'There is definitely more to be done' - Taoiseach responds to 'systemic flaws' reported in handling of abuse at Galway foster home
A scathing report outlining a litany of failures by Government agencies which resulted in three children being sexually abused while in State care is deeply disturbing, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said.
Speaking to reporters in Cork today, Mr Varadkar vowed the Government will act on the leaked report by the National Review Panel as soon as it’s published.
The 22-page report investigated how the State child and family agency Tusla and its predecessor, the Health Services Executive (HSE), responded to allegations of sexual abuse concerning three children in a foster home in the west of Ireland.
It found there were “systemic flaws by management” of both agencies in failing to protect the children who subsequently suffered "grave and heinous sexual abuse" while in the care of the State.
"The report hasn’t been published yet. I haven’t seen it myself but it will be published in the next couple of weeks and we will act on it,” the Taoiseach said.
"It’s only a leak at this stage. But we have made some very significant strides when it comes to child protection in recent years, in particular, the fact that reporting of child abuse is now mandatory, and that was only introduced in the last two years. But there is definitely more to be done,” he said.
The report was leaked to “RTE Investigates” following its April 2018 broadcast of the documentary ‘Failure to Foster’ in which a young girl was sexually abused by Keith Burke, the then-teenage son of foster parents Gerry and Kathleen Burke in Dunmore, Co Galway.
Her disclosure to her biological mother ultimately led to the conviction last year of Keith Burke who was found guilty of the rape and buggery of three foster girls who were under the age of ten at the time of the offences when they stayed with the family between 2003 and 2007.
The review panel found a catalogue of inactions by both State agencies, including an initial assessment of the Burke’s suitability as a foster family which it described as “brief” and lacking detail.
It also said there was no evidence that the Burke’s children were included in the assessment and the State agencies did not consider the implications of placing young girls in a family with growing boys.
Even after the initial sex abuse allegations came to light, the family was not re-assessed, the panel found. It was also critical of the fact that the agencies did not contact families of other foster children who stayed at the Burke home to see whether they had suffered abuse as well.
The panel’s report cited "serious errors of judgment", "flawed assessment and decision-making" and a "lack of management oversight" concerning the Social Work Department's involvement with the foster family, according to RTE.
In also pointed to quotes from a social worker who said the foster mother was "calling the shots" when it came to dealing with social workers and the fact the foster parents demanded an apology after the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) initially decided not to prosecute.
Tusla, meanwhile, said it accepts the findings and recommendations by the panel and that “ key learnings have been identified and are being addressed.”
“We are very mindful of the devastating impact on the victims in this case and the effect that this has had on them, and their families. We now know that the decisions made in 2007 and 2011 were not robust enough to keep the children safe,” the agency said in a prepared statement today.
“However it is important to highlight that this report reflects a certain point in time, prior to the establishment of Tusla which has resulted in an improvement in standards, staffing and services. Since 2014, social workers have actively worked with the young people involved, where that’s in line with their wishes, and will continue to do so.”
The statement went on to say that Tusla “strives to protect children and keep them safe from harm” through garda vetting for foster carers and adult family members.
It also conducts regular visits to foster homes and provides “in depth aftercare supports.” The agency is also the subject of regular inspections by the Health Information Quality Authority (HIQA), it noted.
“When an allegation of abuse is made, Tusla takes immediate action to protect any child or children who may be at immediate risk. Currently all serious concerns and allegations in foster care are managed in line with Tusla’s operational guidance for staff. Our actions are always informed by the best interests and safety of the children involved,” the statement read.
But the agency also took issue with the report being leaked, stating: “Engagements with those affected including young people, families, and the community is in line with best practice, to ensure their wellbeing and limit any adverse effects this situation may have on them.
"We are concerned that this report has been put into the public domain prior to the publication date and in advance of the completion of a number of important steps which take place in the days before a publication of this nature.”