Sunday 26 May 2019

Tusla is mired in failure yet allowed to go unchallenged

After the Charleton Report, the 'cover your incompetent arse award' goes to Tusla

SUCCESS AND FAILURE: Maurice McCabe and his wife Lorraine finally received some measure of justice. Photo: Tony Gavin
SUCCESS AND FAILURE: Maurice McCabe and his wife Lorraine finally received some measure of justice. Photo: Tony Gavin

Miriam O'Callaghan

There were exhalations of 'finally' when Justice Charleton published his report last Thursday week, putting the final cuts and polishes to Ireland's answer to the Hope Diamond, Sergeant Maurice McCabe. It was a breathtaking report, forensic in its analysis, unsparing of 'official Ireland's' malice, gossip, incompetence, carelessness, chaos, couldn't-give-a-tuppeny, whatever-you-say-say-nothing and extravagant "stupidity" that strutted across a decade - yes 10 long years - of the life of Garda Sergeant McCabe, his wife Lorraine and their family.

In this box of delights, I looked everywhere for a detailed appraisal of the pesky missing phones... but no joy.

Still, we have to be grateful for the large mercies of seeing Sergeant McCabe hailed as a paradigm of decency, an honest man motivated always by the public good. These almost invocations of the brilliant public servant are scattered throughout the report, both making sure we don't forget who this is all about, and acting as a charm against a repeat in the future.

Because let's be clear. If the head of the police, his press officer, and multiple members of the well-paid and pensioned agency tasked to look after Ireland's families, did this to Sergeant McCabe, they can do it to anyone. The prospect is and should be terrifying.

In this whole affair it is clear that Tusla is expressing the genes inherited from the HSE by being a national exemplar of lifelong learning. No discovered death, no damage, no failure, no refusal, no denial, not withholding, no reticence and now no error - no matter how catastrophic - can budge it from this elucidatory, educational endeavour. Failure after failure, self-investigation after self-investigation, report after report, apology after apology, Tusla is constantly "on a journey, a learning curve, a process of change and reform, a pathway to doing better".

It is in that luxurious state of constant discovery, remains on that eternal and expensive path toward enlightenment, while at the same time staying literally in its first day - its Tus La - as Gaeilge. And it is for one reason alone: politically, it is allowed to be. No government, no minister has ever challenged it with things called Responsibilities and Consequences. Even with the fabulous carelessness, "stupidities" and incompetence, outlined by Justice Charleton, I'm not holding my breath that mainstream politics has the bottle to do so.

Katherine Zappone has been slow to hold Tusla to account for woeful ineptitude. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Katherine Zappone has been slow to hold Tusla to account for woeful ineptitude. Photo: Fergal Phillips

With the Children's Referendum we were on a high. Here we were, constitutionally enshrining our children's rights as individuals for the first time. The theory was a dream. The practice became McCabe and likely other nightmares. Why? Because the HSE had got an expensive new name and brand Tusla - which had a familiar ring to it, Tuzla being the site of a Bosnian massacre - but the Government demanded no organisational or individual accountability in return, either politically to the Dail or financially to the public who pay for everything.

Consequently, Justice Charleton's findings are another lurid example of how for years, children die, are lost, failed, damaged, and families like the McCabes destroyed but nobody is ever to blame. Instead it's the gobbledegook of a system's failure, processes and standards were not as they should have been, we apologise ochon agus ochon, but here's our corporate bargepole that allows us operate by an Briathar Saothar 'it was said, it was done, it occurred, lessons are learned' and there's the Government - any government - giving us plenty of space to wield it. Except systems don't fail. People who are paid and tasked to operate them fail. And the only lesson that's learned is by the public, which is, when it comes to Tusla, nobody is responsible for anything.

Even now, the organisation's response to the tribunal is abject. "Tusla accepts that the practice and governance in this case was exceptionally poor and that this fell below the standards that we as an organisation expect."

Logically, the statement is weird. In practice, these "exceptionally poor" standards are not exceptional at all because they are the very standards demonstrated and replicated ad infinitum in the degradation and suffering of children like Grace, reports cited in the Dail, oceans of words printed and broadcast, cases hauled before the courts or settled, or damage endured silently by children and families in their homes.

I have been a fan of Minister Katherine Zappone since her interview with her late wife Ann Louise Gilligan on The Late Late Show. When she was appointed Minister for Children I thought - as did many - here's the woman who will hold Tusla and its managers to account. Only she hasn't. At least not yet. Her response to Charleton as "extremely disappointed" and principally as a HR issue was gobsmacking. Where is the bowel-loosening fear about ethics, values, the cultural pathology of an apparent indifference to human suffering, that survived the HSE incarnation intact enough to cause the Disclosures Tribunal and inflict a battlefield wound, not alone on the lives of the McCabe family, but on their psyche itself?

To quote Charleton's own summing up:

"Within Tusla, speaking collectively, those responsible for the series of errors that led to a direct accusation against Maurice McCabe of a rape offence knew: firstly, that he had never been accused of a rape offence by anyone; secondly, that a word processing error had led to an erroneously attributed accusation being recorded in a written file; thirdly, that this error had been passed on to the gardai; fourthly, that when the error was identified, a correction and retraction were sent to the gardai; fifthly, that this mistaken attribution remained on the Tusla file as two mutually inconsistent reports to gardai; sixthly, that within Tusla there were senior personnel who knew or ought to have known of the origin and mistaken nature of these two inconsistent reports but did not share that information at an appropriate time; and, seventhly, that multiple failures to read the file fully resulted in the letter of December 29."

If they did know how did they sleep at night? And if they could sleep at night, what does that signify? These questions might be uncomfortable, but with Charleton's grave findings and the fact that, by law, this organisation has the power to intervene in the lives of Irish children and families - frequently those who have already been failed by the State and are therefore fragile and at its mercy - the ethics and motivation that necessitated the tribunal need to be interrogated and established.

The relative dearth of comment from the child-welfare sector in regard to Charleton's remarkable findings against Tusla is notable. In the general public nobody will buy claptrap that the McCabe failures were primarily about lack of resources or money: to conflate the funding and the failings is to damage the family further.

Because how much public money was Tusla able to spend on external legal or other advice that resulted in its mystifying response to the tribunal? Who sanctioned that spend? Who chose that route? How much public money did Tusla further spend on legal representation at the tribunal itself? The very fact that Justice Charleton stated that if Tusla had admitted its error, the Disclosures Tribunal might not have been necessary at all, means the organisation has immediate and critical questions to answer regarding the total cost of the tribunal to the public.

Justice Charleton's assertion in this regard has to bring the decisions by senior Tusla personnel within the ambit of the PAC and the Comptroller & Auditor General, for urgent and public examination.

Equally, these expensive decisions must be addressed in the Dail by the Taoiseach, the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and the Minister for Children, both as a matter of urgency and at the insistence of the Opposition.

Despite Charleton's report "thrilling" Sgt McCabe, it was his own insistence on recording a meeting with gardai that gave him vital protection. I can only hope his cases against the State result in historic and exemplary damages or settlements.

The sewer quality of the calumny and its subsequent and erroneous institutional seep and spread have a resonance, vibration of their own. Even if the McCabes forgive, the wrong is too deep, too disgusting for karma to forget. For the rest of us, we rely on the Government to address the savagery by telling Tusla the Charleton Report is only the beginning, not the end. The McCabes were betrayed and hunted. The tribunal public millions are spent. The incompetent, institutional arse can no longer be covered.

Sunday Independent

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