If only we felt as strongly about child abuse as we do about paying for water
How many more children must be abused in the care of the State before we make tackling the issue a priority, wonders Eilis O'Hanlon
Published 17/04/2016 | 02:30
The horrific case of "Grace", the young woman with intellectual disabilities who was left in a foster home in the south east for years after an allegation of abuse by a former resident, broke in the New Year as attention was focused on the coming election.
Now another case has emerged, as negotiations continue on the formation of a minority government. This latest scandal was uncovered by RTE's Investigations Unit and concerns a young girl in a foster home in the west of the country who alleged that she, and another girl who'd been living there for more than a decade, had been abused by an 18-year-old man in the house. Her claims were found to be "credible" by the HSE, but two other children, including the girl the original complaint alleged was being abused, were allowed to remain on the premises.
A file was sent to the DPP, but there was no prosecution.
Four years later, the second named girl came forward to confirm the original allegation of abuse, at which point she too was removed from the home. It was further recommended that a boy being fostered there should also be removed, but it was more than a year before this was done.
It's a familiar story by now of personal trauma and institutional failure by State agencies; but is it wrong to find it telling that not a single public representative appears to have raised the ongoing scandal of child abuse as part of the negotiations for government?
There have been long-winded debates about the future of Irish Water, and discussions on whether an understanding by Fianna Fail to support a Fine Gael minority administration should be underscored by a written agreement.
Other specific policy proposals have leaked out from behind closed doors, including a possible merging of water charges and property tax, and changes to the Universal Social Charge, whilst others have raised the need for enforceable ground rules on how budgetary votes would work in practice.
Independents, likewise, have let it be known what they're demanding - variously, a new position of Disabilities Minister; a cystic fibrosis unit for Beaumont Hospital; 24-hour cardiac cover at University Hospital Waterford; rent allowance reforms; more rural jobs; a minimum of one third of positions in Cabinet for non-FG ministers. All hugely important matters to those who voted for them, no doubt.
But nowhere has any of those holding talks on supporting a new government made it a prerequisite to take action for those trapped in the nightmare of sexual abuse.
People Before Profit even issued a press release before the election declaring that a ban on US war planes using Shannon Airport was a "red line" issue for the left-wing alliance. That apparently was more important than child abuse too.
Conspiracy theorists tend to assume that such official inaction is proof of some sinister cover-up at the highest levels of the State, but the truth is almost equally awful for being so mundane.
Child abuse doesn't get the political attention it deserves because it simply isn't amenable to practical "fixes" in the traditional way. Sometimes it can even seem as if the problem is impossible to solve at all. Add to that an underlying narrative which explains child abuse in Ireland as the expression of a national psyche damaged by a colonial past and a cruel authoritarian church, and it's not hard to understand why politicians would rather pass the buck to others than take personal responsibility.
It would be absurd to deny that there have been instances where a blind eye was turned to child abuse by powerful people in society, even if the extent of it has been sensationalised; in Northern Ireland, many abusers were allowed to continue their abuse because they held positions in organisations that the security services wished to infiltrate and this was their way to "turn" perpetrators into assets.
It would be equally nonsensical to deny that a sickness entered the body of Irish society along the way which allowed the abuse of children to take root at a much deeper, primal level than in countries with more normal developments.
But both arguments also have the potential to cripple the most well-meaning efforts to tackle abuse. Conspiracy theories about powerful child abuse rings lead into hysterical witch-hunts such as those seen in the UK, which draw attention away from the fact that most abuse happens privately in the family home. Believing that abuse is embedded in the culture can likewise lead to fatalism about the prospects of eradicating it.
That's why the terrible suffering of "Grace", and the children in the latest case uncovered by RTE, is still dealt with singularly, on a serial basis. One abuser is exposed; there's short-term shock and disgust, followed by promises of action as everyone involved pledges that It Must Not Happen Again; after which the issue disappears from the headlines.
Until the next time.
On hearing about "Grace", Taoiseach Enda Kenny said "the words do not exist to describe, adequately, the depth and volume of the revulsion we feel about the alleged abuse and failures". Only the most hardened cynic would refuse to accept that he meant every word. He's a good person. Most TDs are.
It's just that the response never seems to go beyond immediate revulsion because something else always makes a greater claim on the political attention span.
Water charges protesters organise demonstrations, and blockade ministers' cars; gardai threaten to go on strike. Children do have advocates in the form of charities such as Barnardos, but they don't have lobbyists demanding meetings with ministers, or union officials threatening chaos unless they get their way. Children are not organised. Victims of child abuse are faceless, nameless, hidden.
So invisible are children in Irish society that it's still possible to hear debates as to whether they should have any rights at all.
The Government established a Commission of Inquiry into what happened to "Grace". No doubt that will be expanded in due course to include similar cases. But it doesn't take a commission to create a collective political will to make the issue of child abuse a priority. So has anyone in negotiations for government even brought up the safety of vulnerable children?
Establishing blame isn't simple. We certainly let off the birth families of children abused in State care far too easily; they often deserve censure too for not providing stable homes for their own children, thereby placing them in harm's way. That doesn't mean, however, that politics gets a free pass.
Irish Water became an issue at every round of talks since the election because parties felt that it either won or cost them votes.
If the systematic mistreatment of children over decades, both in foster homes approved by the State and in children's homes managed by the State, was as offensive to our sensibilities as the thought of paying for water, those who ply their trade as politicians wouldn't be able to ignore it so easily.