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Foster care case: ‘These are allegations of rape using implements and horrific sexual abuse’

Tony O’Brien is in front of the Public Accounts Committee today to answer questions about abuse in a foster home in Waterford.

Updated 6.55pm

TAOISEACH ENDA KENNY SAID today that “the words do not exist to describe, adequately, the depth and the volume of the revulsion we feel about the alleged abuse and failures we’ve heard of” in the foster home abuse case.

He added that he believes that a Commission of Inquiry “is the right way to address the enormity and the depravity of what has been uncovered”.

Speaking today, he said of one of the women involved in the case, Grace:

Grace, because of her condition, was silent. But by her treatment and her abandonment she was silenced.
Those who left her to her fate, pressed the mute button on her young life and appalling experience.
Above all, they pressed that mute button on her dignity, her humanity, on her civil and human rights, on her innate worth as an innocent, precious, fragile life on this earth.

He went on:

The question is, in ticking its boxes, was the system blind, was the system deaf, did the system possess so little awareness, so little accountability, that it could become a stone to Grace, to her abject experience, to her desperate need?
The Commission of Investigation will ask those questions. It will get the answers we need.
That it will do so, is vital to finding and re-establishing our co-ordinates, as a functioning, moral and responsible society.
Because in every procedure, in every system, in every action, taken in regard to Grace and others, there is not just a sense of public authority, crucially there is one of personal moral autonomy.
And this is heightened when we are dealing with children and other vulnerable people who are left in what was called in this instance ‘foster care’.

The Taoiseach said he believes “there is a resonance, that the last days of this administration should concern itself with such matters”.

Because they are the very matters, of doing not what is correct, but as I said in my first day here as Taoiseach, of doing what is right,” he said.

With this commission we will seek to do right by Grace, and all the young people and adults, who have been similarly treated.
I believe it is the best and most thorough and powerful way to treat them with the grace and the respect and the kindness, of which their experience, their lives in care, were so devoid.

Kenny also stated that: “If Ireland was declared by Yeats to be no country for old men, the legacy issues I have just mentioned suggest it was positively treacherous, and at times omnipotent, when it came to our girls and women.”

Apology

Earlier today, HSE Director General Tony O’Brien apologised to the 47 families – including ’Grace’ and her mother – which are at the centre of an abuse scandal.

Addressing the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) this afternoon, O’Brien said the allegations of abuse are of an “egregious nature”.

O’Brien offered his “full, sincere and heartfelt” apology.

It emerged recently that a young woman with intellectual disabilities, known as Grace, was placed in the home in the southeast of the country despite an allegation of sexual assault having been made by a former resident.

She spent 14 further years in the foster home after the allegation was made in 1995 – a total of 20 years in the dangerous situation.

O’Brien admitted that other people were placed there privately and some remained in the home even after the removal of Grace.

He told the committee that two reports were carried out in relation to the matter but on legal instruction and requests from the gardaí, he could not reveal details until clearance was given for publication. The combined reports cost €225,000.

However, he said it is clear from both of the unpublished reports that there were ‘significant failings in the care provided by that foster family and significant failures by the former Health Board (and subsequently the HSE) to make the situation safe’.

Different outcomes were possible

O’Brien said the reports find that there were ‘missed opportunities’ whereby if different actions had been taken, there most certainly would have been different outcomes.

He said he was apologising for this on behalf of the HSE and the-then South Eastern Health Board.

He was asked by Fine Gael’s John Deasy what members of HSE staff involved in the case are still in service.

“Let’s cut to the chase here… there are still people in the system in the HSE,” Deasy said.

He maintained that some of those who worked on this case graduated to higher-level jobs in child protection.

O’Brien said there were three individuals that made the decision to keep ‘Grace’ at the foster home in the 1990s. He said none of these people are in the public service anymore.

All three are now retired.

O’Brien said there were three levels of decision-making in the case. The two lower tiers made a case to remove Grace from the home, while the upper, third level, contravened the lower tiers and made the decision to leave her in the situation.

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When asked if anyone involved in the case was still working with children, O’Brien said:

There are people referenced in the reports who are currently in the health service or in Tusla [The Child and Family Agency].

O’Brien said he would not ‘make his life easier’ by publishing the reports that would prevent any convictions in the future.

I will not give them a get out of jail free card by putting these reports out in the public domain… the reports are horrendous. Nobody will get convicted, nobody will get disciplined… I have to hold the line on that and take criticism here today because of it. I will not do it, if the consequence is there will be no accountability. I just won’t do it.

He said he has fired a lot of people for incidents a lot less than this, but he has to follow the law and not jeopardise the garda investigation.

Deasy said it was time to be clear about what they were discussing. He said there are “allegations of rape, using implements, horrific sexual abuse allegations”.

He said it was the worst abuse he had ever come across.

Deasy said there were people involved in this case over a 30-year period who failed in their duty of care.

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“What are you doing about that?” the Waterford TD grilled the HSE boss.

Surely you should ask those people to step aside until the investigation is concluded?

“What is not tolerable is for those people to continue in their jobs. If your organisation doesn’t understand that, you understand nothing.”

O’Brien said a report into the abuse – what happened and who made the key decisions – had been carried out and would feed into what disciplinary action would be taken.

He said he was as frustrated as the committee in relation to the delay in publishing the two reports. He said that once they are published it would give those people in question the right to reply.

Deasy said his answer was ‘not sufficient’.

“You are going to have to come up with something better than that,” he said, adding that the HSE’s response to such matters was “defensive and litigious”. He accused the health body of being “incapable of dealing with straightforward issues”.

Deasy said the HSE was becoming a “danger to the very people it is meant to protect in the first place”.

deasy

The case of ‘Anne’

O’Brien told the committee that another woman – called ‘Anne’ – who was in the foster home until 2013 was placed there privately.

‘Anne’ was born in 1980. She began living part-time with the foster family in question when she was 12 years old.

O’Brien said that in June 2011, the HSE contacted Anne’s family to inform them that the foster family where their daughter was placed was the subject of a garda investigation. He said they were advised to get in direct contact with the gardaí.

In October, when Anne was 31, she was residing in the home as a five-day placement. Despite correspondence with the HSE, Anne’s family said they had no concerns about the foster family and wanted Anne to remain there.

O’Brien said in early 2012, the HSE sought legal advice on the issue and was told there was no further action it could take in relation to Anne as she was placed in the home privately.

Throughout the period from 2011 through to 2013, there were various engagements with Anne’s family to try to persuade them to cease contact with the former foster family.

In October 2013 the HSE formally demanded the foster family cease all care activity. That included its current case – Anne – as well as any future engagements they had planned.

Later that month, the Executive wrote to Anne’s family to formally request the cessation of the placement. It stopped a short time later.

Following questioning by Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald, it was revealed that the HSE left it up to the gardaí to tell Anne’s family about the nature of the allegations made against the foster family.

When asked why the HSE did not intervene earlier in the case of Anne, O’Brien said:

The HSE lacks the necessary formal authority to direct a private citizen [the parents in this case]… to desist from private fostering arrangements.

O’Brien said the HSE does not have the capacity to end a private arrangement of this kind and the HSE action in the case of Anne was a case of persuasion it made to the family.

He said it is not clear if the HSE has a legal capacity to take such action.

Pat Healy, the HSE National Director of the Social Division, said Anne was assessed when she turned 18 and no alarm bells were raised.

He said that of the 47 cases, Anne is one of 18 identified as having a good experience in the foster home. He said it was Anne’s parents’ view their daughter had a good experience working with the mother and that ‘influenced them in how they dealt with it all’.

Anne is now in another full-time residential care home and gets regular visits from her mother.

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Apology 

The intention in early December 2015 was for the HSE to provide an update and an official apology to 47 service users, including Grace, who had contact over the years with the foster home at the centre of the abuse allegations, O’Brien told politicians today.

He said letters, which included official apologies, were issued by registered post to 43 families (three service users were untraceable by the HSE or An Garda Siochana) on 9 December and a verbal briefing including an official apology was to be given to “Grace” and her mother the next day, 10 December.

He admitted today that the HSE mishandled issuing the important apology to Grace and her mother. He said it was the view that an apology to Grace should be undertaken in person, in the first instance, rather than by letter. 

With this change in the mode of communication in the case of Grace, O’Brien said the official HSE apology which was intended to be issued was not made at that time. 

Unfortunately, the desire to offer a formal HSE apology was lost in the communication to the staff members who were to conduct the meeting in person with Grace. Having personally reviewed the situation with those staff involved, I am satisfied that it was the intention to offer a full and frank apology to Grace.

He added:

I wish to confirm that the HSE has since apologised officially to Grace and her mother. This official apology has been made by the Chief Officer both in person and in writing, with the assistance of the professionals now caring for her.

O’Brien also apologised to the Public Accounts Committee for submitting a document that contained erroneous information at that time that an apology had been issued.

He told the committee that he was before the committee to explain, not to defend the HSE.

We will not be seeking to defend its actions… there is no adequate defence.

He said any legal actions will be dealt with by the State Claims Agency.

Whistleblower allegations

Speaking to RTE’s Claire Byrne last night, the social worker at the heart of the abuse case, spoke damningly of the culture of management in place at the HSE.

How can they trust the system with their child?” she said.

I don’t think that I can reassure them.
There needs to be an absolute change in culture at the HSE – they need to acknowledge when they’ve failed people, and they need to stop trying to silence whistleblowers.

The whistleblower, who has remained anonymous in order to protect Grace’s identity, first raised her concerns with the HSE in 2009.

O’Brien said he is due to meet the whistleblowers – a social worker and a director of services – ‘very soon’.

In correspondence seen by the committee, the whistleblowers describe their treatment by the HSE, stating that they were ‘discredited’ and damage was done to their professional reputation.

O’Brien said that through their protective disclosure the whistleblowers carried out ‘significant service’ which resulted in the removal of both ‘Grace’ and ‘Anne’ from the foster home.

He would not be drawn by Mary Lou McDonald if they deserved an apology.

03/09/2015. Official opening of Mount Source: Sasko Lazarov

Both Minister for Primary Care Kathleen Lynch and Minister for Health Leo Varadkar are recommending that the next government establish a statutory Commission of Investigation into events at the foster home.

Lynch said: “We need to be precise and focused on the questions that remain unanswered. I strongly believe it is in the public interest that we establish the facts surrounding vulnerable people who were placed in this foster home.”

O’Brien said he met with the two ministers today and fully supported the setting up of an inquiry of investigation in to the matter.

Before taking a break this afternoon, committee member John McGuinness said that in 2009 the HSE was told about the risk to Anne and were told to take necessary and reasonable steps to protect her.

She was still there in 2013. 

In relation to Grace, McGuinness calculated that the foster mother would have been paid up to €70,000 in disability allowance.

“In 2009 when she was taken into care she had no belongings, no documents and no money. If that didn’t ring bells in an organisation I don’t know what would.”

O’Brien said he could not say that a case of this kind was not happening elsewhere, stating that if ‘we go back in time and look at other parts of the country, I fear there are other cases’.

He said ‘only a fool would say’ there were not. When asked if a wider investigation into other possible abuses was being earmarked he said it was ‘not under active consideration right now’.

First published 13.00 

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