Timely assessments and access dominate child care day in District Court

Twenty-two child care cases were listed on one day in a rural town, the majority of which were applications to extend interim care orders over the summer period. All extensions were granted on consent, following evidence from the Child and Family Agency that the conditions underpinning the initial interim care order still existed. However, issues that arose during the hearing included the lack of timely assessments and a care plan for the children concerned, and issues concerning access.

A dispute about access arose between the Child and Family Agency/Tusla (CFA) and the father of one very young child. The mother was deceased and the father was in custody awaiting trial on a serious charge. He was from another EU state, and his mother visited from time to time to see the child, who was of pre-school age. His sister, the child’s aunt, had access with the child, and he had had some access from prison, including by phone and one meeting in the court building. The father was seeking increased access, and the family was also asking that the child learn their language and be introduced to their culture and religion.

A prison officer and a technology expert on behalf of the CFA gave evidence of efforts to provide communication between the father and child in a secure way. Eventually this was done through a specially configured IPad, which enabled to CFA to connect with the Prison Service by Skype, by-passing its security.

However, a CFA social worker gave evidence that contact with the father had a severely detrimental effect on the young child and they had to cancel the call. “When she heard his voice her body began to shake and she became very distressed. She curled up like a dog.” She said most of the child’s involvement with her birth family was with her aunt.

She acknowledged to the lawyer for the father that, outside of the attempted access, she had not seen the child. “I did not want to add to her anxiety,” she said. She also acknowledged that the recommendations from a psychologist had not yet been implemented.

A child neuro-psychologist told the court that he completed an assessment of the child four months earlier. His recommendations were for very limited access. He had only learned that morning that there had been face-to-face access.

“The child’s presentation is consistent with trauma [along] with severe anxiety,” he said. He said his earlier recommendations had not been implemented. “I was unaware until this morning that there were proposals in relation to the [birth family’s] language. I am concerned about a second language at this time. It seems to me that the needs of the adults are being considered, and her anxiety is lost. It is important her concerns are identified and listened to. Otherwise it can affect her neuro-development.”

He said it was clear from the description of her behaviour that she was reacting to the face-to-face meeting with her father, exacerbated by the phone call. “When children behave like animals it is indicative of extreme trauma.” He said it meant the brain had gone into shock and a portion of the cortex had shut down.

He said he had no issue with access with the aunt, but it should be limited, not “too much, too quickly”.

“I think there should be access with her paternal aunt and her grandmother. But a large volume of access would not be in her best interests while she is dis-regulated. It needs to be consistent and structured.”

He said he strongly recommended that a second language should not be introduced for a considerable period, but he had no problem with her introduction to her culture.

Asked about the prognosis for the child, he said it was to build her back up in a child-centred way. “What surprises me is the lack of insight into the feedback. The attention is on the needs of the adults.”

The father gave evidence that when they met the child had hugged him and played with him, but the video-link access “was always finished because of ‘issues’. Now I hear she’s throwing my pictures around and does not want to be with me. I think it’s because she was told she was going to see me and didn’t.

“I don’t believe the CFA is acting in my daughter’s best interests and my family don’t believe it. I was promised one access with my daughter in prison. They didn’t bring her, they said the car was broken, then they brought her [to the court], and showed her me in handcuffs.”

The child’s guardian ad litem(GAL) told the court that if the child was to see her father in future it was likely to be in prison. If so, she would not be in agreement with it, and certainly not quickly. It should be in the presence of her foster mother, and not in the normal public visitors’ area. In the light of the child’s previous reaction, everyone involved had to be careful about the best way forward.

The judge granted the application to extend the interim care order. Turning to the fact that the recommendations in the child’s care plan had not been implemented, he said: “It is extremely concerning to me that the agency cannot meet the terms of its own care plan. The question is – what is the court to do if the CFA is not fulfilling its duty?”

He said there were various questions relating to the care plan for the child, and the psychological recommendations and care plan appeared to be drifting and were far from the recommendations made four months earlier. He agreed with the recommendations of the psychologist that the second language should not be introduced quickly, and commented that strides appeared to have been made relating to religion. “It seems to be the cart before the horse.”

In relation to access, he said efforts had been made to establish contact, but it should not be a surprise if there were difficulties. This was a very young child, and face to face contact had been established in a very unorthodox way (in the environs of the court). Given the evidence from the neuro-psychologist, he said he would suspend access with the father for now, given the degree of trauma. Access should be in consultation with the psychologist and the GAL.

Referring to an Article 15 application (concerning the jurisdiction under which the full care order application should be heard) he said he was adjourning the matter until the case returned to court after the summer.

In another case where the father was in prison, the father said he only had a couple of months to do, and he was getting a place to live, where he hoped his daughter would join him. “I’ve promised her. Myself and her mother are separated.” The judge said all that would be taken into account, and extended the interim care order until October, directing that all assessments be completed by then, along with a long-term care plan for the primary-school age child.

In a case involving three children the court heard there were no social workers available to supervise access, the mother’s solicitor told the court that there had been a constant turnover of social workers, and the mother had long periods of time with little contact with social workers. The CFA social worker agreed.

The judge said that the last time this case came before him he was told the CFA was pursuing a meeting with the Gardai concerning some issues in the case. “Where is that at?”

Social worker: “I have no knowledge. It is not active.” She added they were still waiting for assessments of the children.

The mother told the court that the first time she had met the social worker was that morning, on the day of the hearing of the application to extend the interim care order. “There have been 10 social workers so far,” she said.

The GAL told the court that the three children were very distressed and two were receiving therapy. “All three are struggling. The carers are struggling, especially with the turnover of social workers. Were it not for the dedication of the foster carers we would not be as far ahead as we are with these children.”

She said there had been a successful access with the mother on a “very good day” which allowed the mother and children to play outside the access room in a garden. However, the grandfather was parked across the road and this upset the children. One of the children had written to the judge, but the judge said he would the letter had no evidential value at this time. He extended the interim care order.