Wednesday 20 September 2017

Gardaí probe whether children 'endangered' by health service staff

Minister of State for Disability Issues Finian McGrath is watched by his special adviser Damien O'Farrell as he responds to the reports on the foster home in the south-east
Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Minister of State for Disability Issues Finian McGrath is watched by his special adviser Damien O'Farrell as he responds to the reports on the foster home in the south-east Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

Gardaí are probing whether current and former health service staff recklessly endangered intellectually disabled children by allowing them to be placed or remain in a foster home at the centre of physical and sexual abuse allegations.

The garda probe is focused on "actions or inactions" of health board and HSE staff over a 30-year period up to 2009.

Tess O'Donovan, HSE assistant national director for human resources
Tess O'Donovan, HSE assistant national director for human resources

The families of children who used the home have been interviewed by gardaí in recent months, the Irish Independent has learned.

Sources said the garda probe began in August 2015 after a complaint was made by a social worker. The disclosure came as the HSE issued an "unreserved and heartfelt" apology to former residents, who it admits were failed during their stay at the foster home in the south-east.

Five current HSE employees and six staff at Tusla are expected to face disciplinary proceedings following the publication yesterday of two damning reports on the care of those children.

One of the intellectually disabled children, now a woman known as Grace, was left in the home for almost 20 years, despite a succession of sexual abuse allegations and other evidence she was being mistreated.

Read more: Disabled Grace left in foster care for 20 years despite abuse claims

Dr Cathal Morgan, the head of operations in HSE disability services, said he had seen no evidence to support claims there had been a cover-up by HSE staff. However, in issuing the apology, he said: "It is patently obvious from reading the reports that action could have been taken."

He said there was "no doubt" interventions "would have made a difference".

"You don't need to be a rocket scientist to understand that at a very human level when something is being identified as a very clear and obvious risk, you act. Clearly, action wasn't taken. These are matters from the HR side that will have to be seriously dealt with."

One of the reports published yesterday, by Conal Devine and Associates, examined the care of Grace, and was completed in 2012. The other, by consultants Resilience Ireland, examined the care of 34 other children and was completed in 2015.

Read more: Horrific abuse at 'Grace' case foster home and health service failings revealed by reports

Publication of both reports was delayed until yesterday at the request of gardaí. A list of staff at the centre of those reports has been shared by the HSE with Tusla in the past fortnight.

A process will now begin where findings against individuals will be put to them and they will be allowed to respond.

Tess O'Donovan, HSE assistant national director for human resources, said that under HSE policies it was possible to dismiss individuals in cases of gross misconduct, but she declined to comment on people implicated by the reports.

The HSE's chief officer in the south-east, Aileen Colley, said the five HSE staff were no longer working with children.

But Tusla would not disclose whether or not its six staff are currently working directly with children.

Read more: HSE apologises again over Grace foster case, but insists there is no evidence of a cover-up

Tusla said it had completed an initial HR review and would be studying the reports and liaising with gardaí before deciding on further action.

No disciplinary action can be taken against former health service employees who have retired. The retirees include three people who sat on a committee that overturned an earlier decision to remove Grace from the home in 1996, after another family had made allegations of sexual abuse against the male foster carer.

Inexplicably, the committee decided not to refer any more children to the foster home, but decided Grace should stay.

Gardaí previously investigated allegations about the foster home and five separate files were sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

However, those investigations focused on the family running the foster home and encountered major difficulties in securing evidence or statements due to the disabilities of the children involved.

Timeline of sad series of events

1970s: A family in the south-east applied to take part in a holiday respite scheme for children. Approval was given but there is no evidence checks were made on the family or the home.

1985-87: The family were approved as foster carers to take up to two children during July and August but ended up taking many more. Under the rules, there should have been reviews every six months by the health board, but there were none.

1989: A non-verbal intellectually disabled 11-year-old girl, known as Grace, was placed with the foster family on a "short-term placement" and sent to the nearest special school. But she soon stopped going due to transport problems.

1995: Grace, then 17, began going to a day service. She started showing signs of distress. Staff noticed bruising on her body. The foster family deflected questions about the bruising.

1996: The mother of another child alleged her daughter had been sexually abused by the foster father. In April, a decision was taken by the health board to find Grace a new home, but the foster family protested. The decision was reversed that October, for reasons which remain unclear. It was decided Grace should remain, but no other children were to be sent there. Making Grace a ward of court was considered, but never followed up.

2000: The foster father died that June.

2004: After a number of years where it appears Grace was largely forgotten about by the health board, a question arose about her place on a waiting list for a residential placement elsewhere. This was turned down by the foster mother.

2007-08: Grace's birth mother gave permission for her daughter to be moved to a residential placement. But there were disagreements among HSE staff. Some believed she needed to become a ward of court first.

2009. That March, day service staff saw bruising on Grace's thighs and breasts. She was sent to a sexual-assault treatment unit but was returned to the foster family amid confusion over finding her another place to stay. She was eventually removed from the home at the insistence of social workers that July. The social workers made protected disclosures highlighting a range of failings and questioned whether the HSE had acted in Grace's interests.

2012-2015: Reports were commissioned by the HSE.

2017: The reports were finally published, revealing health service staff failed in their duty of care to Grace and other children. Eleven HSE and Tusla staff are now expected to face disciplinary proceedings.

Irish Independent

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