Sunday 11 December 2016

Tusla not told of any concerns about staff involved in foster case

Published 04/02/2016 | 02:30

HSE director general Tony O'Brien. Photo: Damien Eagers
HSE director general Tony O'Brien. Photo: Damien Eagers

The State's child protection agency is seeking answers over why it was not informed by the HSE of any concerns about the conduct of employees who were involved in the foster home abuse scandal.

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HSE director general Tony O'Brien told a hearing of the Dáil Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that a number of health service workers involved in the 'Grace' case had since transferred to Tusla, the child and family agency, while others are working with the HSE.

Gardaí are investigating the handling of sexual and physical abuse concerns at a former foster home in the southeast by several current and former health service officials.

In a statement, Tusla said no concerns about the conduct of staff who transferred to the agency were brought to its attention by the HSE.

It said its chief executive, Gordon Jeyes, has been in touch with the HSE to seek clarification about Mr O'Brien's comments.

At the hearing on Tuesday, Mr O'Brien told TDs: "Some of the people who have had some role or other in respect of this issue in the south east are currently in the employ of Tusla."

Mr O'Brien said he could not say whether any of these people were working with children.

Tusla said that although it received a briefing in 2014 on investigations into the care of Grace and others who attended the foster home, no concerns were voiced by the HSE in relation to staff who had transferred to Tusla. The statement said Tusla had requested a copy of a HSE-commissioned report on failings in Grace's care, but had not received one.

As well as the ongoing Garda investigation, a commission of investigation into the affair is expected to be set up by the next government.

Meanwhile, it has now emerged that at least four suspected cases of sexual abuse have been linked with the former foster home.

In addition to fears about Grace, an analysis of health service files by a whistleblower, one of Grace's social workers, uncovered the existence of two other potential cases. A fourth potential case was reported to the HSE in 2009 after a former resident of the home began engaging in disturbing behaviour.

The suspected cases were detailed in a dossier provided to the PAC by the social worker.

The full extent of the sexual abuse allegations surrounding the home have never been disclosed, and two HSE-commissioned reports into the handling of allegations by health service employees have yet to be published.

Mr O'Brien has said the reports cannot be released until a Garda investigation has concluded.

According to the dossier, the first case was reported to the then South Eastern Health Board in 1992.

Concerns were expressed by a family about their daughter and an allegation of sexual abuse was made.

However, due to the threat of legal action, the family did not proceed with their complaint and it appears the health board did not investigate the matter further.

A second complaint was made in late 1995 when a former resident of the home, who had since moved abroad, contacted the health board.

At that point the health board decided to stop making further referrals to the foster home.

However, one resident, known as Grace, was allowed to remain there until 2009, despite real fears she was in danger of being abused.

The commission of investigation is expected to look into whether there was an orchestrated cover-up by health service staff of the failings in her case.

The HSE has said it will not be defending a lawsuit being brought on Grace's behalf.

The HSE was notified of a fourth suspected case in 2009 when a former male client of the home began engaging in disturbing sexualised behaviour.

The man was placed with the foster family for respite care as a young adult and he alleged he had been locked under the stairs.

How Grace was repeatedly failed

A dossier compiled by a whistleblower identified several key occasions when health service staff failed Grace, the intellectually disabled woman believed to have been sexually abused at a foster home in the south east.

Grace, a non-verbal woman with profound learning disabilities, lived at the home from 1989 to 2009, between the ages of 11 and 31.

Although officials at the former South Eastern Health Board became aware of sexual abuse concerns at the home in 1992 and formally ended referrals in 1995, Grace was not removed for another 14 years.

According to the whistleblower, who as one of Grace's social workers gained access to health service files on her case, there were several opportunities to remove her. But for reasons never explained this did not happen.

Late 1995

The health board decided it was necessary to take "reasonable steps to protect" Grace due to "serious protection concerns".

The foster family lodged a protest and the health board decided to leave Grace there until the following summer when her situation was to be reviewed.

Summer 1996

A case conference was called and those present were told that the sexual abuse allegations had been "dealt with" and could not be "resurrected as grounds to justify any decisions" made in planning for Grace's future.

A decision was taken that she remain in the home.

An extensive trawl by the whistleblower could not uncover any documentation to explain the decision.

2000

The male foster carer in the family died, but the health board only became aware six months later, indicating extremely lax monitoring of what was happening at the home.

2001

A social worker made efforts to remove Grace from the home, writing to her mother to get consent for Grace to be put in a residential placement.

The social worker "strongly recommended" this course of action, but never told the mother the specifics of the concerns.

The mother provided written consent. However, the health board relented to the wishes of the foster family and Grace remained there.

2001-2007

No one from the health board or its successor, the HSE, which was set up in 2005, visited Grace or monitored her welfare.

August 2007

Grace's file lay dormant until her mother, who had not seen her in almost three decades, phoned to inquire about her welfare.

2008 and 2009

The whistleblower became one of Grace's social workers and voiced fears of neglect, financial, physical and sexual abuse owing to her appearance and injuries observed when she left the home to attend a day service.

The injuries included a black eye in August 2008, and bruising to her breast and thigh in March 2009.

Grace was sent for an assessment at a sexual assault treatment unit, but was too distressed to co-operate.

The HSE decided that in the absence of evidence being found of a sexual assault Grace was to be returned to the home.

She wasn't taken out of the home until July 2009 when the HSE informed Grace's mother of the bruising from the previous March. On hearing this, the mother demanded she be removed.

Irish Independent

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