Sunday 16 December 2018

Disgust at abuse disclosures should now trigger profound change and real reform

Roberta ‘Bobby’ Connolly receiving her road safety award from chairperson of the Road Safety Authority Liz O’Donnell in Farmleigh House
Roberta ‘Bobby’ Connolly receiving her road safety award from chairperson of the Road Safety Authority Liz O’Donnell in Farmleigh House

Liz O'Donnell

Sometimes it's like we are living in a maelstrom of disclosures, exposures and enquiries in this country. The past is never far away, with so-called legacy issues dominating public discourse north and south of the island.

This week the prime minister of Britain, David Cameron and our Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, took the well-worn path to Stormont lending authority but regrettably not conclusion on issues which have dogged political progress in Northern Ireland. They are in the main "legacy" issues; the remains of the vexed quarrel of the Troubles; flags, parades and how to deal with the past.

Down here, the Government continues to address the pain of victims of symphysiotomy, Hepatitis C, the Magdalene abuse, and others abused in residential institutions; all injuries which have caused life-long pain deserving of State compensation.

And then out of the blue and with maximum impact, came revelations this week of not historic but contemporary abuse of vulnerable adults with intellectual disabilities in a care home, following an RTE investigation using undercover surveillance and hidden cameras.

The disgust generated by the disclosures is profound and will undoubtedly trigger immediate State response. Whatever about the excuses of "context" and of a different climate which can be proffered about abuse occurring decades ago, this case can claim no such mitigation. This is modern Ireland and it is the real-time nature of the revelations which has caused so much offence.

Thousands of adults and children with intellectual disabilities depend on these care services. Their families, who entrust their loved ones, often with great reluctance to State and private care homes, will have been devastated by these scenes of cruel and degrading treatment.

The irony is that Ireland is frequently praised for our services and rights-based approach for children with disabilities. But one often hears of anxiety by parents of special needs children about when they die and what will happen to their children.

What has been exposed therefore, is their worst nightmare; a poorly managed and potentially abusive care home with nobody to advocate on behalf of their beloved adult child after their death.

So this issue goes way beyond the families in Aras Attracta; it is a national challenge of service provision, oversight, professional training and future planning for our citizens with intellectual and physical disabilities.

Given the appalling images in the programme, it was heartening to hear the plea for fair procedures and moderation issued by the families of those residents involved pending full investigation of the affair. The public interest has been served by the programme, but individuals have a right to due process in the face of serious allegations.

One feels sure that major reforms in care homes will follow these disclosures and that is a good thing.

However painful these disclosures may be for us as a society and the local community, now that the lid has been lifted on the matter attention will focus on improving standards and ensuring accountability and greater advocacy for the vulnerable people involved in such institutions.

A personal tragedy or event can be transformed into new laws and procedures which protect the wider public interest. Mairia Cahill's courage in disclosing her abuse in the face of intimidation has been heroic in my view. Similarly, Jonathan Corrie's very public death has galvanised Government to provide more emergency beds for homeless people. Combined with Alan Kelly's social housing package, a genuine reform has emerged to a much neglected and underfunded area of public policy.

This week, three courageous women were honoured as 'Leading lights in Road Safety' at a ceremony in Farmleigh House. All three have become campaigners for road safety following the grief of losing loved ones in a road crash.

It is said that grief is the price we pay for loving. Those who have experienced such grief and loss know the physical and emotional pain involved. Yet some people can rise out of the grief and channel their human strength into addressing an injustice as they see it. Gemma O'Farrell, a young solicitor, lost her 23-year-old brother Shane in a 'hit and run' in 2011. Through her persistent lobbying of Government, she achieved a change in the law earlier this year to make leaving the scene of a fatal accident an offence carrying a term of imprisonment up to a maximum of 10 years instead of six months previously.

Following the tragic death earlier this year of six-year-old Jake Brennan in a Kilkenny housing estate when he was struck by a vehicle, his parents have been campaigning to have residential road safety issues addressed and enforced. Jake's mother Roseanne was recognised for her work and courage.

Elber Twomey from Cork lost her husband Con, her son Oisin and unborn daughter Elber Marie in a horrific car crash while on holiday in the UK in 2012. A vehicle driven by a suicidal driver crashed into them at speed. Since then, despite and perhaps driven by this catastrophic event, Elber has been campaigning for specialised police training in both the UK and Ireland on the best way to deal with suicidal drivers.

Laura Doherty, a young doctor, was serious injured in a crash in 2009 and Roberta Connolly was knocked down when she was 11 and suffered serious injuries. They both have been actively helping to educate young people and are selfless ambassadors for road safety.

All these people are profiles in courage and illustrate how tragedy can be transformed into heroic achievement.

Irish Independent

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