Saturday 7 December 2019

Staff in foster abuse scandal now working for child protection body

HSE director general Tony O’Brien arrives for the PAC hearing. Photo: Tom Burke
HSE director general Tony O’Brien arrives for the PAC hearing. Photo: Tom Burke
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

Former health board staff involved in the foster home abuse scandal are now working for the State's child protection agency.

HSE director general Tony O'Brien said some of the officials named in independent reports detailing major failings in the care of vulnerable children were now working for Tusla, the child and family agency.

Others remain employed by the HSE, he told a hearing of the Dáil's Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

The disclosure came after it emerged gardaí are investigating as many as five current and former HSE officials over their handling of sexual and physical abuse concerns at a foster home in the south-east.

Mr O'Brien said it had not been possible to discipline or sack any of the staff who remain at the HSE while the gardaí probe is ongoing.

But he said he had fired people in the past for issues "a lot less serious than this".

All of those named were involved in making decisions about the care of 'Grace', a mute and intellectually disabled woman who spent 20 years at the foster home despite significant fears being expressed that she was being abused there.

Mr O'Brien's comments came on a day of dramatic evidence at the PAC.

The committee heard how:

  • The HSE has decided not to mount any defence against a legal case being taken on Grace's behalf.
  • It also does not plan to defend cases that may be filed by any of the 47 other known residents of the foster home - potentially leaving it open to millions of euro in damages.
  • The HSE is considering a nationwide "look-back" exercise to see if other cases exist where health staff failed to protect vulnerable children. Mr O'Brien was concerned that other cases would be found.
  • Three health board officials decided to send Grace back to the foster home in the face of evidence she had been abused. All three have since retired and the reason for their decision has not been disclosed.
  • Several misunderstandings were to blame for the HSE issuing a statement saying an official apology had been issued to Grace when this was not true. Mr O'Brien said the matter had been "mishandled" by the HSE.
  • The foster home did not receive a single inspection across a six-year period.
  • Another woman, 'Ann', remained at the home for four years after Grace was removed. While the HSE informed her family of general concerns about care there, it did not inform them of the sexual abuse allegations.

Grace was among dozens of children with disabilities placed at the home between 1983 and 1995. Concerns about alleged abuse there were first raised in 1992. Although the then health board stopped further referrals in 1995, Grace remained there until 2009.

In that period there were several occasions when the warning signs of abuse were spotted by health service officials.

"There were occasions where there was information, which if treated differently, would have seen Grace removed sooner," Mr O'Brien told the committee.

PAC vice-chairman John Deasy said it was clear to him from the evidence presented that "the HSE has become a danger to the people it was meant to protect in the first place".

During sometimes heated exchanges, Mr Deasy accused Mr O'Brien of "stonewalling" and of "hiding behind reports and the garda investigation".

Mr O'Brien denied these claims and insisted he was precluded from answering certain questions as to do so would affect an ongoing garda probe.

Meanwhile, in the Dáil, Taoiseach Enda Kenny spoke of his "revulsion" at the abuse allegations and how they were handled. "Those who left her [Grace] to her fate pressed the mute button on her young life and her appalling experience," Mr Kenny said. "Above all, the mute button was pressed on her dignity, her humanity, on her civil and human rights."

Mr Kenny said he hoped a commission of investigation, which will have to be approved by the next government, would answer key outstanding questions.

Irish Independent

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