Fostering a climate of suspicion in child care

Fostering a climate of suspicion in child care

A case of a child removed suddenly from its foster parents raises questions about Tusla management and foster families’ rights, says special correspondent Michael Clifford

Imagine you have fostered a child at the age of two and are told after a period that he will be staying in your care until he is 18.

Then, at the age of eight, he is suddenly removed, as if an emergency has arisen that puts him in danger.

After that point, you are never allowed to see the child again.

More importantly, the child, who had been happy in your care, and had presumably formed childhood attachments, never sees you again.

That is what occurred to Bill and Linda (not their real names) — a couple living in the Munster region.

Their lives were turned upside down in 2016. They went through the trauma of a break-up and believed that they were under suspicion about the child’s welfare in their care.

A review conducted by the child and family agency Tusla, and seen by the Irish Examiner, confirms the couple was treated in an appalling manner.

Yet, there is no comeback. It is as if Tusla has shrugged its corporate shoulders and said ‘Sorry about that folks — just move on’.

The case raises profound questions about management within Tusla. It also highlights the lack of rights afforded to foster parents, a group of people who perform a vital and often thankless task of rearing the most vulnerable children in the State.

An even more important question is whether the manner in which this case was handled was ever in the best interests of the child at the centre of it.

What follows is based on a 40-page confidential review of the case, carried out by two senior child care experts.

Niall’s story

Bill and Linda have an adult daughter. In January 2011, they fostered a two-year-old boy who had been taken into care from his natural parents the previous October.

The boy, whom we will call Niall — and whose identity is legally protected — settled in his new home. In October 2012, his placement was confirmed as long-term permanent. This should have ensured that he remained with his foster parents until he was 18.

Niall had a number of behavioural and emotional issues. Some of these improved in his early years; others lingered. According to the review, there was a meeting of professional child care personnel on the boy’s care in September 2015.

At the meeting, it was noted that “the child was placed in a safe and secure placement with a good relationship with his foster family”.

However, despite improvements in the child’s overall global development since his reception into care in 2011, there remained concerns over his problem behaviour in school, his poor educational attainment, his lack of social skills and his ability to engage with others outside the family home.

Despite those concerns, there was little direct contact with the child by social workers from Tusla between September and December 2015.

The review states: “There was no recorded direct contact with the child or the foster parents in this period.

“During this time, the link worker had five telephone contacts with the foster carers; the child-in-care social worker had two telephone contacts.

There is no record of a face-to-face contact with the foster carers by the chid-in-care team social worker from September to December.

On November 16, 2015, during a visit to a speech and language therapist, at which Niall was accompanied by his foster father Bill, the child stated that “someone was poking him whilst in bed”.

The therapist did not think the comment warranted a referral. The following morning, however, Linda contacted Tusla to report that Niall had made the comment.

It might be reasonably assumed that Linda felt that the agency should be informed of anything of this nature. This would be in keeping with the Children’s First guidelines. The review found that the therapist should have made a referral.

Nine days later, Bill and Linda lodged a complaint regarding “the lack of services for the child, primarily related to the lack of a health care provision”.

The complaint outlined what the couple saw as “a systemic failure on behalf of the State to assess the needs of the child over the last 4/5 years”.

The couple told the reviewers that the complaint was lodged in an effort to get the services that the child required.

Two weeks later, an intake record was created on the “comment” that Niall had made. This is standard procedure in any case involving any suspicion of abuse.

The gardaí were not notified. Neither was a strategy meeting on the issue convened, as would be standard in this situation. It is not clear whether these matters were not addressed because the issue wasn’t regarded as urgent, or whether it was just an oversight.

Over the following months, an assessment of risk was carried out.

This involved visits to the foster parents and Niall. The social workers involved told the report’s authors that the foster parents were not of specific concern in relation to child sexual abuse. Bill apparently didn’t see it like that. “The foster father sought clarification as to whether or not he was being considered a source of risk to the child,” the review states.

“He expressed the view that by insinuation, he believed he was considered as the possible abuser.

Social workers refuted that they had directly or indirectly viewed him as a possible source of risk but that everything to date needed to be considered in order to afford the child the opportunity to be heard.

Why Bill felt he was considered a risk is unclear. By then, however, relations between the social workers and the foster parents were strained.

The foster parents’ complaint the previous November certainly suggested they had felt they were not receiving the support to which they, and the boy Niall, were entitled.

On April 6, 2016, at an arranged meeting in a Tusla office, “the social worker and team leader’s concerns became heightened about the child’s lack of open conversation and engagement”.

They formed the opinion that the child was being coached, “not having a safe environment, nor having permission to talk about possible child sexual abuse”, the review found.

“They were concerned about the child having secrets that he could not tell or verbalise.”

A decision was taken to remove the child from his foster home. The child, when told he wouldn’t be going home, “banged his hand on a table and proceeded to become distressed, screamed excessively, lashed out and kicked out”.

Initially, the removal was regarded as temporary, to facilitate the ongoing assessment of possible abuse.

Five days later, on April 11, the risk status of the child was deemed to be of “ongoing risk of significant harm”.

The basis for this assessment is unclear. On that day also, the gardaí were informed.

This was more than four months after the child made a comment.

No other evidence, apart from concerns generated by the social workers about possible coaching, had emerged since the comment. The basis for the concerns about coaching is unclear.

The review found that the decision to remove the child was wrong.

“This review’s finding concludes that there was no direct evidence that the level of concerns reached the threshold for the emergency action to protect a child and warranted the removal of this child… there was no direct, immediate, or serious risk to the child remaining in his placement.

“Regardless of all the recent multi-agency activity with this child, there was no meeting called to seek their views on a potential child protection issue.”

Traumatic removal

Errors occur. Mistakes can be rectified. But for Bill and Linda, the sudden and traumatic removal of Niall from their care was to be horribly compounded.

“On May 30, 2016, the social workers arrived at a decision that the child should not return to his foster carers. This was without the benefit of the outcome of a number of ongoing assessments,” according to the review.

The assessments and investigations continued. Niall was interviewed by a number of child care professionals and three times by the gardaí.

He did not disclose anything.

Bill and Linda were not allowed to see Niall after the sudden removal from their care. This decision, the review found, “appears to be a very punitive stance taken by the social work department and likely not to be in the child’s best interests.

“It is hard to see on what grounds this decision was allowed to happen, given the early indication by May 2016 that the child was not deemed to be at risk of sexual abuse and was requesting to go home.”

The inquiries into potential sexual abuse continued. Following one Garda interview in July 2016, a Tusla assessment report suggested that the lack of disclosure to a garda at that interview was “consistent with children who are coerced or not free and don’t feel safe enough to speak”.

This was more than three months after Niall was removed from Bill and Linda’s care.

The conclusion ignored the possibility that perhaps nothing was disclosed because there was nothing to disclose. The review took up that point.

An equally valid consideration to the fact of a lack of allegation or disclosure by the child in the assessment process could have been that the child did not have a child sexual abuse experience to disclose.

“It is this review’s finding that the social workers did not consider this as an explanation to the child’s lack of disclosure.”

Over the following year, all the way up to August 2017, there were further attempts to discern whether the boy had something to disclose. All of this searching for a truth continued to revolve around the comment made in November 2015 in the presence of his foster father and a therapist.

The review noted: “On the 22/08/17 the Community Child Care Centre reported that the child had made no disclosures of being engaged in inappropriate sexual contact by an adult.

“This was the third episode of assessment/interview of the same child protection concern over a 17-month period, which these reviewers would find as excessive, given the nature of the comment.”

Bill and Linda continue to be highly aggrieved about how they were treated. When contacted in relation to the review, Bill said they are aware it is completed. They were told it was confidential and therefore are not in a position to comment on it.

“We don’t want to say anything else about it at this point,” he said.

The review discloses that Niall is “thriving” in his new foster home.

The evidence for this comes from social workers’ reports and there is no indication that the reviewers were in a position to independently determine the facts in this regard.

In any event, doing so would have been outside their brief.

Foster caring is a demanding task that is frequently challenging, largely because there is a high possibility that children in care may have emotional or behavioural difficulties. Fostering can also, as with any rearing, be rewarding.

Foster parents also have extremely limited rights in relation to the child they have fostered.

The most important person at the centre of the above case is Niall, the boy for whom the State was charged with caring.

The outstanding question is whether or not his sudden removal from what, according to the review, was an appropriate home, was in his best interests.

If not, the most serious of questions arise for Tusla’s handling of the case.

Opposite viewpoints

The review paints a scenario in which the foster parents and the social workers see the world, and the interests of the child, Niall, from very different perspectives.

An independent observer of this conflict was Niall’s Guardian Ad Litem.

The guardian is appointed by a court for a child in care, to represent the child’s best interests.

The review sets out the views of the guardian.

“The guardian and the social work team remain at distinctly opposite viewpoints regarding the manner and decision- making of how this child’s foster placement of four and a half years terminated in such an unplanned manner.

The guardian is of the view there was not enough evidence to undertake such a drastic intervention in this child’s foster placement, the manner in which it was taken and the abrupt disruption to the child’s primary attachments.

“The guardian highlighted early on in her engagement in the case that the difficulties that arose between the social work department and foster carers were in her view as much about the failure to build a working relationship with the foster carers and other professionals, which significantly overshadowed and clouded the decision-making processes in this case.

“The guardian reluctantly accepted that the child had been removed for the purposes of the assessment, but was totally opposed to the ending of the placement,” according to the review.

The Irish Examiner submitted a number of questions about the case to Tusla.

In response, a spokeswoman said the case was still the subject of district court proceedings which are “in camera” and therefore the agency would not be commenting on it.

We also asked a general question as to whether Tusla had a process to address reported shortcomings or dereliction of duty if such issues were highlighted in a report/review. The spokesman said: 

Tusla receives consistent and high- quality regulation and oversight at both internal and external levels. This is crucial to ensure that our practices deliver good quality, timely, and appropriate interventions and services for children. Internal oversight is provided through area reviews and audits, sub-committees, the board, and the quality assurance directorate.

“Externally, this regulation is carried out by, for example Hiqa, the Ombudsman for Children’s Office, National Review Panel, the minister for children and youth affairs, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. Where a report, or audit highlights areas for improvement, these are addressed through comprehensive action plans.

“Sometimes the areas highlighted for improvement can be already being addressed through Tusla’s overall transformation programme, or other existing action plans.”

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