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Child Protection: The failure to publish the report into Mother & Baby Homes is part of a continued cover-up

‘I have no problem with due process, but when this gets in the way of truth and allows a culture of secrecy and collusion to continue, then we need to re-evaluate’, writes Shane Dunphy.

Shane Dunphy

IRELAND DOES NOT have a proud history of child protection.  Neither does its treatment of women – as mothers and as citizens – bear close scrutiny.

And it seems that history is determined to repeat itself.

This week, the Collaborative Forum Report on Mother and Baby Homes was due to be published.

The Forum is made up of former residents of the institutions and is separate to the Mother and Baby Homes Commission, which consists of a judge and two academics.  

The purpose of the Collaborative Forum is to ensure that those directly impacted have a voice and can contribute fully to the process of investigation, while also making recommendations as to how survivors and their families can be best helped going forward.

Their report ran to 90 pages and took more than a year to complete.  Having spoken to some of the members of the Forum, I knew they were very proud of it.

On April 13th of this year Katherine Zappone, Minister for Children, called the Collaborative Forum to a meeting at which she informed them that, on the advice of the Attorney General, their report would not be published in full – in fact, only their recommendations would see the light of day.

Don’t get me wrong – the recommendations are necessary and important.

They deal with things like health and welfare supports for survivors, an amendment to the Adoption Bill, sourcing funding for memorialisation measures such as local history projects on Mother and Baby Homes, and a research programme into the kind of language used in historical reports – a bid to truly express the realities of the lives of women and children caught up in the horrors of such institutions.

However, as a way of giving the participants a voice in the process, only publishing the recommendations falls very short indeed.

While no explicit reason has yet been given as to why the full document has been withheld, it is believed that the Report of the Collaborative Forum was deeply critical of the conduct of a number of agencies, particularly Tusla, which holds a large cache of records relating to the Mother and Baby Homes.

The decision not to publish has been deeply distressing for some forum members, causing one to tender her resignation, stating:

I have lost all faith in the forum and I couldn’t agree to recommendations being released without the backing of the report we worked so hard on.

Interestingly, on the same day, the Report of the Collaborative Forum was (for want of a better term) censored, a separate report was published by the Commission on burial practices in Mother and Baby Homes.

This report, which has been widely described as “shocking”, found that almost 1,000 children who died in mother and baby homes had their bodies donated for medical research

It also raised questions as to the veracity of the accounts provided by Catholic Congregations as to the whereabouts of the dead children, saying that affidavit provided by the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary was “speculative, inaccurate and misleading.”

But the report also highlights one big question: its main finding is (literally) that no one knows where the bodies are buried.

But the Forum’s report, that remains languishing on the shelves of the Department of Children, may well contain information to the contrary – now it seems that we will never know. 

What makes all this doubly depressing is that it is not the first time something this has happened.  

Oberstown Children’s Detention Campus

In 2016 an Operational Review was commissioned for Oberstown Children’s Detention Campus.  There had been a series of incidents at the unit culminating in a fire that caused severe damage to part of the structure.  

Professors Barry Goldson, of the School of Law and Social Justice at the University of Liverpool and Nicholas Hardwick, of the School of Law at Royal Holloway, University of London, were asked to come to Ireland to carry out an extensive review of how the centre was run and make recommendations on how procedures could be improved.  

The report was due to be published in late 2017, but before its release, Katherine Zappone received a letter from Professor Ursula Kilkelly, Chairperson of the Board of Oberstown, informing her that publishing the report would result in widespread resignations from the unit and significant legal action.

It seemed that various staff members were criticised in the report and while steps were taken to give them a fair hearing, these proved unsuccessful.

The report was never published.

I contacted the Government Press Office to seek clarification on the exact reasons behind this decision and was informed:

“The Board was not in a position to satisfy itself, or the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, that fair procedures had been applied before the report was finalised and submitted. In light of the legal advice and after careful consideration of the matter, it was concluded that it is not appropriate to publish the full report.

“However, the recommendations of the report, all of which are at the kernel of how Oberstown Children Detention Campus moves forward, were published in July 2017 and continue to be implemented as part of a significant package of reform in Oberstown.”

Sound familiar?

What interests me in this instance is that the people carrying out the report were lawyers, who must have been aware of the possible implications of what they were doing, and would have been reporting regularly to the people paying them to carry out this sensitive task, yet no alarm bells went off before publication date.

If you go on to the website for the Collaborative Forum on Mother and Baby Homes, you will find minutes of regular meetings as they went about their work – so you have to wonder why no one flagged up any issues before it was too late?

In 2018, just after the furore over the unpublished report reached a climax, Oberstown published its own report, suggesting that patterns of detention and the challenges faced by staff were similar to that of adult prisons and that more than half of their clients had mental health needs – nothing to see here, in other words.

This was a very different and much more upbeat piece of work than the document that continues to gather dust.

And, like with the case of this week’s disturbing report in burial practices, there are still missing parts and questions that remain unanswered.

Cover up?

The main problem with this consistent withholding of information is that it calls to mind the bad old days.

The first proper report into “childcare” institutions in Ireland was the Kennedy Report, which was an investigation into the running of Industrial Schools chaired Miss Justice Kennedy in 1970.

In the world of social care and child protection, it is legendary for all the wrong reasons.

The Report failed to tackle any of the real problems of these deplorable establishments, most notably the levels of violence and physical abuse the children who were forced to endure daily.  

The members of the investigating commission were fully aware of the abuse (discussions of it can be found in the minutes of their meetings) but not a single mention of these tortures ever made it into the final document.  

In other words, the unsavoury information, the material likely to cause trouble for those involved, was hidden away.

Just like in these most recent reports.

I have no problem with due process, but when this gets in the way of truth and allows a culture of secrecy and collusion to continue, then we need to re-evaluate.  

If we don’t, we have learned nothing from the pain of the past.

Shane Dunphy is a child protection expert and author.  He is Head of the Social Care Department at Waterford College of Further Education. 

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