EXTRACTS taken from judgements made by the High Court of Justice in Northern Ireland Family Division show the difficult decisions taken by judges when it comes to so-called freeing orders.
The welfare of children is their top priority.
In one case, a five-year-old girl was freed for adoption despite her birth mother being assessed as having “excellent parenting skills”.
In another case, a mother of nine lost her two youngest children to a freeing order which she did not consent to. None of her children now live with her.
See elow for three freeing order case studies taken from the online judgments:
January 19th, 2011:
Bronagh (a pseudonym) has been placed with her dual approved foster parents since April 2010. She is two-years-old.
Bronagh’s mother ‘M’ is 21-years-old and has been involved with Social Services since 2002 following allegations that her brother and cousin tried to rape her. In 2003 at the age of 14 M became pregnant as a result of a rape by a 41-year-old man. Her first child Ciara was born later that year. Bronagh was born in 2009. M has a full scale IQ of 76 and mild learning disability.
Bronagh’s father ‘F’ is also 21. He has also been known to Social Services for a considerable period of time and was placed on the child protection register in 1989. Both parents had a difficult upbringing which has impacted negatively on their parenting abilities.
Ciara (aged seven) and M’s son Ronan (3) have already been freed for adoption. In 2005 Ciara was exhibiting sexualised behaviours within and outside the family home.
The potential for placement of Bronagh with her half siblings has been considered. However, it was evident that her half siblings have complex needs and it was considered that there is a high risk that their placements would be compromised if Bronagh was in the same placement.
Bronagh’s maternal grandparents have been involved with Social Services since 1972 in relation to inadequate parenting and lack of appropriate supervision. Her paternal grandparents have been known to Social Services since June 1987. There have been numerous concerns about the volatile relationship between them including serious domestic violence and the impact this has had on their children.
Bronagh is now settled with her fourth foster placement. Her current foster carers are her prospective adopters.
The Trust proposed that if a freeing order is made there should be post freeing direct contact with Bronagh’s parents and also with Bronagh’s half-siblings on a twice yearly basis. Indirect contact is also proposed.
On 26 August 2006 an educative parenting programme was carried out by the Trust in relation to M and both of her parents. The conclusion was that whereas M could verbalise Ciara’s needs she appeared to lack the necessary maturity to care for Ciara.
In 2007 M started a 12 week residential parenting assessment with Ronan which was aimed at developing independent living skills with advice, support and educative input as appropriate. The staff concluded that M was consistently unable to provide adequate care for Ronan or meet his emotional needs.
In 2009 Bronagh took part in a residential assessment with both of her parents. Unfortunately the dominant feature of the five week assessment was her parents’ turbulent and volatile relationship. Neither parent was assessed as suitable to care for Bronagh.
Judge Mr. Justice Stephens concludes: “Rehabilitation of Bronagh to the care of either of her parents is not a realistic prospect either within an appropriate timescale or at all.
“I am sure that Bronagh’s parents are unable to change their lifestyles on a permanent basis so as to ensure the security, stability and safety of Bronagh. They have failed to prioritise Bronagh’s needs.
“There has been alcohol abuse by F. There has been sustained domestic violence. There is a lack of insight into these shortcomings. They have failed to avail successfully of professional help. There is major instability in their relationship.”
He continued: “The remaining options available for Bronagh include long-term foster-care or freeing for adoption. Bronagh urgently needs stability and security in her life. In general terms adoption has considerable advantages over long-term fostering in providing that stability and security.”
He concluded by making an order freeing Bronagh for adoption.
December 2010: Freeing order:
This is an application for a freeing order in respect of two children: TM born in April 2005 and RM born in September 2006. There is a substantial history of social services involvement with the family. The father is deceased.
The mother has given birth to nine children. Six of these children live together, the oldest being now 21. One child is placed with friends and family. The children the subject of this application are the mother’s youngest children.
Both children were made the subject of care orders in 2007. In 2009 both children were moved into the care of prospective adopters where they have remained since. They have monthly contact with their mother.
The mother does not consent to the freeing application. The Guardian considers that she is unable to bring herself to do so although she recognises that none of her nine children are in her care. She has not engaged with her legal advisers since April 2010.
The judgement said: “Although it is clear that the mother has strong feelings for the children I have no doubt that I should dispense with her consent in this case. She is not in a position to offer these children security and stability. This is a clear interference with her rights as a mother under article 8 of the ECHR (European Convention on Human Rights) but is necessary in the interests of the children.”
It was proposed that contact with the mother and her half siblings with these children should occur three times a year with indirect contact for the older children who do not attend and also for the half siblings on the father’s side.
The judgement concludes “In making this decision I have taken into account the submissions made to me about the positive changes in the mother’s life and her aspirations for the future as well as her continuing vulnerability. I realise that this decision will be a disappointment to her but she still has an important role to play in the lives of these children and can help them for many years to come.”
Child A is five-years-old. Her mother ‘B’ was 17 at the time of her birth and leading a chaotic lifestyle characterised by drug abuse and homelessness. Social services were involved prior to the birth and A was placed in foster care with Mr and Mrs S within two days of her birth. B had intermittent contact during 2005 but her lifestyle remained chaotic as a result of which a care order was made in 2005 with a care plan for adoption.
By that time B had formed a relationship with M who was also using drugs. As a result of that relationship she became pregnant and in February 2006 gave birth to K. M was not the father of A but in March 2006 B and M asked to be considered as a couple to care for A.
The Trust decided that a psychological assessment was necessary and this was received in November 2006. The report recognised the progress B and M had made with K but did not recommend rehabilitation with A. In December 2006 the Trust’s plan remained adoption via a freeing application. Throughout 2006 B had intermittent contact with A who remained with her foster carers.
In February 2007 B advised the Trust that she wanted A to be adopted and wanted no further contact. In March 2007 she confirmed that she wanted to consent to adoption. In May 2007 B said she did not want to consent to adoption and wanted to think about contact.
In February 2008 the Trust lodged a freeing application and Mr and Mrs S formally made an application to adopt A. The judge said: “It is worth noting that the child had by this time been parented by Mr and Mrs S for three years and more than two years had passed since the care order had been made with a care plan of freeing for adoption. This delay in dealing with the issue of permanence for this young child was completely unacceptable and potentially very harmful for the child. I expect that systems have been put in place to ensure that delays in similar cases do not occur in future.”
In late July 2009 B, who had had another child (T), requested to be reassessed as a parent for A. On 10 August 2009 she was interviewed by the Trust and said that it was only now that she felt capable and able to parent the child.
In September 2009 B contended that A should be returned to her because there had been substantial changes to B’s lifestyle, she was in a stable relationship, she believed she had matured, she was caring for two children without Trust involvement and she had a significant support network through M, M’s extended family and the local church.
At this point the Trust decided that it would not actively pursue a freeing order and would look at the possibility of rehabilitation. B resumed contact with A on 5 October 2009. A Parenting Capacity Assessment recognised the motivation and commitment displayed by B and M.
By July 2010 the Trust was moving towards rehabilitation as the care plan. Contact continued on a weekly basis and in October 2010 overnight contact was introduced.
B and M have made remarkable progress. They have provided a caring and loving environment for their two children and have developed excellent parenting skills. They had been sensitive to the needs of A during the period of her introduction to her birth mother and half siblings. B has shown warmth, affection and understanding during the time that she has spent with A. The family unit now have excellent support from the local community and M’s extended family. It is common case that A has much to gain from her continued relationship with this family unit. During contact A and K have enjoyed each other’s company in co-operative play.
Professor Triseliotis (an adoption expert) was of the firm view that it was not in A’s best interests to be moved from Mr and Mrs S. He considered that the child had a good, warm, stable relationship with Mr and Mrs S and was very attached to them. It was a strong relationship and any break made would be very stressful and dangerous. He said this was not a child in need of a family. She already had a family. He was surprised that the Trust had decided to support rehabilitation.
Ms Farmer had been appointed the Guardian in the original care order application. She was strongly of the view that A should be placed with B. She said it was rare that a young mother could turn her life around as B had done. She was a completely different young woman. She said she had displayed a consistency of presentation, sensitivity and gentleness and was careful to go at A’s pace. She had also developed maturity through her subsequent pregnancies. Ms Farmer was concerned about the demands of the children with complex needs that Mr and Mrs S cared for with the help of their daughter. She felt that A would benefit from having a relationship with them as pseudo grandparents but that A’s most important relationships would be with her half siblings.
The Judge said: “The decision in this case is not based on an evaluation of the parenting skills of either household. I hope that I have made it clear that I have been impressed by the warmth and commitment that each of the households has demonstrated towards this child. My paramount concern has to be the welfare of this child.
“If I were to make an order the effect of which would be to change this child’s placement I consider that I would be taking an unreasonable and unjustifiable risk with this child’s emotional stability. I recognise that the provision of long term good quality contact cannot be a substitute for the relationships which this child might attain with her birth mother and half siblings if she lived with them but the potential benefit is in my view considerably outweighed by the real risks to this child’s welfare if she is moved.
“On the basis that Mr and Mrs S now pursue an adoption application and demonstrate that they are committed to continued meaningful contact with B and her family I will in due course discharge the care order and make a residence order in their favour.”