too much for the mother.
The CFA solicitor asked the social worker whether she was worried about potential neglect. The social worker replied that she was. She said that she thought moving the children would have a “devastating impact”.
The social worker said that the eldest child had said that she wished to live with her mother but the social worker said that she thought this “did not cause her undue stress”. The same girl had been in a number of foster placements but had said that her current placement was the best one so far. The social worker said that the girl has a moderate learning difficulty and she receives special assistance and the social worker said that she thought the girl would find the transition to secondary school difficult.
The GAL gave evidence and said that the eldest child was well integrated into her family. She had said that she would be happy to go to live with her mother but if that was not possible she was also happy to stay where she was (in the foster placement). She had also said that she would like more time with her mother and siblings. The GAL said that the girl seemed “integrated into her family and feels part of her community”. She said that the girl has ADHD but the school principal said she is doing well. The GAL said that there was a debate as to whether the girl should go to a mainstream secondary school or a special school. She said that the foster parents seem to have great insight into the girl’s needs and can help her with any issues the ADHD brings up. She also said that the foster parents express great affection for the girl.
In relation to the other two children the GAL said that she asked them whether there was any message that they wanted her to bring to court. The GAL said that they “were emphatic” that they wanted to stay were they were. The GAL said that the foster carers had gone to great care to cater for their needs and that they had taken the doors in their house off the hinges because one of the children suffered from a condition called dyspraxia. The children had said that although they wished to see more of their mother and siblings they were happy in their placement. They also said that they were fearful of hurting their mother’s feelings if they said they wanted to stay where they were. The GAL said “they were confused about my role. They were unaware of court appearances and unaware that their placement might come to an end. They presented as a team and they put their points to me. They had been thinking about it and working out what to say to me.”
The GAL had met the children’s mother and had asked the mother what would be different if the other children were to return to her care. The mother had said that the children had been in their foster placement for so long that she did not know what would happen if they were to come back. The GAL said that she wondered about the three children returning and whether it might be more than the mother could handle. The GAL suggested that a parenting capacity assessment be carried out.
The GAL recommended that further Care Orders be made and the children remain where they are. She said “[their] stability is bad. They are anxious at the moment and need the stability and predictability that their placements provide.” She thought that the eldest child in particular needed support and stability and pointed out that she was nearing adolescence. The GAL said that she was recommending a Care Order until the children are 18.
The mother’s solicitor asked the GAL whether she accepted that the mother’s circumstances had changed. The GAL agreed that the mother’s situation had changed but said that she still had outstanding concerns “about budgeting etc.” and that the mother’s ex-partner (with whom she had a violent relationship) still lived very close by. The mother’s solicitor said that the mother had cleared her debts, had a saving plan and was saving towards the confirmation of one of the children and communion of another. The solicitor said the mother had “taken great strides” and that she rarely sees her ex-partner.
A social worker said that she did not think the children were at risk of physical harm but that “the harm is related to neglecting the children’s needs”. The mother’s solicitor asked the social worker how it was possible to gauge the risk to the children where the mother was only seeing her children once a month.
The social worker said that if the mother were to care for her five children she (the social worker) would be concerned that the mother would not manage.
The mother’s solicitor pointed out that the children only have two hours’ access with their mother every month which meant that the children’s ability to build up a relationship with her was limited. The social worker said that the most important thing was to have quality access and that the children did not like missing their afterschool activities. She said that more access could be arranged during school holidays.
The mother’s solicitor asked the social worker whether she was saying that it was best for the children to stay in care because they were already in care. The social worker said that was not what she meant.
The mother’s solicitor pointed out that there had been much talk of promoting the children’s stability and security but the older child had been through four foster placements which, she argued, would not promote stability or security. The social worker said that she thought that if the eldest child were to move home she would lose a lot of the supports that she had. The social worker reiterated that she thought a parenting capacity assessment should take place.
The mother gave evidence and said that she wanted to be given a chance and an opportunity. She said that when she was in a relationship with her ex-partner she had no proper home. She was now in a stable relationship and had a proper home.
She said that she is seeing more of her older child and that she constantly seeks more access with the younger children but “every time I ask for more access I am given excuses about school”. She said that the children are always brought to access late. She said: “I was in a violent relationship when my children were taken into care.
I am now in a stable relationship. I had problems with budgeting and now my arrears are cleared.” She said that the teacher in her child’s school has said that he is a top student and that the school was very happy with him.
The CFA solicitor said that the fear was that if the mother was caring for all five of her children she would not be able to manage. The mother said that she had not yet been given a chance to prove that she could look after them. She said that the eldest child had not even been allowed to stay overnight with her “because they say if she stays overnight she will think she is coming home”.
The judge commented that it was a difficult case in which to make a decision. He said that he was concerned that access was only once a month. The social worker said that access was more frequent during school holidays.
He said that resources should not deprive a child of access with his/her parents and that roughly fifteen access visits a year was “scandalous”. He said that distance should not be a reason for children having less access with their parents and also said that “money and manpower cannot be the deciding factor”.
The judge commented that it would be difficult for the children to bond with their mother if they only have access once a month. He said that he was aware of two of the children having special needs but would like to see more access with the mother taking place.
The judge also said that the mother’s current partner with whom she lives was not known to the social workers and that he would be in the house if the children were to return. The mother told the judge that her partner has a close bond with her children.
The judge asked the professionals involved in the case whether he could create a situation where the eldest child would be able to see her mother whenever she wanted. The judge further commented that the mother’s education level was such that she would not be able to assist her children with their school-work beyond primary school.
The judge reiterated that he was concerned about the current access situation and said “the State has fallen down in its obligations to these people.” In making Care Orders for two and a half years for the three children the judge said that the eldest child should be allowed more autonomy in determining access “subject to the mother being found fit to be a parent”.