Childcare system ‘car crash’ ‘inevitable’, High Court hears

It is “inevitable” there will eventually be a “car crash” where a suitable care place could not be found for a disturbed young person, the High Court heard recently, according to the latest series of reports on childcare cases.

The case is one of 30 published on Monday by the Child Care Law Reporting Project (CCLRP) and highlights the extent to which difficulties finding suitable placements for children continue to take up courts’ time.

This case involved repeated hearings where there was no aftercare plan for a girl with mental health needs, in therapeutic care in Britain, who was approaching her 18th birthday.

“The girl had been in care since infancy and required ongoing supports in terms of accommodation, health and well-being, personal and social development, education and family support,” says the report.

Since September 1st, 2017 there has been an obligation on the Child and Family Agency (CFA) to prepare and update aftercare plans for children in care.

The case was before the courts eight times before the agency identified a suitable place for the girl to return to, just four days before her 18th birthday.

The judge said she took “no pleasure in putting pressure week in and week out” on the agency and it was “effectively Groundhog Day” every week in relation to these placements.

“At some stage it is going to take an incident of the serious nature envisaged as the degree of frustration escalates. This is another case which clearly could have devastating effects.”

Counsel for the girl’s foster parents agreed: “It is inevitable in some cases there will be a car crash.”

In another case, a nine-year-old boy had five placement moves in 13 days. The judge remarked the harm suffered by the boy before he was brought into care was being exacerbated by his experience of the system. “It is not the social worker’s fault, it is not the guardian ad litem’s fault and it is most certainly not [the boy’s] fault”.

A guardian ad litem is a court-appointed expert who acts as the voice of the child in proceedings concerning them.

The CCLRP collects and analyses reports and data on child-care cases from the courts and is led by Dr Carol Coulter.

“It is very concerning that, almost six years after the project began, the issue of suitable placements for very disturbed children and young people continues to preoccupy the courts with no solution in sight,” Dr Coulter said. “While the issue is no doubt a challenging one and requires significant resources, the ad hoc way in which it is currently dealt with is both wasteful and highly stressful for these vulnerable young people and those who care for them.”

The prevalence of drug and alcohol abuse and learning disabilities and mental health issues among parents are also highlighted in the report, with child sexual abuse continuing to feature in a minority of cases.

There are, however, a number of positive outcomes for children and young people in the report, including two where children were reunited with their parents following efforts by both social workers and parents involved.

Case 1

A case in a rural town related to the planned reunification of five children, aged five to 15 years, with their mother, who was recovering from heroin addiction. The CFA sought a 12-month extension of the care order, in place since 2016, to prepare for reunification. The mother opposed this, seeking a six-month extension. The father was in prison.

The court heard the mother was “making great strides” in her recovery. She was living in a hostel but hoped her housing situation would be settled within six months.

She was, however, entitled only to a one-bedroom home as her children were not with her. The children’s social worker was advocating for her with the council, she said, and said that she was doing her best but agreed the mother needed a three-bedroom home.

Access between mother and children happened weekly. The CFA said if this could be built up and the mother obtained and retained accommodation, the family would be referred to an intensive family-support service.

“The point is that isn’t going to happen over six months. Time is what is needed to build it,” said the social worker.

Case 2

Dublin District Court heard a story involving a teenager who had been in care for three years. He was to remain in his foster placement with his siblings as he headed into his Leaving Certificate year. He planned to go to third level.

His guardian ad litem told the court: “It’s wonderful to see how far he has come in the last two years. He’s worked through all his issues, worked through his anger. He had been overweight and he lost the weight. He goes to the gym every day. He’s in a youth club. He works full time during the holidays. He has transformed his whole life. He’s a credit to his foster carers.”

The judge said: “This is a rare moment, an absolute success. I’m so pleased for [him] and [his sister]. I have to commend the social work department. I know the commitment that goes into achieving a good relationship between everyone. He was ‘ all over the place’ as you put it. It has been a complex and difficult case.”

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