Wednesday 19 June 2019

What if 'Grace' had been left in the care of the Church?

The tragic case of 'Grace' shows that being in the hands of the State is no protection against abuse, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

So much pain: A memorial at the area where many infants’ bodies were buried in Tuam
So much pain: A memorial at the area where many infants’ bodies were buried in Tuam

Eilis O'Hanlon

Any temptation to hope, in the wake of the Tuam babies tragedy, that children are automatically better off in the care of the State than the Church is tested to the limit by the case of the young girl known as 'Grace'.

At the age of 10 in 1989, the severely intellectually disabled girl was left in the hands of a foster family in Waterford, remaining there for the next 20 years, despite concerns about her welfare and a succession of sexual abuse allegations emerging.

A decision was taken in 1996 to remove her from the home after one such allegation, but this was overturned by a three-person panel from the former South Eastern Health Board, for reasons that remain unclear. Two reports were compiled into the case.

After considerable delays, both have since been published, and the Health Service Executive (HSE), which replaced all 10 health boards in 2005 as part of an effort to streamline and modernise health and social care provision, has issued an "unreserved and heartfelt apology" for a string of bad decisions by people who failed in their duty of care towards 'Grace', including long periods where there were no "interventions or interactions" in her case.

At least four opportunities were missed to make her safe, despite concerns that her disturbing behaviour was a sign that she was being abused.

Nor was she the only child affected. A total of 47 children passed through the home.

The house was overcrowded; the suitability of the carers was not assessed; children were sent there despite no evidence that this was "conducive to their welfare"; once there, they went unmonitored.

It was deplorable series of bad decisions and failures of care which Taoiseach Enda Kenny has rightly said is a "disgrace to our country".

Now there is to be a commission of investigation under senior counsel Marjorie Farrelly into how this could have happened. Unlike the authors of the previous unsatisfactory reports, Farrelly will have far wider ranging powers to get to the bottom of what went on in that house; but barely had the commission been established than there were calls for its terms of reference to be expanded amid concerns that the scandal may be even deeper than suspected.

The Dail last week heard that the foster home in question continued to be used to care for other children until as late as 2015, six years after 'Grace' was finally removed from there. In the same year, it's also emerged, some of those who failed this young woman were subsequently promoted to senior positions.

This isn't the first time that the HSE has been forced to apologise for catastrophic errors. It's only a few weeks since the agency had to apologise to Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe and his family for errors which led to a false allegation being left on his file for two years after it was known to be untrue.

The McCabes rejected the apology, claiming to have documentation which disproves the HSE's claim that "correct procedures" were followed once the error came to light.

It's hardly encouraging when the body responsible for overseeing the provision of health and social services for every single person in Ireland is repeatedly forced to apologise for another catalogue of mistakes, or, if others are to be believed, worse.

In the 'Grace' case, the scandal only came to light because of the testimony of a whistleblower. Sounds familiar. The public spiritedness of this whistleblower was also not welcomed with open arms. Waterford Fine Gael TD John Deasy claimed last November that, when this woman contacted the High Court with evidence about 'Grace's story', HSE managers actively tried to stop her, to the extent of sending letters to her own manager, board of directors and the High Court containing "fabricated information" to the effect that she was not a "fit person" to be trusted.

All this to keep secret that those charged with looking after 'Grace' had left her at risk over a prolonged period.

Again, this isn't the first time that the HSE has gone to great lengths to prevent allegations against it from finding their way into the public domain.

In 2015, the HSE even considered going to court to stop publication of a Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) report into baby deaths at Portlaoise hospital which made 250 adverse findings against the hospital, as well as stating that senior corporate management at the HSE was partly at fault for some of the failings.

Fergus Finlay, CEO of Barnardo's, sums up 'Grace's story' succinctly: "The children whose cases are detailed were systematically neglected by the very system meant to protect them."

The only wonder is that there continues to be any astonishment when it happens again. Organisations with closed cultures are prepared to do questionable things to protect themselves against reputational damage, and that's as true of arms of the State as it is of the Church.

The only difference is the tendency to cling to the belief that Government agencies are simply doing their best.

When it was revealed in 2010 that more than 200 children may have died in the care of the State over the previous decade, there was much hand-wringing.

Had it been the Church which had presided over the deaths, there would have been demands for urgent action and widespread condemnation of those responsible.

Whatever was being said, had 'Grace's' abuser been a member of the clergy, "try to do better next time, lads" surely wouldn't be it.

Sunday Independent

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