Kevin O'Higgins Solicitors

State's child protection failings should be made an election issue

Friday, 5 February, 2016
David Quinn

It is a very sad fact that the start of the election campaign will now push the foster care scandal far down the news agenda to the point where it may never again receive the attention it deserves. 

If this happens, it will not only be an injustice to 'Grace', the intellectually disabled women left for many years with foster carers against whom terrible abuse allegations have been made, it will be an injustice to all other children failed by an extremely ramshackle, chaotic and unaccountable State children protection system.

By one of those almost unexplainable vagaries, this scandal has received a lot of attention whereas countless other child protection failings by the State have not.

Let's take one of those failures at random. In 2013, the Office of the Ombudsman for Children published the results of an investigation into why very serious allegations of sex abuse against a child were not dealt with properly by the HSE.

The report says that "Between December 2006 and July 2007, an 11-year-old girl made disclosures of multiple instances of severe child abuse. The disclosures included but were not confined to reports of repeated instances of violent rape by an adult male and involved death threats and assault with a knife."

The child's mother contacted both the gardaí and the HSE. The gardaí interviewed the child.

The alleged rapist was never charged. One reason for this was a long delay by the HSE in organising a medical examination of the child.

The HSE complained that it did not have appropriate medical staff in place who could do it.

Contemplate that for a moment (and remember that this was taking place before all the cutbacks). The State has loudly proclaimed that it serves the best interests of children. It has said it takes child protection extremely seriously. It has rightly stood in judgement when the Church has failed to protect children, but when a child alleges serious sex abuse the child cannot be guaranteed a timely medical examination which can validate the allegation and maybe secure a conviction.

The report of the Ombudsman found numerous other failings by the HSE, not least a failure to deal with either the child or the child's mother in a sensitive manner.

Needless to say, no-one has ever been held properly accountable for any of this.

While in opposition, Alan Shatter did an excellent job calling attention to the multiple examples of the HSE failing children.

One such person was David Foley. Three years after he entered the care system, he was found dead from a drug overdose.

The then Government ordered an investigation. A report into that investigation was eventually published but it spoke of 'systems failures' which allows specific individuals off the hook.

In January 2002, Tracey Fay also died of a drug overdose. She had been in the care of the State for four years. Again, a report was eventually published and again no-one seems to have been held accountable.

In September 2006, Melissa Mahon, aged 14, was killed by Ronnie Dunbar, a known paedophile. At the time of her death, Melissa was in the 'care' of the HSE. We are told the HSE made huge efforts to protect her. Did they do everything reasonably possible?

In 2012, a report into 200 deaths of children in the care of the HSE, or who were known to the HSE care services, was published. It found that some of these deaths were avoidable.

On the day of the launch one of the report's authors, Geoffrey Shannon, described the report as a "devastating indictment of the child protection system".

He called for "accountability and a change to the in-camera rule" which prevents family law cases being properly reported.

Gordon Jeyes, now head of Tusla, the child and family agency, was present at the launch.

I asked him whether anyone had resigned as a result of any of these deaths. All he would admit was that some disciplinary measures had been taken without being any more specific.

When HSE chief Tony O'Brien appeared before the Public Accounts Committee the other day, he confirmed that no-one has been sacked as a result of the failings in this latest scandal.

He did say that the three HSE workers who sat on the panel that overruled a recommendation that Grace be removed from her foster home are now retired. However, he needs to be asked whether the HSE has used any of these three in any capacity since their retirement.

He also said that he has sacked employees for failures less serious than those coming to light in this case.

It would be good to know why those sackings took place. Was a single one because of a serious child protection failing?

There are bound to be more foster care scandals waiting to come to light. A Hiqa report in 2009 revealed that of 389 children in foster care in the Dublin north-west area, 189 lacked an allocated social worker, meaning they were not being properly monitored.

A Tusla report last year revealed that a further 26 children in HSE care, or known to the HSE, died in 2014. Again, some of the deaths were avoidable. Again, no-one was held accountable.

A subset of these deaths was looked at in more detail and the report said there was "no evidence to suggest that any action or inactions on the part of the services" contributed to the deaths in question.

This appears to be the finding of many reports into child protection failings by the HSE. How credible is this? Can it really be that no failure on the part of a social worker has ever been serious enough to warrant dismissal?

In 2009, commenting on child protection failings by the Church, Alan Shatter said that, "The scandalous culture of secrecy, cover-up and absence of accountability for which the Roman Catholic Church is justifiably criticised is endemic in the State's child protection services."

The HSE whistleblower who helped to expose the foster care scandal told 'Claire Byrne Live' on Monday night that there needs to be a change of culture in the HSE. She said it must be more willing to hold up its hands and to stop hiding behind unpublished reports. She said there needs to be resignations.

The failure on the part of the State to properly protect some of the children in its care, and the almost total lack of accountability when there is a serious failure ought, by rights, to be an election issue. It can't all be about the economy.

If it is, that is a bad reflection not just on our political parties, but on us as well.


Irish Independent