PEOPLE involved in child protection -- be they social workers, community child care workers or foster parents -- spend a lot of time talking about "an ideal world". In an ideal world, children would not need to be protected: the moral obligation of caring for the young and vulnerable would be somehow hard-wired into each of us and childhood would be a calm, happy, safe time.
In an ideal world, the government of our nation would believe the care, health and welfare of our children was the most important issue and ensure it is always the first item on any agenda of planning and expenditure.
In an ideal world, those few children who did end up within the care system would be given the kind of exemplary care described in childcare text books.
They might not be with their parents, but they would be treated warmly and with the utmost respect and tenderness. Their childhood would not be lost but would, in fact, be rescued.
The tragic, unforgivable death of Tracey Fay shows that all these dreams are just that: dreams. The fact that a young girl could be not just on the books of then Eastern Health Board but actually in their care on a full-time basis and still be the victim of sexual predators and drug pushers seems unthinkable.
The fact that this child had been on the books of child protection services since she was eight months old just adds to the horror of the situation.
The obvious question is: how could such a nightmare happen?
The answer is, sadly, far from simple; and rests in the systemic procedures and, indeed, the very culture of the health authorities.
We will not know the true facts of the case until Alan Shatter's controversial report sees the light of day. But in the meantime, we can make some sound judgments on what may have happened.
Within child protection practice, there are cases and "cases".
Some kids flash on to the books and caseloads of workers, and receive swift and intensive attention.
These children and their families are experiencing immediate and serious problems, but ills that have a clear and workable solution.
This may require an investment of hours and even of money, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel -- they can be helped.
The other kind of case is not so cut and dried.
As a community childcare worker, I encountered families that were referred to as "subsistence cases", or "lifers".
These individuals had often been allocated social workers while still in utero. Their parents had social workers. Their children would have social workers.
It was commonly accepted they would never be off the books of their local community care office, and that a huge, concerted effort would be largely ineffectual.
The attitude was simple: if you can't help these people, why bother at all?
The lack of interest was subtle -- such cases always continued to have social work involvement, but they were rarely priorities.
A visit a couple of times a month showed that monitoring was being maintained, but no one expected much change to occur.
Tracey Fay was just such a case. Her story clearly illustrates a mentality of shifting the responsibility for this troublesome child from one place to the next, of never bothering to find out what the child herself really wanted or needed, and of expecting nothing in return.
And it was not as if the professionals did not have time. Remember, Tracey first appeared on child protection radar screens when she was eight months old.
Surely 17 years is long enough to make a positive difference in a child's life.
Children's Minister Barry Andrews has been talking over the past few days about the changes that he believes have taken place in the HSE since Tracey's death in 2002.
He speaks about the Ryan report and the structural alterations this has brought about. Such an appalling story could never happen today, he says.
As has become the norm for Mr Andrews, he is being wholly naive. I am not the first person commenting on Tracey's lonely death to suggest that the situation we have today may even be worse than it was in 2002.
Funding has been cut. Recruitment embargoes have sapped staff from child protection departments.
There could be many more Tracey Fays on the streets of Ireland tonight, just as lost and frightened.
Alan Shatter's report needs to be made public, and its findings disseminated and taken seriously. Eighteen-year-olds should not die. But if we are to learn from such deaths, the facts must be available to us.
Shane Dunphy is the best-selling author of 'Wednesday's Child' and is a former child protection worker