A CIRCUIT COURT in a major city refused an appeal of care orders in respect of five children after a finding that the children had been sexually abused and neglected by their parents.
The children range in age from three to eight-years-old and came into voluntary care in April 2013. Full care orders were made by the District Court in June last year and the Child and Family Agency (CFA) sought to reduce parental access significantly. The parents appealed the care order, seeking the return of their children.
The case is one of 22 reports from the Child Care Law Reporting Project, published today. In this case, the CFA sought a finding of fact that the parents and another person sexually abused the children. There were further findings sought relating to neglect, attachment and trauma.
The father in the case was biological fatherto four of the five children. The parents had met when the mother was in her teens and the father in his early twenties. The mother was a child in care when she became pregnant with the couple’s first child.
Both came from abusive backgrounds; the mother had herself been sexually abused and the father’s father had been convicted of abusing his sisters. The family moved frequently. There were concerns about inappropriate adults visiting the home, especially the paternal grandfather of the children who had a conviction for child sexual abuse.
The court heard detailed evidence of prolonged and serious neglect of the children. This included their living in a succession of very dirty and chaotic houses, which were extremely cold in winter, not being toilet-trained and suffering from neuropsychological delay which was attributed by an expert to neglect.
The four older children also exhibited disturbed behaviour, and three of them had intellectual disabilities.
Hearsay evidence from children
The lengthy appeal heard 23 witnesses on behalf of the CFA, as well as evidence from a guardian ad litem and from the parents. The parents also called an independent forensic psychologist from another jurisdiction who questioned the evidence from the specialist sex abuse clinic attended by the children.
An initial application was made on behalf of the parents to exclude certain hearsay evidence from social workers and foster carers concerning statements made by the children. Under Section 23 of the Children Act 1997 hearsay evidence from children, depending on all the circumstance of the case, can be admitted.
The court ruled that DVDs of interviews with the children in the special sex abuse unit could be admitted, along with evidence from people to whom they had made statements.
The court heard evidence of sexualised behaviour on behalf of three of the children, all of whom also made statements suggesting that their father had sexually abused them in the company of their mother. The allegations were strenuously denied by the parents and the evidence was challenged by lawyers on behalf of the parents.
In her judgment the judge said: “It is my finding that it is highly unlikely that a child who has not been abused would be able to give an account or display behaviour as detailed as the accounts given by [children B and C] … I find on the balance of probabilities that [B and C’s] claims that their father sexually abused them and that their mother knew of this abuse and actively participated in it are true.”
She also said: “I am satisfied that [A, B, C and D] were traumatised in the care of the respondents. I am also satisfied that they are insecurely attached to the respondents notwithstanding having spent their pre-care childhoods in their care. I am satisfied that [A, B, C and D] are at increased risk of significant mental health difficulties owing to their experiences in the care of the respondents and I am satisfied that if returned to the respondents the risk of significant mental health difficulties for [A, B, C and D] would be significantly increased.”
‘No evidence she has changed’
She made care orders for all five children until the age of 18, stating that this was proportionate to the risk they faced if returned to their parents without the parents having changed. Referring to the mother, she said: “I do not accept that she would in fact co-operate with social workers or other professionals if her children were returned to her care. She has never done so in the past and there is no evidence she has changed.”
The judge acknowledged that both parents had suffered significant trauma in their own childhoods.
The Child Care Law Reporting Project (CCLRP) said this case is one of a number where the proceedings were very protracted and where there were days of legal argument concerning the admissibility of hearsay evidence from children and the reliability of evidence from specialist sex abuse units.
“Some of the cases included in this volume are very lengthy and have taken up to 50 days in court, spread over many months or even years, during which time both parents and children live in uncertainty. All the cases demonstrate the fact that certain child protection matters are very complex indeed and require considerable legal and social work resources. There are no easy answers to the problems they raise,” commented project director Dr Carol Coulter.
Among the other cases the project reported on is that of an Irish teenager who was being detained in a psychiatric hospital in the UK. The court heard her treating psychiatrist had deemed the girl fit for discharge. The doctor believed it was unethical for the teenager to be detained for any longer in the facility.
However, the girl had been prescribed a drug normally only prescribed to adults in use as an anti-psychotic for schizophrenics and was described as “off label” when being prescribed for a teenager. It required extremely careful management and if the teenager were to be brought down off it, it would take a period of years, the CFA told the court.
The CCLRP said cases like this reveal the difficulty in sometimes finding appropriate “step-down” placements for children who no longer need to be detained, but are not stable enough to return home or go to foster care.
It said such children also often wait for months for appropriate psychiatric assessment and help, and the High Court has intervened on a number of occasions to insist that they receive such services.