Tuesday 27 September 2016

Grace's abuse: we need to talk about accountability

Those who failed to protect victims in foster care abuse scandal should resign now, writes the HSE whistleblower

HSE whistleblower

Published 07/02/2016 | 02:30

VULNERABLE: The whistleblower in the ‘South East Foster Care Abuse’ scandal asks why nobody else spoke up over the 20 years that 47 people were abused while in State care. Picture posed
VULNERABLE: The whistleblower in the ‘South East Foster Care Abuse’ scandal asks why nobody else spoke up over the 20 years that 47 people were abused while in State care. Picture posed

We need to talk about Grace. Grace is a name bestowed upon my client because, when her story first emerged, to all of you she was nameless and faceless, and because of some peculiar anomaly of the human condition, that means it was hard for you to truly empathise with the injustices perpetrated upon her by our state agencies.

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But I do know Grace. She has a name and she has a face. She is a wonderful person who has taught me more about resilience than any 'vulnerable' person should ever have to. But I won't tell you anything more about Grace, because you have no right to know about her. In fact, you already know more about her than you should.

And that should never have been the case. I should never have been required to disclose details of this case to the Public Accounts Committee, ultimately resulting in such public discussions of the alleged abuse suffered by Grace and other children or vulnerable adults over three decades.

Members of the PAC have repeatedly been asked whether they had any remit to take on what has now become known as the 'South East Foster Care Abuse' scandal. But make no mistake, the committee members understood, they cared and they were as angry as you and I are about what had happened in that house.

In their handling of this issue, they proved themselves to be public representatives in the truest sense.

And so, the question should not be why PAC was asking questions of the HSE's failure to protect our most vulnerable citizens, but rather why the Department of Health was not asking those very questions.

Instead, the Department seemed unfocussed upon this issue, with the ministers concerned reminding us repeatedly that they were unable to access the two HSE-commissioned reports relating to this foster home.

In stark contrast, the exchanges within the Dáil Committee Room between Oireachtas members and HSE representatives on this issue have often been intense, yet seldom enlightening - with PAC members accusing the HSE of 'stonewalling', hiding behind unpublished reports, telling 'lies' and misrepresenting the facts and misleading the committee.

Indeed, you should not be misled by the HSE talking about the 'Foster Care Abuse' issue, as this is not merely a problem with the monitoring of foster care.

Yes, we need to talk about the risks to children in care and the need for Tusla to be adequately resourced to protect our children from abuse.

But we also need to talk about vulnerable adults who have never been in the care of the State, yet are entirely reliant on the State to protect them.

The HSE told PAC earlier last week that it lacks the 'legal capacity' to protect vulnerable adults who may be at risk from a third party. In fact, 'Ann' was left at risk in this home for years, apparently on the basis of legal advice received by the HSE.

We need to talk about who has responsibility for the protection of vulnerable adults.

We need to talk about how we protect those who cannot protect themselves and how we support those who lack capacity to make decisions about their own protection.

We need to talk about the legislation required to protect people with disabilities from abuse and how the court system often precludes them from having equal access to justice because they cannot give evidence or because they are considered to be 'unreliable' witnesses.

We need to talk about how the South Eastern Health Board, and subsequently the HSE, could make a conscious decision to leave a non-verbal child living with alleged abusers for 20 years or how the HSE could leave 'Ann' in the same placement on the basis of 'legal advice'.

We need to talk about how a culture can exist within the HSE, whereby not one employee spoke up during the course of those 20 years, even though they knew that Grace, and subsequently Ann, had been left at risk. We need to talk about why those culpable were allowed to move into other positions within the HSE, Tusla or elsewhere.

We need to talk about why the systems of 'fair procedure' within the HSE precludes disciplinary action being taken against those who are responsible for 'significant failures over an extended period of time', even years after their failings were exposed.

These procedures certainly are not 'fair' on the 47 children and vulnerable adults left at risk in this placement. Nor are they 'fair' on the children reliant on the services now being run by these individuals.

Whatever happened to 'Children First'?

We need to talk about why we have no culture of personal responsibility in this country. Why do people not resign when they are responsible for failing those they were employed to serve?

As a social worker, I have come to accept that there are people in every section of society willing to abuse children and vulnerable adults. What I cannot accept is that the very people we employ to protect them will not be held accountable for standing idly by and thereby allowing the abuse to continue.

I know you are all talking about Grace's story now, but I am in no doubt that this talk will soon fade, along with your memories of Grace, and a new scandal will emerge from our health service. It is most obliging in that regard.

The cynic in me actually wonders whether the HSE relies on a new scandal to emerge each week, as it serves only to make us forget last week's scandal.

But someone once told me that a cynic is merely a frustrated idealist. And, indeed, perhaps I am an idealist. I hope for a health service where the needs of the people it is there to serve is placed before the interests of the HSE, or indeed that of its employees. I hope for a health service where 'whistleblowers' will no longer be seen as 'brave' and 'courageous' for speaking up, but rather will be seen to just be doing their job. Because that is all I did. My job is to support people with an intellectual disability. And that is all I have done.

I have supported Grace to have her story heard in both Houses of the Oireachtas, to pursue a criminal case against those who failed her and to ensure a statutory inquiry into the injustices perpetrated upon her by the agencies of the state that were supposed to protect her. The idealist in me hopes this may stop these injustices from being perpetrated upon another child or vulnerable adult who relies on the State to protect them.

That should be Grace's legacy.

Sunday Independent

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