The District Court in a rural town refused to make a Supervision Order for a baby born in Ireland to a couple who had fled the UK to escape threatened child protection proceedings.
The Child and Family Agency had initially sought a Care Order for the child, but the application was changed to one for a Supervision Order following an assessment of the couple.
First social worker
The social worker in the case said that much of the information relating to the couple came from social services in the UK. There was a plan in the UK to take the baby into care at birth. The mother had one child adopted in the UK, and another who living with its father (who was not the father of the child in the current case). The social work department in the area where the couple now lived in Ireland was informed that the social services in the UK assessed the mother as lacking the capacity to meet the needs of the child. However, no such formal assessment was provided.
The UK social services considered the mother to be dominated by the father, though she denied she was in a controlling relationship. “There are concerns that a child could be impacted by the dynamics of this relationship.”
The mother denied, or had an alternative explanation for, most of the claims from the UK social services. She had been assessed with Asperger’s syndrome, but said this did not impact on her parenting.
The social worker said there were concerns about the father as a result of his behaviour towards his autistic brother, whom he tried to treat with medications mainly bought online. There was conflict between him and the social and medical workers in relation to his brother, whose condition deteriorated and who was taken into care. The father had been the main carer for his brother.
The couple moved to Ireland, where the baby was born by emergency caesarean section. The father insisted on recording the birth, despite being asked by the doctors to desist. He also sought to take the child from the hospital. The mother discharged herself from hospital against medical advice. The CFA obtained an Emergency Care Order for the child and he was taken into care.
Access was initially twice a week for one and a half hours, and was now four times a week for four hours. The couple’s relationship with social workers and other professionals had improved.
The father expressed concern that the child was not receiving adequate stimulation in foster care. At access he was attempting to educate and stimulate the child. He expressed concern his development was delayed, though the child was meeting his developmental milestones.
The social work department’s concerns were that both parents had given a lot of attention to parenting, with the father researching the nutritional and educational needs of the child. He objected to foods such as grains being introduced into his diet and to him being outdoors because of the danger of him being exposed to toxins.
He had been unwilling to accept a diagnosis of and suggested treatment of the child for colic. A Section 47 application had to be brought to administer Infacol to the baby, which was an off-prescription treatment for colic.
There were concerns about the father displaying “alarming and controlling behaviour” towards the mother, and that she would be unable to protect the child from “abuse” by the father. She had no friends or family in the area. She made the decision to move to Ireland without support. There was concern that she would need ongoing support. There was concern about past patterns of behaviour. The father had expressed the view that the child should be tested for autism.
A psychologist who carried out a parenting capacity assessment of the parents, including observing them with the baby, recommended that the baby be returned to them. It was important that the mother engage in psychotherapy, as she had a significant troubled time in the past, and had self-esteem issues. She suffered flashbacks. The fact that the child had been in care for the past eight months had caused stress. She had had a traumatic medical emergency.
The relationship appeared to be strong. The father was very instructive to mother about how she related to the child. They presented a very united front, the psychologist said. In relation to the concern that the father dominated the mother, he said that while he was more articulate than she is, he did not see him as dominating or controlling. “He is certainly instructive, but she did not always comply,” he said.
When they first came to see him, the father did most of the talking, but the psychologist thought that was a strategic decision the couple made. “When I sought to talk to her, there was no question whatsoever of him objecting.”
He said he found the father’s questions to be curious and well-informed. In relation to his brother and what he had given him, he said he was concerned about medication and toxicity. He produced a number of articles. “While he acted outside of medical advice, by no stretch of the imagination could it be described as poisoning.”
The parents’ barrister asked him about the claim he had given his brother mercury, and the psychologist said he had explored that, but the father had not.
Barrister: “Vitamin B6?”
Psychologist: “That is not toxic.”
Asked whether he was concerned about the father prescribing vitamins for the child, he said that he had researched them well. “My concern was that he did not have a medical professional he had a reasonable relationship with.”
He said the mother was focused on getting the child back. She was not dealing with the trauma of the medical emergency she had experienced. She was of average intelligence, the father was of very high intelligence.
The mother’s barrister put it to him that in the social work report it was suggested that because of this imbalance she might be vulnerable to sexual exploitation. “There is no evidence of that,” he replied. “I took cognizance of that. He was much more articulate, but she behaved like a free agent. She was assertive in her own way. There is no doubt she can speak on her own behalf.”
He said she related to the child in a warm and caring way. She picked him up and kissed him, it was a very normal interchange. “It was very shocking to see in the evidence the father described as threatening when he asked a question of a UK social worker he was quite entitled to ask,” he said.
He said he found him very slow to anger. He was in a very stressful situation. The psychologist said he had a high opinion of the father’s abilities. Given the nature of his inquiring mind and the diligent nature of his inquiries it was important he engaged with a GP.
Asked if he had expectations of the child beyond his age, he said that he had put the child on his tummy with a toy in front of him. He was not pushing him. He did it in a playful way to encourage the child’s curiosity. Asked if he would put the child’s educational development ahead of his emotional development, he said: “No”.
He added that the mother would benefit from counselling but there was no particular urgency in obtaining it.
The CFA solicitor put it to him that in psychological testing previous history had to be taken into account, for example, how the parents had been parented themselves. The mother had had a very difficult childhood, her parents separated and her mother had mental health and alcohol problems. She was bullied, she was in a residential centre and a special school for children with ASD, where she was abused and bullied. “Would it be fair to say such a background would impact on her own parenting?”
CFA solicitor: “In all of those events we have a child [A] who went into care, had no contact with his mother and is now adopted. He does not have the society of his biological parents. Does that not give you cause for concern?”
Psychologist: “Absolutely. I would also say that was some time back in the context of a very difficult relationship with [Father One]. The mother has matured considerably since.
CFA solicitor: “In relation to the second child [B], was it reasonable for social services to have concerns?”
CFA solicitor: “Then the relationship broke down. She said there was severe domestic violence. She now says there was only one incident and she said that to get accommodation. [B] was not taken into care, she is with [Father One] and his family. He objected to her relationship with [Father Two, the father of the baby in these proceedings]. She had access to [B], but did not exercise it. Would it not be reasonable for the social work department to conclude she prioritised her relationship with [Father Two] over her relationship with [B]? Is it not in the best interests of a child to have the society of both parents? Her decision-making led to [B’s] loss of the society of her mother. Do you think it those circumstances it was reasonable for the social work department to have concerns?
CFA solicitor: “So would it not be reasonable for the social work department to oversee the care of the child for a period of time?”
Psychologist: “I don’t have a strong view on that.”
The solicitor asked the psychologist if he thought it was strange that the father admitting administering medication purchased online to his brother having denied it for seven months, and the psychologist said he did. She continued that when the child developed colic, two doctors recommended medication which the father refused to allow be administered. This led to an application to the court to dispense with his permission.
The psychologist said that in his experience the medication recommended did not have much effect on colic in a child. He would regard disagreement on how to treat colic as reasonably normal.
The solicitor said that in relation to a small baby, while it was important parents should be well informed, there was a thin line between that and deciding you were better informed than the medical professionals. Was it not reasonable there should be concerns if there had been such a pattern?
The psychologist said that if the father cooperated with medical advice without the need for social work input, there would be no need for a Supervision Order.
“But the social work department can’t know if there is cooperation if they don’t have an involvement. They need to see that over a period of time.”
“I accept that.” He acknowledged that a supervision order may be of assistance in that regard.
The mother’s barrister said that no risks had been identified from the mother in relation to her second child, Child B. The case was closed. The child was living with her father because her parents were separated. The mother’s first child, Child A, was given up for adoption when the mother was in a residential centre for people with intellectual disabilities. She said she was not ready to be a parent. “Was that an appropriate decision at the time?”
Barrister: “Does it mean she cannot parent now?”
Barrister: “Can her decision to come to Ireland be characterised as prioritising her relationship over her child’s needs?”
Asked if it would alleviate his concerns if, instead of a supervision order, the parents agreed to cooperate over the coming months, he said it certainly would, it would be very positive.
Barrister: “Do you see any evidence that the child’s health, development or welfare are likely to be avoidably impaired?”
The judge said the CFA had no confidence any agreement would be kept because of the history. “We know the mother lied about the domestic violence situation [with the previous partner] to obtain the result she wanted. [The social work department] cannot have confidence that any agreement will be maintained.”
Second social worker
A second social worker gave evidence of differences with the father over the treatment of the child for a chest infection and a rash. He was concerned about antibiotics, the development of allergies and the radiation from X-rays. There was concern, in the light of the history, that the father was not always able to follow advice straight away. There were concerns about a teething toy – the father had an orthodontic one he wanted used.
The second social worker said she felt the parents would be less willing to go along with the social work department recommendations without a Supervision Order. She did not think calling in by agreement would be sufficient.
The father’s solicitor said that if the parents knew exactly what the concerns were, they could meet those concerns.
The mother told the court that she was confident she could care for the baby. Asked about her own childhood, she said her mother was fine now, she did not drink nearly as much as she did.
“I was under the care of social workers when [Child A] was born. I got pregnant. I could have had an abortion but I didn’t want to. I was living in a school for ASD students. I was not in a position to raise a child. I decided to put him up for adoption. I think it was the right decision.”
She said no care orders or supervision orders had been made in relation to child B. She decided to leave the relationship with this child’s father. There had been an incident of domestic violence and she could not live with him any more after that incident. He took a really active role in B’s life and couldn’t get a job, so she left child B with him.
In relation to the father of the child now the subject of proceedings, she said she met him on a mainline dating site. The relationship became serious quite quickly and she became pregnant. She decided to move so that they could be together. She denied the father was controlling.
Referring to their move to Ireland, she said she was afraid of being sectioned in the UK. “I know what the UK social services are capable of. I was afraid I would be sectioned and they would take away my child though I had done nothing wrong.”
Referring to differences with the social service department about her leaving the hospital after the birth, she said: “I left to see a person who offered to be a McKenzie Friend. I told people I was leaving to go to the car park. I said I was not going to be discharged unless [the father] was with me.” (The father had earlier been told by staff he could not stay in the hospital).
She said she was sad about not getting shared custody of [B]. “I should have got legal advice.”
Barrister: “It was suggested you might be sexually exploited.”
Mother: “I don’t know where that came from.”
The mother’s barrister asked the mother about her attitude to attending doctors. “If a child is sick, I would take the child to the doctor. It is important to have a GP,” the mother said.
Referring to the claim that the father was controlling, she said that they had a very good relationship. It had been her decision to come to Ireland, because she was afraid the authorities would take the child away. “I put pressure on him to come.”
Asked by the CFA solicitor about her contact with B, she said they talked on Skype and she would see her in a couple of weeks. The child’s father had brought her to see the mother a few months before they had left for Ireland.
Asked why she did not think it necessary to bring the baby to the doctor with colic, she said that this was treated with over-the-counter medication, and the doctor would have recommended the same OTC medication.
The father told the court he had got a job in Ireland in the computer business. He had had the start date put back due to the proceedings.
He said he had first been informed of the child’s colic the previous January and did research on it. He was worried it was something else. He had said to give him gripe-water, and if it did not work to give him Infacol. Then there was the Section 47 to administer the Infacol. He asked for a second opinion.
Referring to the child’s chest infection, he got to speak to the doctor, who said he had a chest infection and was put on antibiotics straight away. The doctor said he was to have a chest X-ray a few days later. “I felt an X-ray was not necessary if the antibiotics were working. The doctor said it was a precautionary measure. After thinking about it, the risks and benefits, I agreed.”
Asked how he would deal with a doctor’s recommendation he disagreed with in other instances, he said he would ask for an explanation of the recommendation. He might ask for a second opinion. Asked about an emergency situation, he said he could call an ambulance and rush the child to hospital.
Asked about his autistic brother, he said that before his deterioration he went to a mainstream school, he could speak, though he often did not want to speak. After his deterioration he did not speak any more, he was often screaming and crying. “I was very concerned about him.”
He sent a video to a support organisation for the families of autism sufferers and they sent back about 14 or 15 pages. They offered seminars to support him. “There are very few doctors who specialise in autism. I was told by this organisation that autistic children don’t process nutrients properly and when confronted with mercury in the environment they react.”
Asked if he relied on information from the Internet he said: “I’m extremely discriminating. 95 per cent of what is on the Internet is rubbish. I relied on information in peer-reviewed journals. There is contradictory evidence.”
Asked if he was he was aware that at least one of the medications she gave his brother was only available on prescription, he said he was not.
He said that the social workers in Ireland were very good, with one exception, who was rude and hostile. “But [X] is the best social worker I ever met. I’m happy to work with her.” He said they were opposing the Supervision Order because they saw nothing in the documentation to support the allegation that the welfare of the child was being “avoidably impaired”. “I never had an issue with help, with medication.”
Asked about initially denying to the psychologist he had given his brother medication, he said he did not deny it. “Perhaps I should have expanded on it. I didn’t tell him the whole truth initially.”
Asked what he thought caused his brother’s deterioration he said: “I think microbes were released in the house. He got worse and worse and worse. He hit our mother with a coat-hanger and was put into care.”
The judge asked him if he had asked his brother’s doctor about giving him supplements and if they conflicted in any way with what the doctor was trying to do.
After a pause, the father replied: “It’s possible. I do remember asking the doctor if there was anything he could take that could alleviate his condition.” He acknowledged he did not agree with this doctor’s approach.
Judge: “If you had a problem and you went to the doctor and he didn’t agree with you, would you continue getting opinions until an intelligent doctor agreed with what you thought? Is that a fair summary of your evidence?”
Father: “If I broke my arm and went to a doctor and he said it was not a major issue I would go to another doctor.”
Judge: “No-one would disagree with that. But the question is whether you would keep seeking a doctor to agree with you.”
Father: “I would ask questions.”
Judge: “Of course you should question doctors and clearly you are highly intelligent. But you are not a doctor. If doctors could qualify on the Internet we’d have millions of them. They study for five years after which they’re still not qualified. The problem is continuing seeking doctors until you find one who agrees.”
Father: “In all my experiences with doctors, apart from one, we’ve agreed on a course of action. In relation to the baby, the second doctor was polite and explained much more fully how the medication worked and what were the possible side-effects. I was perfectly happy with that.”
In her submission the CFA solicitor said that the threshold for a Supervision Order was that the CFA had to be satisfied there were grounds for believing that there could be adverse impact on the health, development or welfare of the child in question. The CFA thought the pattern of behaviour demonstrated there was a real basis for concern and that the threshold was met for a Supervision Order for six months.
The mother’s barrister said that the lead case relating to State intervention in family life was the Supreme Court decision in the case involving the PK test. The State had sought an injunction and the Supreme Court had decided four to one that the State could not intervene. Intervention must be exceptional.
“Parents often make decision about their children that could put them at risk. But the State can’t intervene in all such cases, and should not,” she said. “Exceptional circumstances include where there is an immediate threat to the life of a child. Preferring gripe-water over Infacol, or Nurofen over Calpol, does not meet this threshold. No particular risk was identified, let alone an exceptional risk.
“Maybe the father seems a bit odd. Maybe if my mother, or anyone else’s mother, with an autistic child was bringing him to every quack in the country, if nothing else seemed to work, they would not be criticised and the child would not be taken into care. Even if a decision is unwise, he is entitled as a parent to get things wrong.
“The nub of this case is that any intervention brought by the State, including a Supervision Order, should only be in exceptional circumstances. The psychologist said that while the CFA had grounds for concern, there was no risk and no need for a Supervision Order. He said the mother needed some support and counselling. But that is not enough to justify a Supervision Order. The parents do not want to consent to a Supervision Order saying they are a risk to their baby, when the psychologist says they are not.
“Relations between the couple and the social workers in Ireland was coloured by mis-information from England, that the father was violent, had psychiatric problems, was very controlling. None of it is true.
“We are in a situation where the CFA have found no identifiable risk. There is a report from Bristol which is extremely positive, which only came very late. There is a letter from a lawyer in the UK saying the father had no role or mention in the care proceedings for his brother, which was not brought to our attention.”
The following day the judge said that he did not have the time to do a long judgement and he was going to give out the basis of his approach. He said that in this case the CFA were applying for a Supervision Order where previous Interim Care Orders had been made. He said that considerable progress has been made since the parents had obtained legal advice.
He said that it was unfortunate that they appeared previously to have engaged with a service which did them no favours and appeared to have a separate and different agenda other than their family. He said it was a very traumatic period at the time and he accepted that they were under immense pressure.
He said the social work department are also under extreme pressure at all times and unfortunately you do not always get cooperation. In situations such as this case a decision had to be made quickly and on information that was provided by third parties. He said many times the social workers are damned if they do act and damned if they do not.
He said in relation to this particular application the most cogent evidence came in the course of the psychologist’s evidence where time after time he appeared to acknowledge that the concerns the CFA had were reasonable but on re-examination seemed to resile from that position. That said, he said he had been impressed by changes in attitude on the part of the parents and noted that they have a good relationship with the social worker dealing with them [X] and had assured him that they will cooperate to welcome the social workers into their home and welcome any support that is offered.
There does appear to have been some sort of a transformation, he said. He proposed to take the two of them at their word and see how things go. He said they had given the assurances and he is going to put the matter back for a month. If there is cooperation, and as long as that occurs, there will be no order made then. He saw no reason why at that stage, unless they kept the social worker out, if they cooperated with her there would be no Order.
The matter was adjourned for a month and when it resumed the judge made no order.