Sheena Donlon – Head of Care
Being the head of the care department and a children panel solicitor, I am regularly instructed on behalf of the Guardian to represent a child/children in care proceedings. I do however also represent parents as I believe that there are different skills involved and feel that it is important to maintain those skills as well as help the most vulnerable individuals in society. I often receive comments from family and friends such as “I don’t know how you do your job” or even “why do you do your job” and I wanted to put something in writing to explain why I do.
Around 18 months ago I was in the office (yes in the office, this was before the pandemic) and received a call from the Court asking if I could represent a father who had been served with an application for an Emergency Protection Order. I raced down and was met with a scared man who barely spoke any English. His 6-month-old daughter had been placed in police protection and he had been arrested and was on bail conditions due to allegations made by the mother of physical abuse against her and the child. The mother was not in attendance as 2 days before she had been sectioned under the mental health act and was not able to leave the hospital. Luckily, there was an interpreter on hand and having gone through the paperwork the client accepted that he could not seek for his daughter to be returned at this stage. The Court made an EPO and subsequently the Local Authority made an application for an interim care order.
My client was of course devastated that his baby girl would be remaining in foster care however vowed to me that he would “prove his innocence”. During the proceedings, the baby moved to be with the mother in a mental health unit and then to a mother and baby foster placement. The mother made great improvements and maintained that all the allegations she had made against my client were untrue and was down to a deterioration in her mental health. This was a family who had not been known to Social Services previously and had not been involved with the police prior to the mother’s mental health breakdown. The parents maintained that they wished to parent their baby girl together and after 6 months of proceedings they were finally placed in a residential unit. The pandemic hit just before the family were due to move and it was exceedingly difficult to identify a placement for them and in fact took over 2 months to secure. My client was fed up. He wanted to give up and walk away. I encouraged him that although there was a long road ahead, he must continue to engage with the court proceedings and if he followed my advice that I was sure that there would be good outcome for him and his family.
The family endured a long 4 months in the residential unit and also engaged with psychiatric and psychological assessments. The unit then completed a report which recommended that the family should move into the community but there should be a further period of testing. This was after 12 months of proceedings and again my client felt persecuted. He reluctantly agreed and after a further 4 months in the community a Final Hearing took place, and I am happy to say that the Local Authority’s care plan was for the child to remain in the parent’s care under a 1-year Supervision Order. The Judge gave a lengthy judgment and made some wonderful comments to the parents as to their engagement and their dedication to the proceedings that had been going on for nearly 18 months. The baby was no longer a little baby but a toddler and was also present at the remote hearing and sat on her father’s lap carefully listening to what was being said. My favourite part was when the Judge spoke to the child directly and said that she was a credit to her parents and the way that she was sitting and listening so intently proved that she was being cared for by loving parents and being home with them was clearly the best place for her.
So, the answer to the questions is easy – I do my job because I love putting families back together. Unfortunately, not all cases end like this but the ones that do make it worthwhile. Being a legal aid lawyer means that sadly I will never be a millionaire, however the job satisfaction of knowing that I have helped parents and children is more than enough for me.