Saturday 20 December 2014

Jerome Reilly: State ignored homes' pleas for help

Nun looked for help for underpaid staff left to look after too many children

Published 15/06/2014 | 02:30

POWER: Tanaiste Brendan Corish, left, and Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave pictured in 1976
The letter written by Sr Gertrude Connolly in 1976.

THE State's wilful abandonment of children in care – relying on nuns to look after the most vulnerable while ignoring pleas for money to properly run residential homes – is laid bare in private unpublished documents seen by the Sunday Independent.

And they paint a vivid picture of underpaid staff battling to provide care for too many children.

The devastating critique and denunciation of the State's abject failure to protect children in care dates back to September 1976 and was compiled by a Presentation nun, Sr Gertrude Connolly, on behalf of the Religious Managers of Children's Homes.

She reveals the dismay, disenchantment and demoralisation of religious and lay workers as they were forced to look after children on a grant of just £18 per week, per child.

This was at a time when an accountant's investigation showed that £35 per week, per child, was the minimum sum needed to provide adequate care.

The date of the document is significant. It was written a full five years after the landmark Kennedy Report on reformatory and industrial schools which was supposed to usher in a new deal for children in care.

District Court Judge Eileen Kennedy made recommendations that politicians of the day pledged to implement.

In reality, Kennedy's report was effectively ignored or else implemented without adequate resources.

In the context of the controversy over mother and baby homes, the documents show that the State and Irish society at large was equally culpable in the scandalous treatment of mothers, babies and children.

At the time the administration in power was the so-called "National Coalition" led by Fine Gael Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave, with Labour leader Brendan Corish as Tanaiste.

Successive governments turned a blind eye to calls for help from religious sisters who were working for free.

When their role was taken over by lay care workers the Government refused to give the new staff a proper salary scale or security of tenure.

Sr Gertrude Connolly, who was also Chair of the Pastoral Commission, wrote to Bishop John McCormack of Meath asking him to urgently alert the hierarchy of the crisis in care homes.

"Residential child care centres are so seriously under-financed that their future is in jeopardy. The child care personnel in these centres, an increasing number of whom are lay, have neither salary nor security and the religious managers must pay them as best they can from the totally inadequate capitation grant," she writes.

She railed against the "persistent refusal" of the State to concede the principle of a salary scale for care workers, and to provide the resources needed.

She provided the hierarchy with a point by point demolition of the State's abandonment of 1,500 children in care at that time in 30 residential homes.

But Sr Connolly said that at the time of writing (1976) more and more lay people were being employed to make up for the absence of nuns and to provide both male and female figures which modern child care practice demanded.

"The salaries of these workers must be met from the capitation grant designed for a totally different situation. In consequence, salary levels are extremely low, workers have neither security nor prospects and homes are understaffed," she warned.

Sr Connolly wrote that religious managers of children's homes found themselves in the intolerable situation of appearing to treat lay people unjustly, that many workers were demoralised and that she feared a flood of trained professionals would simply leave.

She pointed out that while the capitation grant per child was raised to £18 in August 1976, this merely took account of declining money values and that a specially commissioned audit said the real figure to provide proper care was £35 a week per child.

"Given the nature of their work, no form of industrial action can be contemplated by them; nor can they run the risk of damage to the sensitivities of the children which publicity might entail," she said.

She added that many religious orders wanted to withdraw from running children's homes because to continue would be to co-operate in an unjust situation.

Sunday Independent

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