Thursday 13 December 2018

Dearbhail McDonald: We're blind to the new Magdalene scandals happening in our midst

WhAT will I say in 20 years when asked what I did about the Magdalenes in our midst?

In recent months, I have crossed the personal landmark of my first decade in journalism.

The financial crisis of 2008 is the story of that decade, if not the century.

But one of the most dominant, persistent narratives during that time has been the endemic, and in all too many cases fatal, failings in child welfare and protection.

Historically, there is the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests; the terrors inflicted on children in religious institutions; forced adoptions; symphysiotomies; and the Magdalenes – to name but a few.

The high walls of Catholic hierarchy, history and harsh times cannot, however, shield us from recent scandals, current abuses and the next violations we are fully on notice of.

These include the deaths of almost 200 children in care and the 500 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who went missing from state care during the Celtic Tiger years.

If we look into a crystal ball, what will come back to haunt us?

The current mass containment of asylum-seeking children and their parents in direct provision is surely one such fault line.

The practice of exporting at-risk children abroad to be detained in secure units because we cannot provide adequate services at home, and detaining minors in adult psychiatric wards, are others.

Ditto for the treatment of children in prisons, the failure to provide hundreds of children in foster care with social workers and the plight of children and young adults in aftercare without proper supports.

The report of the Inter-Departmental Committee (IDC) to establish the facts of state involvement with the Magdalene Laundries, in many respects a flawed report, demolished many myths, primarily the claim that the State had little or no involvement with them.

Two years ago the Department of Justice told the United Nations Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) that the vast majority of women who went to Magdalene laundries went there voluntarily or with parental consent.

Indeed, the long-standing justification for the exclusion of the Magdalenes from the State's Residential Institutions Redress Act was that "Maggies" were voluntarily confined in Catholic institutions.

But the IDC report revealed that of the cases in which routes of entry are known, 26.5pc were referrals made or facilitated by the State.

Successive governments have fought a rearguard action against paying for the sins of past generations.

This stance is not altogether incredulous: the Residential Redress scheme alone cost €1.3bn.

There has been much hand-wringing in the wake of the Magdalene report, but as a society we have known about the conditions there for years.

Only the tenacity of the survivors and the Irish Human Rights Commission, backed by a damning UNCAT report, forced the State to act and make amends.

The initial reticence by Taoiseach Enda Kenny to make a full apology to the Magdalenes was perhaps informed by a fear that compensation based on "state involvement" would lead to numerous payouts for others being failed in state care or custody.

Latter-day Magdalenes, such as vulnerable minors and parents of children with disabilities, are already seeking redress.

And the State is spending millions in taxpayers' monies to pay lawyers to fight these challenges.

This massive spend on litigation comes at a time when cuts are being made to vital child services as bondholders are being paid in full.

There was much glee in the wake of the Government's rebuke by the Supreme Court over the children referendum information campaign.

The outcome of the referendum is being challenged in the courts. But have we forgotten that at heart that poll was about redefining the threshold for "state involvement" and strengthening the responsibility of the State in its direct and indirect dealings with vulnerable children?

In the end, it's all about priorities and what we, as a society, choose to see or be blind to.

We are on notice, now, of the Magdalenes in our midst and history cannot shield us.

Why wait 20 years to wring our hands when we can act now?

Irish Independent

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