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Sunday 1 October 2023 Dublin: 15°C
Shutterstock/Yupa Watchanakit
# Court
'I don't want waiting lists': Judge rules 'with a heavy heart' for kids to remain in foster care
The judge rejected an application to return the children home to their father.

AT THE END of September last year, there were 6,329 children in care in Ireland. 

In each of those cases, a judge had to issue a care order, ruling that the State was taking the appropriate course of action.  

Later, the same judges are asked to rule on whether the children should return home to their parents, or remain in care.

Previously, all such court hearings were in camera (private) and the media could not attend. That rule was changed so a light could be shone on proceedings, and society could be made aware of the issues that the court deals with in relation to family breakdowns, children in care, and domestic violence.

Having done so on a number of occasions last spent another two days in the family courts recently to report on the nature of the cases that come before it. In the first of this four-part series, a father has returned to court to request his children be returned to his care. 

A FATHER’S REQUEST for his young children to be returned to his care was denied in court last week.

The mother and father sought to have their children removed from the care of the Child and Family Agency – Tusla.

On Monday 10 April, the Dublin District Court heard the family’s case, where a string of concerns for the children’s wellbeing led to them being placed in care late last year.

The older children were placed in foster care together, while the younger members of the family were sent to separate foster homes.

The parents sought to reassure the court that issues surrounding substance abuse and parenting skills had since been addressed. They also raised concerns about the treatment of the older children in foster care, and said that they’d be better off back with their parents.

Counsel for Tusla argued that, despite the parents’ good engagement on access visits and their clear love for their kids, the children should not be returned to the care of their father at this time. The court-appointed guardian ad litem, there to support the children having their voice heard, concurred but raised further concerns about Tusla’s management of the case.

Concerns raised

The children were taken into care in 2016 but this wasn’t the first time that child services intervened in this manner, the court heard.

Concerns had previously been raised about the mother’s ongoing substance abuse problems, and the presentation of the children at school. The children were placed in foster care as a result, with the older children placed together.

Giving evidence to the court, the father was asked to clarify why he believed the children had been taken away in the first place. He said that it was due to the “condition of the home” and that their mother “wasn’t well”.

Counsel argued that the father didn’t show sufficient insight into why the children were taken away in the first place and this raised doubts over whether these problems would be addressed if they were to be returned to him.

From the beginning of this year, the matter was raised a number of times in court, with the order for the children to remain in care reinforced each time.

The mother has not tested positive for any illegal drugs since last December.

In court, she pledged to submit to urine tests three times a week to certify that she was no longer taking drugs, but this was cast in doubt by counsel for Tusla who said that she did not consistently attend to give these samples every week.

The father reassured the court that, despite a history of substance abuse issues, he had been clean for 10 years, and presented for regular urine tests to prove this.

Both parents had attended courses designed to improve their parenting skills in recent weeks, the court also heard.

The main barrier

Previously, the court had recommended that both the mother and father complete parental capacity assessments with a psychiatrist.

The court asked for it to be dealt with as a matter of urgency last month, but a referral from Tusla had not led to an appointment yet.

The Tusla social worker assigned to the case had only taken over from a colleague a couple of weeks ago.

She told the court that both parents had demonstrated a good attitude in engaging with the process, and that access visits with the children had gone well, with the exception of one occasion where there were “some concerns” over the mother’s “presentation” during the visit.

It was the position of Tusla that the children could not be returned to the care of their parents until this psychiatric assessment was carried out.

The children were doing well in recent months, according to the social worker, but there were still several concerns about the behaviour and attitude of one in particular. And a separate incident has led Tusla to initiate a move from the current foster home.

“Concerning self-harm”

The social worker identified a worrying set of behaviours displayed by one of the children, who is under 10 years old.

Despite good application in school, numerous issues had been raised “concerning self-harm” at the foster home, according to the social worker.

She described incidents where the child would bang their head off walls, bite their own arm, verbally communicate a desire to self-harm and one occasion where an attempt was made to take a knife from a kitchen drawer.

Under questioning from the judge, however, the social worker was not able to provide dates and times where these incidents had taken place.

While not able to detail the context that prompted these incidents, the social worker said that the child frequently reacted badly when corrected or disciplined.

The court also heard that the child had a problem with “soiling” and was being referred to Temple Street Hospital in this matter.

A lot of attention and care was required for this child, the social worker said, who was prone to acting out if this attention was not given on a constant basis.

Counsel for the mother and father said that they had not been made aware of these incidents, and the judge said it was essential that parents be informed in these situations.

This child, in particular, has asked on numerous occasions when they can go home, while the other children frequently questioned what their situation would be in the future.

Foster Care

The social worker said that, with a number of the children displaying problems such as speech and motor issues when they were taken into care, there had been a marked improvement in recent months.

However, the older children in care have raised concerns about the manner in which they are disciplined in foster care, the court heard.

One such incident involved the child around whom the issues of self-harm had arisen.

They had thrown a toothbrush into the toilet, and the foster carer asked for it to be taken out.

When this was not done, the foster carer was said to have grabbed their hand and put it into the toilet to force them to take the toothbrush out.

Explaining the decision to begin preparations to move the children again, the social worker admitted it would be “disruptive” but added that providing ”more attention to their needs would be ultimately positive”.

An investigation from Tusla determined that the child had not been physically abused in this incident and the social worker said that a safety plan was put in place for the children in the foster home two weeks after the event.

Counsel for the parents argued that the children had “consistently raised concerns” about their treatment in foster care and that Tusla’s fresh plan to move them again to a new foster home was unsatisfactory and wouldn’t be best for the children.

The foster family had been arranged through a private subcontracting agency, and Tusla said that it was awaiting a referral to another foster home.

It could provide no timeline on when this would happen, but rejected that the best course of action at this time would be to return the children to the care of their father.

The social worker added that just because they went into a situation that hadn’t been ideal doesn’t mean they should go back to their parents, without the issues with the latter being clarified first.

Tusla criticised

The court-appointed guardian ad litem offered a slightly altered version of events, and was critical of Tusla’s handling of the case and its future plans for the children.

The purpose of the guardian ad litem is “to independently establish the wishes, feelings and interests of the child and present them to the court with recommendations”.

The guardian had met with all the children on several occasions since they were taken into care.

“I am confident that they want to go home [to their parents],” the guardian said.

However, she said that they were worried about how quickly Tusla had reached a decision to move the older children to a new foster home.

“Foster carers need extensive supports,” the guardian said. She pointed out that the children had made significant improvements in their behaviour and attitude since going to the foster home.

The foster carer had accepted that a different course of action in the toothbrush situation would have been better and had changed how they acted towards the children as a result, the guardian said.

She also expressed concerns that moving the children again would have a negative effect on them, and especially on the child who had been displaying the most worrying behaviour.

The decision to move the children was taken too quickly, and that the problems the children had faced could be exacerbated through a move, especially considering there was no clear plan or timeline for this move to take place.

It’s not a matter of if… this child is going to have an outburst. Their needs are at a very high level. I’m really concerned that it’ll be worse for them at the next placement.

The foster carer wasn’t getting adequate supports, and Tusla’s use of an external agency to provide foster care was diluting the information across agencies, the guardian told the court.

The children are very settled there. There are negatives, but there are a lot of positives… People think, ‘Oh this isn’t working, change it.’ All future moves must be carefully considered.

The view of the guardian was that it was “in the best interests of the children to remain in care” until the psychiatric assessment of the parents was carried out and was critical – despite the issue being raised in court previously – that it hadn’t been done yet.

“It’s just not good enough,” the guardian said, expressing a wish to be involved and consulted in future meetings between Tusla and the foster agency over the plans for the children.

She acknowledged the work the parents were doing to prove their ability to take care of their children, telling the court it was clear for all to see that they loved their kids and their kids loved them.

“Forever solution”

Having heard from all sides in the case, the judge ruled that the children could not be returned to the care of their father at this time.

“In their short lives, these children have already been in care twice,” the judge said.

Returning them home to their parents must be the forever solution.

The judge said that it was “with a heavy heart” that a conclusion was reached to extend the care order for these children for another month.

A series of recommendations were made, however, and the judge was clear that it was essential that these be adhered to by the time the matter comes to court again.

“As a matter of urgency”, the parental capacity assessment must be carried out for the father and a timeframe established on this as soon as possible.

Similarly urgent is the need for the child who displayed issues concerning self-harm to enrolled in play therapy.

“I don’t want waiting lists,” the judge said. “The child needs this immediately.”

Communication lines need to be established between the relevant stakeholders – Tusla, guardian ad litem and the private foster provider – and meetings to be held to discuss the progress and future plans for the children.

The minutes of these meetings must then be given to the parents so they can fully understand what is happening with their children.

The judge also had strong words on the plans to move the children to a different placement in the short-term.

Any change in the placement in the next 28 days, and I would have to look seriously at giving the children back to their dad.

Looking visibly upset at points during the hearing, the parents got up to leave before the judge had a final comment to share, addressed directly to them:

Please keep doing what you’re doing.

Comments have been closed for legal reasons.

Read: A day in the Family Court: Child not told when father might visit to ‘avoid disappointment’

Read: Child in foster care has “serious anxiety” and worries about his mother’s welfare