Tusla should have been more attentive to ‘red flags’ in a child cruelty case, a sentencing judge commented but he also said that it was the mother and not the child and family agency which had been put on trial.
Judge Colm Roberts said the primary responsibility for the well-being of the child rested with the parents.
He imposed an eight-month suspended jail term on the mother who wept at the end of the case at Cork District Court.
The background to the case was that a three-year-old boy was found by gardaí shivering with the cold in a cabin at the back of a derelict house in Cork City while his mother and her partner were visibly involved in the taking of heroin in November 2017. There was evidence that they were using the bulk of the money they received for emergency accommodation to go to Dublin to buy heroin.
Judge Roberts said tragedy was averted by the excellent work of two gardaí. They were Garda Judith Notley and Garda Alison O’Flynn. “It is a great service to our society that we have people of that calibre in An Garda Síochána,” Judge Roberts said.
The young mother convicted of child cruelty claimed that she told a social worker of her drug addiction but that her children were left with her even though she allegedly wanted them taken into care. Only one of her two children was a victim in the case before the court.
Judge Roberts said the only reason he wanted a HSE social worker in court to give evidence before sentencing was not because Tusla were in any way on trial in this case but because serious allegations had been made by the young woman.
Regarding those allegations, the judge said: “Most of them have not been substantiated. I don’t accept the claim that (defendant) made that Tusla should have taken the child into care and they did not. I do not accept that allegation.
“The work of social workers is an imperfect art and it requires a certain amount of subjective thinking. And it is particularly challenging in circumstances where someone is not co-operating.
“But there were several red flags.
“All of these things would have indicated that there should have been more attention given to this.
“But that does not take from the responsibility of the parent.” The judge said that there had also been a haemorrhage of experienced social workers from the agency at this time and that to have a high-quality agency it needs to be resourced financially and in terms of the numbers of experienced social workers.
“If there is one lesson to be learned it is that deterioration (in family circumstances in a case like this) can occur very quickly,” the judge said.
Defence solicitor, Joseph Cuddigan, agreed that tragedy was averted by the intervention of gardaí. He said the young woman fell into a relationship which in his view was not a supportive relationship. He submitted that the case could have been handled better by Tusla.
“She is very hopeful a place will be available for her (in rehabilitation). She is in contact with the children. Whether there is reunification of the family is down the line obviously. She is struggling. But she is not abusing any substance now.”
Mr Cuddigan suggested that the spotlight on this case could bring about systemic improvements.