Judge expresses concern for vulnerable boy in homeless unit

‘Child may be born’ to 17-year-old boy and girl, both of whom are in interim care, court told

A judge’s concern about “no room at the inn” for a vulnerable autistic boy with serious behavioural problems led to him subpoenaing the secretary general of the Department of Children and the Children’s Ombudsman to attend court.

Another "seasonal, but not festive, feel" about the case is that "a child may be born", said District Court Judge John Campbell, noting the 17-year-old boy may have fathered a child with a girl who, like him, is in the interim care of the Child and Family Agency (CFA).

The judge hoped “lessons would be learned” as a result of representatives of the secretary general and Ombudsman attending the court on Wednesday.

The boy was placed in interim care last July and is in homeless accommodation, with a range of supports, after other placements broke down due to his behavior.

Due to her mounting concerns for his safety, his mother, supported by his court appointed guardian, applied for a court order directing the CFA to refer him for a special-care placement.

The mother is concerned about his substance misuse and says his behaviour has worsened since he learned of the girl’s pregnancy.

During a three-hour phone call one night this week, she said her son was very distressed about the pregnancy and had said there would be “consequences” if the child was not his.

His mother tried to dissuade him when he said he was going to see the girl but she was contacted hours later to be told he was missing from his accommodation and gardaí were alerted. He was missing for some six hours before returning to his homeless accommodation.

The CFA says he is not suitable for secure care and, in co-operation with the Health Service Executive’s disability services, has arranged a bespoke placement for him which will not be available until late February.

Mary Phelan SC, for the CFA, stressed another placement, which he is refusing to avail of, remains open to him in the interim as well as extensive respite and other supports.

Lewis Mooney, for the mother, said her application for a special-care referral was about keeping him safe.

A psychologist said the multidisciplinary team working with the boy all consider secure care is inappropriate for reasons including its time-limited nature, the boy’s trenchant opposition to it and the impact of such a placement on his continuing trust in his mother.

In court on Wednesday

On foot of the subpoenas issued by the court, assistant secretary general at the Department of Children Conor Rowley and director of investigations of the Children's Ombudsman Nuala Ward were in court.

In his ruling, the judge said the in-camera ruling in childcare matters shields the public at large from such cases and also “shrouds in secrecy” the “often heroic efforts” of the CFA.

There is an immediate risk of harm to the boy which cannot be deferred until the end of February when the proposed placement should be made available to him, he said.

On the evidence, the boy’s safety and welfare can only be met by a referral to the special-care committee on or before its next meeting of January 4th, he ruled. That did not undermine the continuation in the interim of the therapeutic plan arranged for the boy.

When told the mother remains concerned her son is to remain in “unsafe and unsuitable” accommodation until at least January 4th, the judge said he shared that concern but his order did not prevent the committee considering the matter before then.