Cases of ‘severe’ child neglect discovered during lockdown

‘Prolonged closure of schools’ meant teachers were cut off from vulnerable children, report says

Cases published in the Child Care Law Reporting Project underscore the severe impact the pandemic is having on vulnerable children, said project director Dr Carol Coulter. Photograph: iStock

Cases published in the Child Care Law Reporting Project underscore the severe impact the pandemic is having on vulnerable children, said project director Dr Carol Coulter. Photograph: iStock

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A Dublin child had to go into intensive care in recent months amid fears she was going into septic shock brought on by scabies and what her doctor described as the “most serious case of head lice” he had ever seen.

The girl, who cannot be identified, was brought to hospital by child protection gardaí.

The case, one of 48 published on Monday by the Child Care Law Reporting Project (CCLRP), is one of many underscoring the severe impact the pandemic is having on vulnerable children, said project director Dr Carol Coulter.

Dr Coulter said the CCLRP had seen “instances of severe neglect” coming before the courts, which raised “the question as to whether the prolonged closure of schools meant that teachers, often at the front line of protecting such children, were cut off from them and the neglect went unnoticed for far too long”.

In the case mentioned above, gardaí had found the child at home with her sister and mother. The home was “in a derelict state”, said the report.

A detective told Dublin District Court the house was “in a total disarray, with clothing and garbage all over the floor”, said the report. “She stated the children’s room contained about two feet of rubbish and clothing and that the mattresses were soiled with no bedding on them . . . there were no hygienic washing facilities”.

A paediatric consultant told the court the girl was conscious but distressed on arrival at hospital. “She had scabies, and the most serious case of head lice he had ever seen.”

She was in “very poor condition” due to skin infections and became “medically unstable”, deteriorating overnight.

“The hospital staff feared she was entering septic shock as her blood pressure became very low and she required intravenous fluids to keep her blood pressure up.” The court heard she was improving – her skin was clear and she was participating in arts and play therapy, but spoke to no one other than her mother and sister.

Gardaí said the mother had been “co-operative” but the social worker did not think she fully understood the circumstances. Assessments would be carried out, the children would be placed together with a family and access would be facilitated. The children were taken into interim care.

Safety concerns

Other children in care proceedings, adversely impacted by the pandemic, included those deprived of any meaningful contact with their parents, while many have had access delayed or reduced. Assessments, which are essential to planning for children’s futures, have also been delayed.

Parents working to overcome such issues as addiction and mental health challenges so they could be reunited with their children are being denied therapies they need to achieve reunification.

In a case involving three children, in-person access was suspended because of foster parents’ safety concerns around coronavirus. Their mother, who lived in direct provision, had mental health issues when the children were taken into care.

A guardian ad litem,or representative for the interests of children in care, told the district court the foster carer to two of the children had concerns for her own child who was medically vulnerable.

The foster carer and her husband said if access went ahead they may not be able to keep the children, said the guardian ad litem, and a change of placement would be “very detrimental to the children”.

In addition, the mother’s parenting capacity assessment could not go ahead unless she could be observed with her children, possibly impacting on reunification. The foster carer objected to even outdoor access between the children and parents.

The father’s barrister asked the court: “How long are we letting the foster carers hold access to ransom?”

In-person access was refused. The judge said he wanted a plan to overcome the issues “within a reasonable period indicating what can be done”. A plan was needed “where there is no reasonably foreseeable end to this pandemic”, said the judge.

Case study: Care order for girl suffering emotional abuse

A one-year care order was granted for a young girl suffering emotional abuse and neglect. Her mother, who had been attending an addiction treatment service, continued drinking vodka and taking non-prescribed drugs when she was unable to maintain contact with her service during coronavirus restrictions.

The little girl’s father was dead. Her mother, who was present in the rural court, consented to the care order and supervised access arrangements.

The girl’s social worker told the court the mother had been drinking vodka and taking Xanax tablets in the previous four months; the child had witnessed her mother injured as a result of domestic violence.

“The mother said she was very stressed and unable to make contact with her addiction centre during the Covid-19 lockdown period,” the report said.

The social worker said the girl had described herself as “the unluckiest girl in the world” because of her mother’s drinking.

“She said when her mother poured the drink from the ‘bottle with the red top’ it usually meant that her mother would go to sleep before she would. When this happened, [she] would be all alone in the dark except for the light of the computer tablet; but when the tablet battery died, she hated the long night in the dark.”

The girl hated the long summer evenings because it was a long time to wait to see if her mother was going to start drinking. “She said she would like to hug her mother but that her mother had pushed her away.” She said she loved school and was looking forward to going back.

The judge concluded the threshold for a three-month care order had been reached.

Just before its expiry, it is was extended for a further year with a review after six months. The judge refused to allow the mother’s barrister cross-examine the social worker.

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