Tuesday 25 June 2019

Outrage is futile - what we need is the State to protect our children

Local historian Catherine Corless at the site of the mass grave of children who died in Tuam Mother and Baby Home in Galway Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Local historian Catherine Corless at the site of the mass grave of children who died in Tuam Mother and Baby Home in Galway Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

Can we dispense with the expressions of shock please? There may be revulsion, yes; disgust, certainly; but not shock.

None of us can honestly profess to be shocked that the existence of a mass grave, crammed with the remains of hundreds of infants and toddlers, has been confirmed at the site of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home.

Historian Catherine Corless told us it was there in 2014. She said the bodies of these children had been discarded in a septic tank, treated with as much disdain in death as they had been in life.

Between 2011 and 2013, Ms Corless unearthed records that suggest 796 children died at the home without their burials being recorded. She is certain of the figure because the State charged her €4 for each of their death certificates - the most money ever spent on some of these children.

So, can we stop with the pretence? The lie that nobody knew this was happening? If we truly want to honour the memory of these dead children, can we at least be honest and attest to the reality of their lives?

The brutalisation of these children was state policy for decades. They were deemed sinful, expendable and inconsequential - a stain on society who sullied anyone near them.

These children were so offensively toxic they were not considered worthy of a plot of earth in a nearby graveyard. Instead, their bodies were tossed into a pit that was constructed to house human excrement.

As vile as their treatment was in death, it is not the grotesque manner of these children's burial that should cause so much upset. It is the fact that they died in such numbers, abandoned by a State that should have protected them.

Even now, there have been attempts by some in officialdom to rationalise their deaths as somehow normal, a sad reflection of higher child mortality rates at that era. These are more lies.

Research by reporter Conall Ó Fátharta has revealed that in one mother and baby home, Bessborough in Cork, the recorded death rate in 1944 was 82pc. This compares with a child mortality rate, for marital children, of 7pc at the time.

The staggering number of deaths prompted an investigation by the Cork County Medical Officer. Nothing came from it. The home closed briefly but quickly reopened, a convenient place for children to die.

The fate of these children is a stark reminder that Ireland, despite all its outward expressions of piety, has never been a pro-life country. It is a pro-birth country, with the State's interest in children's welfare evaporating as soon as they are born.

The bodies being dug up in Tuam are not the only evidence of this. Until recently, the State didn't know the number of children who had died in State care. Nobody had ever bothered counting them.

In March 2010, the then Minister for Children, Barry Andrews, told the Dáil that 23 children had died in State care since 2000. It later transpired that the true number of deaths was nearly 10 times greater.

In total, 196 children who were in care, after-care, or known to HSE child protection services, died - 112 from non-natural causes.

Commenting on the figures, Fine Gael's then justice spokesman Alan Shatter said it was a "scandal of enormous proportions". "How could it be the case that so little value was attached to the lives of these children and that, until now, no action was taken to identify and collate the numbers dying in care or to review the circumstances of their individual deaths?" he asked.

In the light of the excavation currently underway in Tuam, the answer seems to be that the State has never cared very much about the lives of vulnerable children. Their treatment was the norm.

Around the same time Mr Shatter was demanding the HSE explain its indifference to the deaths of children in its care, another investigation was underway.

The HSE was conducting an internal inquiry into its treatment of Grace - a young woman with intellectual disabilities who was left in a foster home for 14 years after allegations of sexual abuse had been made.

That report was concluded in 2012, but the HSE sat on it for five years, ostensibly because it was precluded from publishing it due to a request from gardaí.

However, on Sunday, RTÉ's 'This Week' programme revealed that the HSE first contacted gardaí about the report's publication in 2015 - three years after it was completed, but the day after a whistleblower raised Grace's case with the Public Accounts Committee.

That timing, we are now supposed to believe, was entirely coincidental. A commission of inquiry, due to be set up this week, will have to have the final say on that.

The common thread running through these cases is the inaction of the State when faced with serious cases of abuse, neglect and even unexplained deaths.

The first instinct of officials is self-preservation and damage limitation, not the protection of children. There is no accountability and no transparency. Nobody is ever even sacked.

Scandals of this nature now follow a familiar pattern - politicians express shock, an inquiry is set up, and, once it reports, there is brief flurry of media coverage. Then, the controversy dies down and everything reverts to normal.

Even when politicians make a solemn promise to tackle a problem, there is little evidence of anything having been done.

Nearly three years after Taoiseach Enda Kenny told the Dáil that, "nobody could condone children being homeless", there are now record numbers of children living in temporary accommodation.

In 2014, when Mr Kenny made his comments, there were 700 homeless children. Today, that number stands at 2,407.

In January, the most recent month for which figures are available, a further 87 families with 151 children became homeless. According to Focus Ireland, this means that in Dublin that month, a child became homeless every five hours.

The State seems utterly incapable of doing anything to ameliorate the situation for these children, despite Government TDs routinely claiming that every available resource is being dedicated to finding a solution to the problem.

Back in 2014, Mr Kenny was saying that the problem was a supply issue and we needed more houses. Three years later, the same excuse is being trotted out.

Where are the houses that could have been built in the past three years if the State was really serious about solving this problem?

Why is it that fewer social houses were built last year than 2015? Figures published by the Department of Housing in January revealed that just 448 units of social housing were provided by local authorities and housing associations in 2016 - the worst year on record for four decades.

In Dublin, where thousands of children are currently living in hotel rooms, the City Council only managed to construct 40 new homes - 22 of which were ironically named "rapid build" modular houses. If we have a homeless crisis, and we do, the State's pathetic response is destined to be the subject of another commission of inquiry in a few short years.

At a basic level, the State should be able to house and protect the children who are born here. Regrettably, Ireland has been failing at this fundamental task for countless years.

In a functioning democracy, a government that so spectacularly failed to improve a homeless epidemic would be toppled, while those who abuse children would be held to account in the criminal courts.

Here, we express outrage and compile reports.

Irish Independent

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