Three young children were returned to the care of their mother from interim foster care, despite their own objections to returning to her. The judge granted a Supervision Order. Originally the HSE had intended to apply for a Care Order but as the threshold for this would not have been reached, a Supervision Order was applied for instead.
However, when the case returned to court three months later an Interim Care Order was sought as the terms of the Supervision Order had not been complied with.
At the earlier hearing an ICO extension was applied for and granted in respect of a half-sibling, a teenager, who had a fractious relationship with the mother and did not yet wish to return home. “Having regard to the age and particular circumstances and particular relationship with the mother, different considerations must apply with the threshold and the care of Child A,” said the judge.
The court heard the three younger siblings did not wish to return home either. From early childhood they had all experienced parental alcohol and drug abuse at home as well as domestic violence. Their parents separated after the four children were taken into the care of the State and judicial separation proceedings were underway.
In a previous ICO extension hearing the social worker had told the court that during an access visit the mother had used inappropriate discipline with child B, holding her down when she did not want to complete her homework and the child had become upset. Child A said she heard a smack. Both parents consented to the statement being admitted.
The social worker told the court that, “[Child A] has a fragile relationship with her Mum, she doesn’t acknowledge why the children came into care, the Mum denies any physical abuse and believes A should do what she is told. The relationship is very negative at the moment.” The mother’s parenting style was very rigid and needed to change.
The father’s solicitor said that late last year an allegation of historical child sexual abuse against the father had come to the HSE’s attention. He had had supervised access with the children since then and was currently going for risk assessment.
The GAL solicitor told the court Child D was soiling herself after telephone access with the mother. The social worker said the children needed to keep attending the Family Centre for support.
The guardian ad litem told the court that A did not have a good relationship with her Mum and did not want to return home, she had described the reunification plan as “ridiculous.” Both the mother and A would have to make significant changes.
Child C had said to him, “I do not want to return to mummy, daddy is much nicer than mummy.” His first choice was Dad and his second choice was the foster home. For B and D their first choice was their Dad, and “it was a major debate between foster care and Mum…it is very unusual in my career all in the one family choosing Mum as the second option to Dad.” There was a great apprehensiveness and uncertainty in their relationship with their Mum, which possibly went back to unpredictable and rigid parenting. “Their perception of Mum is fear,” he said.
The GAL had a rough idea of the nature of the historical allegations regarding the father, which were now being appealed, he was seeking information about them. Due to this he said it was difficult for him to give an opinion about the children going to live with the father.
A month later, on the day of the Supervision Order and E/ICO hearing, the mother did not attend court. Her solicitor said calls made to her were going straight to voicemail. She told the court that she was not in a position to speak on behalf of the mother as she could not contact her.
The social worker told the court that she had met with the mother outside of access, who agreed she would do whatever was necessary for all of her children to return home. In early summer, the HSE drew up a transition plan with the mother, to increase access to over-night and day-long access.
The children reported consistently they did not want to return home. Yet the social worker said at access in the family home the three children presented as comfortable, a number of spot checks were completed by the department and they were seen to enjoy their visits.
There was a family support plan which the mother would adhere to: the children would continue to attend at the Family Centre to engage in support services; they would attend all medical appointments for vaccinations; the mother would continue to engage in the parenting programmes, and commit to not using any form of physical discipline with the children; she would refrain from consuming alcohol or drugs while caring for the children; she would commit to the homework plan; the children would attend school daily and in appropriate uniforms; she would also allow the social work department weekly access visits to ensure the children were happy.
Child C had missed 29 days of school and child B had missed 21. The mother was accepting the services of a family support worker, two hours, twice a week, the social worker said.
She said their reluctance to return home was because they had “witnessed a lot of unpredictability with the parents being under the influence of alcohol and domestic violence … alcohol was a huge feature in the household.” The mother had had one bottle of beer last weekend in front of the children, the social worker emphasised again that alcohol was a huge concern and the mother had committed to not drinking excessively.
In the social worker’s view the Supervision Order was appropriate and the safety plan was in order.
The solicitor for the father said his parenting capacity assessment was carried out prior to the allegations. However after a risk assessment the father was found to be at low risk of re-offending, so it was contradictory to recommend supervision. Therefore it was agreed that access no longer needed to be HSE-supervised. However the mother would supervise it in a very broad sense, said the judge.
The mother still had a huge amount of work to do to build a secure attachment with the children, said the GAL solicitor.
The GAL told the court that he supported the application in relation to the three younger children, he had reviewed the family support plan and was limited if he wished to oppose it. From his point of view because the parents were separated the issue of domestic violence was removed, and aside from the one bottle of beer, that issue was also removed.
“The difficulty is over-egging the progress the mother has made. She has not engaged properly in meetings, she was well aware of the court appearance and has not attended, she has failed to attend for meetings at the family centre and with the guardian, she was doing the bare minimum so the Supervision Order would be made. The level of progress by the mother was greatly exaggerated,” the GAL said. However access was going reasonably ok and there was no adverse reaction on return. Potential reunification was within four to six weeks.
He said it was a “highly unusual situation where after 12 months in care for four children their mother would be their third choice.” It was possible they had formed an attachment to their foster carer. Child A’s relationship with the mother was so fractured for so long that the younger children had picked on it and become anxious.
“In this case given the blatant lack of co-operation of the mother, the social work department had to work towards the objective of a Supervision Order.” He supported it as the threshold for the Care Order would not be reached, but it was with very great nervousness and anxiety that he supported it. It was the absolute minimum the court should make and should be reviewed in six weeks.
“The mother knew absolutely rightly the impact of having a bottle of beer in front of the children, it says something about her judgment and insight that would have on her children, it was a sensitive time in their rehabilitation,” he told the court.
At that point the mother arrived into the court room, when the judge asked her why she was so late she told him it was because she had to go to the post office for the train fare and the train did not leave as scheduled.
The GAL continued, he said the mother did not respond to his voice messages, it was very difficult for the social work department to work with somebody who did not co-operate. The HSE had produced a comprehensive family support plan. However he had never worked on a case where all four children were saying they did not want to return home.
The father’s wishes in relation to caring for the children were, “completely confusing.” Up until six weeks ago he had said he wanted to care for them but then he changed his mind and supported their return to their mother. When he came to court he did not express any solid view.
The father’s solicitor told the GAL: “The sexual abuse allegations threw a spanner in the works, otherwise he had been consistent.”
“For whatever reason [the father] had become stressed and overwhelmed by the situation and has become unclear about what he wants,” said the GAL. He was in agreement there was no need for formal supervision by the HSE.
The judge granted the Supervision Order for six months with directions in accordance with the family support plan, the GAL was to remain appointed for that time. A review would take place within nine weeks.
He said the GAL had expressed worries about mother not co-operating and the court also shared that view. He asked her solicitors to advise her of the sanctions and consequences of breach of the Supervision Order.
“The mother’s non-engagement warranted the court making such directions, I am particularly concerned for the children in this case, a message should be clearly sent to [the mother] that the court is taking a particular view,” said the judge.
The extension of the Interim Care Order was also granted for the teenager, A. Her mother had admitted why the children went into care and apologised for events of the past. A had agreed to start attending access, said the social worker. She did want to return home but not immediately. She wanted to stay in foster care to see how the situation panned out, and establish for herself that the apology was genuine and to see what happened with the siblings.
All four children were returned to the care of their mother under the Supervision Order. However within three months the HSE brought Interim Care Order applications in respect of all four children, stating that the Supervision Order had not been complied with. Both parents (who were separated) opposed the applications. The mother chose to be unrepresented and did not give evidence.
A handwritten statement prepared by child A following the recent incident in the family home was admitted by the court. The ICOs were being made on the basis of certain events that had taken place, the catalyst was when child A had contacted her GAL, said the HSE solicitor.
The statement prepared by child A gave her the opportunity to have her voice heard in the proceedings. “A lot of the concerns raised about non-compliance with the Supervision Order had really been raised by the children,” she continued.
The social worker told the court that regarding the evening in question, the father alleged the mother had had between three and five drinks while the children were present. The father later admitted in cross-examination that he had also been drinking in the house and had spent most of the weekend there.
The social worker told the court the father said he had left the house at 10 pm on the evening in question, but received a call ten minutes later from child A, saying her mother had thrown her out and she was unable to gain re-entry. By the time he drove back to the house she had rung her GAL, who had then got a Garda to ring her. She told the Garda she was OK, that her Dad was with her. He rang the doorbell and the mother answered the door.
The social worker said there was “a risk that [child A] would be subject to physical abuse again, she was pushed with two hands placed on her back … given her age she may take on a parental role in the family in order to protect her siblings, the younger children are seeing their mother drunk and seeing rows, seeing [child A] being pushed out the door, their mother speaks in a manner which could be deemed emotionally abusive, significant concerns remain with regards to their welfare.”
The social worker read excerpts from child A’s letter: “If I don’t keep my mouth shut she’ll have me removed by the Guards … she doesn’t care she’ll do what she likes … she’d rather I’d live somewhere else, she rather have three kids than me.”
The GAL told the court that the children told him with some degree of frustration and regret: “they would rather be in foster care than living with mummy, the foster carer is nicer, [child A] said it’s the constant shouting, for the younger kids it’s a little bit scary.”
“I find it very difficult listening to the evidence on that day, knowing the history and views. [The mother] had taken four or five glasses of vodka and knowing she sees [child A] as an informant, for [the father] to choose to leave the house with [the mother] lying on the couch, if [she] falls asleep because she has taken so much alcohol, there are three children in the house, there are concerns there about neglect.”
“Mum’s shouting is emotionally abusive for the children, the impact on the other kids in the house, in my view it would be significant. Also with [the father] drinking, it raises concerns about him being a protective parent, that’s a key issue.”
There was an outstanding allegation from another evening of one of the younger children being lifted from a top bunk bed and dropped to the floor because she wanted a bedtime story, he added.
Regarding the father being able to care for the children, the GAL said: “Does he really feel he could take care of these children, he is employed, he is away on work commitments, he would have to give a lot of that up, there is a strained relationship between him and their mother, it is much more than not just having accommodation, it is actually ability and commitment and not just taking the children on,” he told father’s solicitor. “His actual desire to care for the children on his own and not have a relationship of any type with [the mother] is something he has not shown.”
Interim Care Orders were granted in respect of all four children, the judge found there had been a breach of the directions of the Supervision Order.
He said there was “a significant risk of physical abuse of the children in their parents’ care, a significant risk of emotional abuse of the children in their parents’ care, [child A] was being forced to take on a parental role, [mother and father] are unable to provide effect protective factors for the children within the family home.”
Warrants were granted for the enforcement of the ICOs in respect of each child.