There is an “immediate risk” to the life of a 14-year-old boy who regularly absconds from his placement in State care and who is dealing and/or consuming crack cocaine, the High Court has been told.
His is one of several challenges brought over Tusla’s alleged delay in applying for court orders to commit highly vulnerable children to special care.
The State has three special care units, where children can be detained on foot of High Court orders to de-escalate their behaviour and risk of harm in a specialist setting.
The court has been told on various occasions that only about 15 of 25 special care beds are usable (and all are occupied) due to staffing shortages. The agency has also said there is a “chronic lack” of appropriate step-down placements, which is affecting its ability to move children on from special care.
On Tuesday, Ms Justice Niamh Hyland said the boy’s situation strikes her as the most urgent of those before the court due to his youth and there being a “number of false starts” in the progress of his case.
She scheduled his application, brought on his behalf through his mother, for hearing on December 15th.
The case seeks to force Tusla (the Child and Family Agency) to apply to another section of the High Court for an order placing him in special care.
Senior counsel, Michael Lynn, for the child and his mother, told the court there is an “immediate risk” to the boy’s life, and all of the parties agree he requires a place in special care.
He absconds from his current residential placement all the time, is consuming and/or dealing crack cocaine, and there are concerns he is at risk of sexual exploitation, Mr Lynn said.
A previous date for hearing his application was abandoned as his side was led to believe a special care application was being commenced, he said. The matter has gone on for a very long time, having first come before the court on October 27th. His side now feels “very badly let down”.
Barrister Sarah McKechnie, for Tusla, said the “clear risk is still as high as ever” for the boy, who absconded from his placement the last six nights and only returned to residential care this morning.
She anticipates she will have legal instructions imminently to draft the proposed special care application, notwithstanding that there is “no bed available” to cure the immediate risk.
Ms McKechnie told the court the delay is caused by there being “so many of these cases” brought to court. Her client is in an “invidious position” and is trying to approach these in a way that ensures the children are treated equally and the child most in need of a special care bed is prioritised.
She said the previous hearing date was vacated as a committee for the boy approved him as eligible for special care, which moved the matter a step further along. She refuted any suggestion the court was told an application would be imminently brought at that point.
Ms Justice Hyland said the situation is “a long way” from where it should be. She scheduled the case to be heard next Friday, with permission for the parties to return to court earlier if there are developments in the interim.
The boy’s case follows the decision High Court judge Mr Justice Mark Heslin to force Tusla to apply for special care orders for two vulnerable 16-year-olds whose lives are at serious risk. His colleague, Mr Justice John Jordan, who oversees the special care list, went on to grant the special care orders, despite Tusla asking him to refrain from acceding to its compelled applications.
The agency told the judge another child was in greater need of the one space currently available.
The orders made in the cases of this boy and girl are the subject of urgent appeals to the Supreme Court. Tusla will next week urge the top court to overturn both sets of orders made under the Child Care Act of 1991.
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