Damning review exposes failure to remove children from grandparents

Opportunities to remove sisters from abusive home not taken by social work department

Allegations of physical abuse were not properly investigated by social workers, nor were suggestions of inappropriate sexual behaviour. Photograph: iStock

Allegations of physical abuse were not properly investigated by social workers, nor were suggestions of inappropriate sexual behaviour. Photograph: iStock

 

After 13 years in the foster care of her grandparents, where she suffered severe emotional abuse and physical neglect, Mary* told her social worker she felt like hanging herself.

As an infant, the girl had been removed from the care of her parents, and in 2000 was fostered with her grandparents in a rural area, along with her younger sister Claire*.

An expert review of Mary’s case found for more than a decade she was “subjected to gross physical and emotional neglect . . . due to a persistent failure by her relative foster carers to meet even her most basic needs for food, shelter, hygiene and emotional warmth”.

The confidential review, completed in June 2015 and seen by The Irish Times, found Mary and her sister should have been removed from the foster home in 2003. Despite years of reports of worsening abuse and neglect, they were not moved until 2014. The review into Mary’s case was ordered by a Tusla regional service director, and conducted by independent childcare expert, Lynne Peyton.

“The children experienced gross physical neglect in that their home was extremely dirty, their personal hygiene was really poor, their clothes were second hand, ill-fitting,” the review found.

“Their diet was appalling, causing both girls to be overweight and have tooth decay,” it said. Allegations of physical abuse were not properly investigated by social workers, nor were suggestions of inappropriate sexual behaviour.

The girls’ hygiene was so poor social workers often had to open their car windows when the children were there

The grandparents’ home was described by several social workers as one of the “worst houses they had ever been in”, and was consistently dirty, dimly lit and cluttered, the review said.

The girls’ hygiene was so poor social workers often had to open their car windows when the children were there, the review said.

Over a 14-year period, the case review found the two young girls were “failed consistently” by the State.

Across 76 pages, the review lays out each juncture where social services should have taken action to remove the children, but failed to do so.

In 1999, Mary had been removed from the care of her parents, who were under investigation over the death of a sibling from suspected shaken baby syndrome. The family had been living in the UK, and Mary and Claire were put in the care of the local city council.

Their father was later found guilty of child neglect, but the Irish-born mother was acquitted, and granted visitation access to the girls.

The maternal grandparents approached the local health board about fostering the two children. Serious concerns about their suitability were overruled, prior to the girls being placed in the rural home, the case review found.

A social worker at the UK city council said there were “multiple areas of difficulty” in fostering the children with the grandparents, such as their age, and past problems parenting their own children.

Despite this, both the city council and health board social work departments approved the placement.

The first reported concern with Mary’s care was a psychologist’s report in October 2002, flagging the four-year-old’s poor hygiene, and the fact her grandmother shouted at her.

Two months later a public health nurse expressed concern over the girls’ diet, and “inappropriate discipline techniques” in the home.

The first report of alleged physical abuse, of the grandfather kicking Mary after shouting at her, was made that month by the girls’ mother, who had visitation access. She also reported concerns about the “sexualised nature” of Mary’s play with her dolls.

In 2003, a child protection conference was held over the care of the children, attended by case workers, health officials, the mother and grandparents.

Allegations of physical abuse of both children were discussed, but no concrete action was taken.

The case review said there was “no doubt that sufficient evidence existed from 2003 onwards that the placement was not meeting the children’s needs”. However, they were not removed from the home.

Childcare reviews, the main governance forum for foster placements, consistently failed to document any concerns with Mary’s care, often praising the home as meeting her needs; the annual meetings did not even take place in 2011 or 2012.

This is in stark contrast to the review’s chronology of Mary’s case, documenting report after report of suspected abuse and neglect.

In 2007, the grandmother admitted during a social worker handover meeting to hitting Mary when frustrated.

A report from Mary’s school in 2008 was “very concerning”, disclosing she would wet herself if tense or worried, the review said.

At Mary’s 10th birthday party in the house the same year, none of her friends who attended would eat the food.

In April 2011, a new social worker was assigned to the case, and was “extremely disturbed” by Mary’s condition, the review said. The social worker felt conditions breached child protection standards, and the girls should be removed. “She advocated formally, but without success, for an alternative placement,” the review said.

The same year, a school counsellor reported Mary had disclosed that her grandmother “had beat her since she was eight and hit her really hard if she was naughty”. The counsellor informed the social work department that Mary’s “hygiene was extremely poor with dirty black nails, strong smell of body odour and oversized uniform jumper”.

In a second report the counsellor stated Mary had confided she was allowed only one shower a week on Sunday, and a limited number of sanitary pads while on her period.

A formal referral from the school in October 2011 stated “Mary displayed signs of physical and emotional neglect”.

The following month a social work team set targets, that new clothes and uniform be bought for Mary, and she be given daily showers. There was no evidence a planned review of these targets a month later took place.

In early 2012 another referral from the school stated it was “very concerned about Mary’s emotional state”, adding the young teenager showed signs of split personality.

During this period the grandparents became increasingly defensive towards social workers’ attempts to improve care conditions, the review said.

Midway through 2012, a link social worker visited the home and recorded concerns about the living conditions, the personal care of the two girls, their clothing, and social isolation.

The grandmother “denied all concerns and called Mary a ‘stubborn b**ch like her mother’”, the review said.

In early 2013, there was “growing concern about the social and emotional welfare of both children”, the review said, but they remained in the home.

A subsequent meeting expressed concern about “significant bruising to Claire with different explanations”, and the foster parents’ lack of will to address poor practices.

In May 2013, staff held a high-level child protection conference, where one social worker said the home situation had “deteriorated since September 2011 and current difficulties could not be tolerated”.

Mary said she felt worthless following ongoing comments by her nanny towards her . . . She felt like hanging herself

The next month, Mary’s social worker met her to discuss reported suicidal thoughts she had revealed to her mother.

“Mary said she felt worthless following ongoing comments by her nanny towards her . . . She felt like hanging herself,” notes of the disclosure said.

Mary said she felt her grandmother blamed her for a cancer diagnosis her grandfather had received, and she found it difficult to sleep most nights, the review said.

In July 2013, the child protection conference determined Mary was at “ongoing risk of emotional abuse”. It was agreed an alternative or shared foster placement be considered.

The review found “this was a totally confused and inadequate decision which had no chance of succeeding”, and criticised the decision not to remove Mary from the home immediately.

Five months later, a child protection review meeting agreed the situation had continued to get worse, and Mary “was at ongoing risk of significant harm as the result of emotional abuse”. Yet still she was not removed from the home.

Another review in April 2014 advocated a comprehensive care plan, despite the grandparents failing to adhere to the previous plan, the review said.

A week later social workers visited the home, where they informed the grandmother both girls were at risk of being removed, to which she replied “she did not care any more”.

During a visit in August, Mary told her social worker her home life had become “unbearable”, following her grandfather’s death from cancer in July, for which she said she was blamed.

Later that month, a decision was finally taken to remove Mary from the home, and, following background checks, foster her with other relatives. Later that year, Claire was also removed and placed with separate relative foster carers.

Afterwards Mary was described as a “changed child” who was happy and more confident, benefitting from the support of capable foster parents, the review said.

*The children’s names have been changed to protect their identities.

Report findings and recommendations

  • The review found the State’s response to numerous reports of child abuse from multiple sources, including Mary’s school, her psychologist, family support worker and mother, was inadequate.
  • It concluded there had been a “clear breach of the professional and statutory duty of care” to both Mary and Claire.
  • “It is concerning that standards which would not have been accepted from parents living in the community, were tolerated from foster carers,” it said.
  • The review was critical that senior staff, who were “aware of the situation through supervision”, did not appear to guide the process.
  • It recommended Tusla should consider a full review of decision-making in the area, due to the “serious lack of application of foster care and child protection procedures”, in Mary’s case.
  • The childcare review process, which consistently failed to raise concerns in Mary’s case, needed to be re-examined “to protect children at risk within the care system”.
  • Reviews of foster carers, which the local service had failed to introduce despite commitments in 2013, should begin “as a matter of urgency”, it said.