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Social worker tells child abuse trial she had concerns about parents' intellectual capacity

She added that there are many parents who have disabilities, including learning disabilities, whom are still able to parent their child to an acceptable standard
Sonya McLean

A social worker has accepted that she had concerns about the intellectual capacity of the parents of the children in an alleged abuse case and put additional supports in place to assist them.

The social worker, who was assigned to the family in 2014, agreed with Mark Nicholas SC, defending the child’s father, that she had “an inkling, a concern” that the parents had a learning disability following a number of meetings with them.

She agreed that she made contact with the couple’s GP, who had a similar concern and mentioned that he believed the children’s mother had an undiagnosed learning disability.

“We did send them on for assessment and put in extra support. The level of support for them was tremendous because we wanted them to be able to parent on their own,” the woman continued.

She added that there are many parents who have disabilities, including learning disabilities, whom are still able to parent their child to an acceptable standard.

The woman agreed with a suggestion from counsel that conditions were poor in the household, but there was “affection there”.

“Yes, they were a family,” she replied.

She agreed that case conferences followed her initial meetings as she still had concerns about the parents’ capacity to care for their children.

She agreed that there were points when she noted improvements when the family had good support, but there would be regressions again in the care for the children as supports were withdrawn.

The woman agreed that the children were taken into care by the State following a District Court hearing in April 2016, a hearing which she gave evidence at along with other professionals.

She accepted that at that hearing she informed the court that she felt that she had “exhausted every opportunity” to try and look at other ways for the couple to be parents to the children but she felt “we are now at a crossroads and we have no other option”.

The witness looked at photographs of the couple’s house presented to her by the defence and said that she had never seen the house in that condition during her visits.

She said she was aware that the photographs were taken 18 months after the children had left the family, but said she didn’t know who did the work or who cleaned up the house.

“It never looked like that when I was there,” the witness replied.

The six family members, who can't be named for legal reasons, are accused of abusing three children between 2014 and 2016. The accused are the parents, aunts and uncles of the children. They range in ages from 27 to 56 and live in various locations in Munster.

The parents are also accused of neglecting five of their children. All of the accused have denied the charges against them.

The social worker agreed with Dean Kelly SC, defending the children’s mother, that the family had been given “a monumental level of support” but didn’t accept that the case was “out on its own” saying that many families would have a similar level of assistance.

She said that as the social worker she was the key worker in the case and she worked to get them as much support as possible to allow them to parent alone.

“You gather up the troops and put them in place for the family but it is up to the family to engage,” the witness said before she added that after some time with the family “there was no discernible change” in the children’s lives that could be sustained until they were 18 years old.

She accepted that it was with “a clear professional eye but with a heavy heart” that she recommended to the District Court at the hearing in 2016 that the children be taken into care.

“Yes, for children to go into care, it is tough on a family,” the woman said.

She acknowledged that from her very first meeting with the family there was an indication that “the parents were struggling to cope”.

She agreed that she found one particular meeting with the parents “challenging” in that the conversation never seemed to reach a normal conclusion.

She referred to different answers being given to the same questions throughout the meeting.

The woman said afterwards she reflected on the meeting to see “is there something that could explain and describe what we are hearing and seeing”.

“I had a period of reflection to try and decipher the different answers that were being given for every question that was being put to the family,” the woman said before she agreed she had concerns about both their cognitive abilities and ultimately a psychologist assessment was carried out.

She confirmed that the mother was found to have a mild intellectual disability.

She agreed that she spoke to the parents about how the children’s appearance at school may impact on their ability to make friends, “their teeth, their hair, their smelly clothes”.

“How mean other children can be to each other. It is hard enough to manoeuvre your way around childhood without having to go every day in this state. I spoke to them about the need to take care of the children’s hygiene in that regard,” the woman replied.

She accepted a suggestion from Mr Kelly that the mother would often repeat back words to her that she had put in a report, such as when she said to her children “I need to supervise you now. I need to make sure you have boundaries”.

She didn’t accept though that this was the mother acting in a childlike manner “parroting” back her words to her.

“No, I think she knew more than a child would know,” the witness replied before she agreed that it was done in attempt to “impress her” but she emphasised that although the mother said those things, her actions “did not match”.

The witness agreed that the mother didn’t attend for any neonatal appointments for her fifth pregnancy until six weeks before the baby was born.

She said a sixth child, who was born after the children went into care, was what she termed “a concealed pregnancy”. “I knew nothing about it,” she said.

The trial continues on Thursday.

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