NI: Trust followed proper procedure in removing children from neglectful and abusive parents
In the high court in Belfast, Justice Keegan dismissed an appeal brought by the mother of five children, three of which had been taken into care after chronic neglect and emotional abuse. The Court found that the Judge who had granted the children’s care orders had ultimately achieved the correct outcome, and that the relevant Trust would continue to review and monitor the care plan in place.
On 13 May 2016, the parent’s application for discharge of care orders in relation to their five children, was dismissed by Judge McFarland, and the Health and Social Care Trust removed the three youngest children of the family into care – KE (10), H (9), and S (7).
The elder two children were not removed and the Trust ultimately amended their care plan to allow T (14) and K (13) to remain at home.
The mother of the children, TG, sought to appeal Judge McFarland’s decision in relation to the three youngest children.
According to Justice Keegan, the appeal centred on whether or not the judge was correct in his disposal of the case – which led to the children being removed from the care of the parents.
The family were known to social services since 2001, and social service intervention increased from 2008 onwards due to concerns about hygiene, non-attendance at medical appointments, home conditions, and the children’s presentation.
In August 2010 the children were added to the Child Protection Register under the categories of confirmed neglect, potential emotional abuse, and potential sexual abuse.
Difficulties continued to be reported in 2010 in relation to aggressive behaviour of the father, the children’s presentation, and allegations that the father was hitting the children.
There were on-going reports of poor home conditions and the children presenting as unkempt in the first half of 2012 – however, the children were de-registered and the case was closed by social services on 10 April 2013.
In December 2013, there was a school referral in respect of the children presenting as unkempt, and in early 2014, the school reported that H (7) and S (6) wore nappies to school – leading to the case being re-opened by social services, and the children being registered under the categories of confirmed neglect and suspected emotional abuse.
In 2015, care proceedings were issued leading to a full care order being granted by a Family Proceedings Court on 2 December 2015 in relation to all of the children for the following reasons:
(i) The children suffered neglect of physical needs due to parenting provided.
(ii) The parents moved home 14 times, causing instability in the children’s lives.
(iii) The parents were unable to maintain sufficient change despite interventions since 2004.
(iv) The parents have not met the children’s medical needs.
(v) The children witnessed a level of aggression in the home.
(vi) The parents have not met the children’s emotional needs.
Issues on Appeal
The appeal notice set out 7 grounds of appeal, however Ms Smyth QC who appeared on behalf of the mother streamlined her submissions, and argued that the lower court should have considered an updated assessment of the mother before reaching a decision.
According to Justice Keegan, the statutory provisions pertinent to the case emanated from the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 and the Human Rights Act 1998. Furthermore, Re DE (A child) 2014 EWFC 6 was instructive in terms of the obligations placed upon Trusts, and in relation to the relief that parents can obtain in the event of a potential breach.
Justice Keegan was satisfied that the Trust followed a proper procedure in the family’s case, which was human rights compliant – and in particular, the Trust had followed the dicta in Re DE.
Justice Keegan stated that he could not “criticise the Trust” for the approach taken in relation to consideration and procedural safeguard, adding that the hearing of the case “was also procedurally fair”.
Addressing the issue of “whether the judge should have allowed another expert assessment before reaching his decision”, Justice Keegan stated that “the case made on appeal for another assessment was very different to the case made before the trial judge” as “the application in relation to the children was not pursued and so the argument was simply in relation to the mother”.
Having considered the evidence and the judge’s ruling, Justice Keegan stated that he could not fault the decision-making in terms of the ultimate outcome.
As a serious case of chronic neglect where intervention only came after a long process of voluntary arrangements – arguably there should have been more robust action much sooner to protect the children.
Justice Keegan also took into consideration the fact that when the children were received into care, “their toe nails were overgrown and curling around their toes” to the point that they found it difficult to walk; they had episodes of soiling and did not have a full appreciation of toileting” and they “were not able to use a knife and fork”.
Justice Keegan emphasised that “the Trust has an obligation under Article 8 of the ECHR to look at the situation of children and parents on an on-going basis” and that there is “strong European jurisprudence to this effect” (e.g. KA v Finland 1 FLR 696 and Kutzner v Germany 1 FCR 249).
Addressing the mother’s intellectual impairment (whose IQ fell within a range of 62‑70), Justice Keegan indicated that “Trusts and professionals must also be alive to the fact that parents with learning difficulties have particular needs which require consideration and appropriate treatment both within the court process and as part of wider social service provision” as per Re G &A (Care Order: Freeing Order: Parents with a Learning Disability) 2006 NI Fam and Re D (a Child) EWFC 1.
Dismissing the mother’s appeal, Justice Keegan held that care planning was not static, and the Trust had the responsibility for “ongoing reviews and monitoring” as well as the provision of supports and services for the family.