A Tusla representative has said the child and family agency is doing everything it can to help a family of 16 children, many of whom are involved in criminal activity, but “we don’t have a magic wand that’ll fix everything”.
Gardaí have expressed concerns on a number of occasions for the conditions they have encountered at a home in county Longford, with approximately 70 referrals sent to the agency this year alone, the court heard.
On this particular occasion, the family came to the attention of gardaí because two of the children, aged 12 and 13, had been involved in shoplifting, with no fewer than 15 offences brought against the 12-year-old, and 20 offences against the 13 year old.
Gardaí explained to the court that there are eight more children under the age of 12, and that the family has 16 children in total.
“Neither parent is a good role model for any of their children,” said Judge Hughes, who had first heard the case a few days earlier and requested representatives from Tusla attend court.
“A few years ago, I said that (the father) was leading his son into a life of crime. Then I got the impression that gardaí are very concerned about the care of these children, and I get the distinct impression they’re disappointed with the level of engagement with social services.”
The court heard that gardaí had contacted Tusla on May 22 and that the agency had attended the home, but didn’t do a full search and reported that they were satisfied with the conditions they met. Gardaí, however, were not as impressed.
“Housing conditions are only one aspect of this. I’m not as concerned with that as I am with the children having that many charges against them,” said Judge Hughes.
“The other side is does Tusla take eight children and board them elsewhere at the expense of hundreds of thousands of euro?
“The parents have abdicated themselves of any responsibility of bringing their children up in society.
“Prison is not the answer. I can’t send children between the ages of 12 and 14 to prison. We don’t want a disaster on our hands in two or three years either.”
Superintendent Jim Delaney was in attendance at court and said that, after the case was brought to Judge Hughes’ attention at Longford District Court just a few days earlier, there was an incident outside the courthouse with the family’s 16-year-old son.
“What transpired outside on the streets is two children were openly calling out other people to fight,” he said.
“I witnessed (the father) abdicate his parental responsibility. He made no effort to stop his son.”
Judge Hughes acknowledged Supt Delaney’s concerns but said that the child in question was “beyond salvation” and that his concern was with the younger children in the family.
Ms Griffith, from Tusla, addressed the court and said that some visits had not been taking place due to Covid-19 restrictions, but she added that Tusla has been working with the children aged eight years old and upwards.
“We have one person working with the girls and one working with the boys,” she explained.
“The parents do engage with us and they get the children to school. But the children seem to do their own thing - even the younger ones. We’re trying to get a routine working at home but we can only do so much.”
She added that Tusla are reluctant to take the children into care because “it’s not going to fix the situation and it’s not going to solve anything”.
“We would prefer to work with them in the community. Taking the younger children could be a possibility, but they have a very close bond with their parents,” she added.
One of the common denominators with the children was engagement in criminal activity, Judge Hughes noted.
“I believe the children are actively involved in theft and bringing the spoils back home to be shared,” he said.
Ms Griffith said that Tusla does not have a magic wand that will fix everything, but insisted that the children have a sense of belonging at home.
“But I wouldn’t question that there isn’t a discouragement of theft,” she admitted.
“We will be trying with them. The parents aren’t denying us access. We’ve had one on one time with the children and their health needs are met. They’re thriving. But the housing is awful,” she said.
Solicitor for the defence, John Quinn, explained that the family is still in the house because of Covid-19 restrictions.
Proceedings had commenced to get them a better house, but those were suspended due to the virus.
But, he added, it would be ideal if they could be housed in a rural area, far enough away from any town that the children couldn’t access shops so easily.
“They came from a rural setting at one stage and we feel if they’re rehomed in a rural setting, they might be better,” he said.
“The centre of town is not ideal. If we could get a rural house it would help.”
Supt Delaney, addressing the court again, insisted that there is just “a short window” to take action, as gardaí were concerned for the younger children in the family.
“Of 16 children, the older eight are in the criminal justice system and we have another eight coming up behind them,” he said.
“The youngest eight are moving steadily in the footsteps of the oldest eight.”
Sgt Darren Conlon, who is coordinator for the criminal aspect of the family and their welfare, said that everyone in the courtroom on that day has “a genuine concern for the children”.
Listing some of the most recent of the 35 charges against the 12-year-old and 13-year-old girls, he said that gardaí believe these are “targeted” shoplifting incidents and that the children are being sent to shoplift by their parents.
“On January 4, 2020, (the 12-year-old) stole a jacket worth €220 and was caught red-handed by Sgt Newton,” he said.
“On November 13, 2019, (the 13-year-old) stole cosmetics to the value of €545. We believe they’re being trained and passing on their training.”
On March 8, 2020, he added, one of the younger children accompanied the two sisters to a retail premises where gardaí believe he was being trained to shoplift by the two older girls.
And, on May 6, 2020, he said three boys, aged seven, eight and nine, stole €45 worth of property from a local pharmacy.
Shoplifting is not the only issue, he added. On May 22, 2020, the eight-year-old-son, stole a mobile phone from another boy.
“An eight-year-old boy with autism was outside when he was approached by the child, who grabbed the phone from the kid,” said Sgt Conlon.
“Every app and game he needed was on the phone. We located the phone on the bedside of one of the children asleep in the house.
“When I showed it to the mother, she claimed ownership of it. She had cleared it of numbers but all of the apps were still on it, so that’s how I knew it was the stolen phone.”
Housing conditions for the children are also appalling, gardaí stressed, with no duvet covers, clothing in piles, no clean clothing hanging in the wardrobes.
“There seems to be no showering facilities as the shower is filled with clothing and the bath is full of rubbish. The sink and toilets are not working,” explained prosecuting Inspector Frank Finn.
“There’s nothing I can do. If there was, I’d do it,” Judge Hughes replied, before referring to Ms Griffith’s earlier comments that Tusla were doing everything they can for the family.
“I have confidence in the social workers. I don’t have the same confidence in the council. This problem is not going away.”