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David Quinn: Someone must be held accountable for children's deaths


Stock photo

Stock photo

Stock photo

Between 2000 and 2010, 196 children died who were known to state care services. Of these, 30 deaths were drug related, 28 were the result of suicide and 17 died in traffic accidents. What we don't know is how many more children known to the State were hospitalised because of drugs, how many more attempted suicide or how many more were badly injured in traffic accidents.

Nor do we know how many children known to the HSE suffered physical abuse or sexual abuse or neglect because the HSE did not remove them from their families when it could have. (The Constitution cannot be blamed here because the Constitution allows for intervention in such cases).

In other words, the failure by the HSE to protect these 196 children is only the tip of the iceberg. How big is the iceberg? We don't know.

Consider the fact that when the 'Sunday Business Post' first reported that many children known to the HSE had died, the first instinct of the HSE was to go into denial and then to issue a figure that was only one-eighth of what it eventually turned out to be.

Basically, the HSE didn't know how many had died because it wasn't collating the figures. Staggering. And if it didn't know how many had died, you can be sure it hasn't a clue how many more children known to it have 'flirted' with death and how many more have suffered preventable abuse or neglect.

We should know those figures as well. Children's Minister Frances Fitzgerald ought to ask for them and not be fobbed off. The system has to know how many children known to it have been admitted to hospital because of drugs or attempted suicide or traffic accidents.

Consider also the fact that these deaths were occurring while successive Ministers for Health and Children were waxing indignant about the church's child protection failings.

It takes a special kind of chutzpah to condemn the church over its failings while presiding over a ramshackle system that was catastrophically failing children right under their noses down to the present day.

The 438-page report by Geoffrey Shannon and Norah Gibbons into the 196 deaths catalogues in damning detail just how ramshackle the system is.

Mr Shannon and Ms Gibbons can't precisely say how many of these deaths were preventable, but many were. So, to put it as baldly as possible, there are probably dozens of children who would be alive today if the State had properly protected them.

There has been a notable lack of outrage about this. RTE headlined the report on the day of its release but it quickly dropped out of the news schedule. Contrast this with its coverage of the Cloyne Report, which was wall-to-wall.

Will our politicians try to outdo one another in their expressions of outrage? Will our Taoiseach deliver a speech condemning the 'dysfunction' of the HSE?

There has also been very little detectable public outrage. Let's wait to see if expressions of outrage flood in to the Letters Editors of our newspapers.

One reason the report has more or less disappeared off the news radar is because there is little desire on the part of the media to see anyone in the HSE held accountable for these catastrophic failures.

When a number of journalists, myself included, asked the National Director of Child and Family Services, Gordon Jeyes (according to all accounts, the man for the job), whether any social workers or managers had been sacked, he refused to say.

As I understand it, no social worker or manager has ever been sacked or demoted, no matter how serious their failure, and under the Croke Park agreement such a recourse seems to be impossible.

This is not a matter of demonising social workers. Our child-protection system is clearly scandalously under-resourced. But how can we demand accountability from politicians, bankers, bishops, even football managers for crying out loud, but not demand accountability from our social workers when it's children's lives that are at stake?

Normally when a big failure is revealed on the part of an organisation, the media mode of operation is to demand resignations and the pack goes off in pursuit, often for days at a time.

This happens in Britain, when there is a serious child-protection failing by social workers. But not in Ireland. Why not?

There would also be demands for apologies. But all the Children's Minister offered on Wednesday was an expression of "regret". Was this at the advice of her lawyers, fearful of a lawsuit by the families of the dead children?

Perhaps I'm being unfair. If so, then it should be possible to formally apologise to those families on behalf of the State.

It is abundantly clear that we still don't take child protection seriously enough.

We need to resource the child-protection system properly and demand accountability in given circumstances.

But given the relative lack of outrage at the 196 deaths, will this happen? I'm not betting on it.

Irish Independent