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'You cannot trust these people' - Woman who had disclosure of abuse lost by Tusla slams report on its failings

The woman, whose records were lost by the HSE/Tusla for over three years, says she feels the latest ombudsman report into Tusla’s complaints procedures won’t change anything.

shutterstock_462728221 Source: Shutterstock

A WOMAN WHO had details of her protected disclosure of familial abuse lost by the HSE/Tusla for over three years has spoken with scorn regarding a recent report into the failings of the child and family agency.

‘Mary’ (not her real name) previously described to TheJournal.ie how a litany of errors on the part of Ireland’s child and family services had seen (among other things) her disclosure of historical familial abuse not processed for 15 months and material sensitive to her case sent to the wrong address on multiple occasions.

Mary’s 2010 disclosure concerned accusations of serious sexual and physical abuse against her father covering a period of 15 years between the late 1970s and the early 1990s.

She also claims that mishandling of her case was a key reason why a criminal investigation into her disclosure was eventually dropped.

Her case was one of many that made it into a recently released report, ‘Taking Stock’, by the Irish ombudsman Peter Tyndall, which was commissioned in mid-2016 on foot of “concerns he had about how some cases were being handled by Tusla, and how Tusla was dealing with complaints”.

That report detailed a number of case studies indicating the failure of Tusla employees to adequately deal with issues presented by the Irish public, and made recommendations as to how the agency should seek to rectify its problems.

Among the complaints detailed in the report was the case of a man who was denied access to his grandchildren for five years as he tried to clear his name of “unfounded” abuse allegations, with the man eventually dying before he was exonerated in full. Another saw “even the most basic information” being lacking from an investigation into an anonymous allegation made against a man – nine months after which the man was informed that the allegation was “unfounded”, but not before “his life was put on hold due to the uncertainty about his garda vetting”.

Now, Mary has spoken of her disgust with how her own case was dealt with by the HSE/Tusla, with the ombudsman’s report itself, and with child and family services in Ireland in general.

“If I was to go again, to start over knowing what I know now seven years down the line, I wouldn’t do it,” she says. “I feel I may as well not have bothered. And if I were to advise someone else who was thinking of complaining, I’d tell them not to.

Because you cannot trust these people to do what they say, or to do the job that they’re paid to do.

In response to Mary’s statement Deirdre Kenny, advocacy director with childhood abuse charity One In Four, says that such retrospective reporting “is key”.

“It has to be done if we’re to address child protection properly,” she told TheJournal.ie.

It’s true it may take years, but it’s so important that contacts still come forward. Our experience is that Tusla has been slow to respond to issues with these reports. Our stance is that a more efficient and respectful process is necessary in order to make retrospective reporting of abuse a priority.

In the course of her own case, Mary dealt with “about six” Tusla employees in person, and another six by email or phone. “I don’t think I had a positive, trustful relationship with even one of them,” she says. “They go away and you never felt like you could believe they were there to help you.”

Clearly emotional, she says her dealings with the HSE/Tusla “destroyed every little bit of confidence I had in myself”.

“How can I say it was worth all the stress, all the hassle? They lose your letters, they lose notes of interviews, and there’s no accountability. The anxiousness, the nervousness, they destroy every little bit of belief you have in yourself.

ombudsman Ombudsman Peter Tyndall Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

I’ve become a recluse. I go to my job and that’s it. With the information they lost, I’m afraid to go anywhere. I’m supposed to go on holiday for the first time since before this started, and I’m terrified. It’s a very lonely, isolating place to be, to deal with this and know that seven years later nothing has happened, and nothing is ever likely to happen because they’ve messed your case up so entirely. People don’t seem to know that.
And then you think, what if it’s someone with mental health problems, or vulnerability issues, who goes to them and they treat them like this. I’ve invested seven years in this and nothing changed. The abuser is still walking around. I don’t know if I can keep going, I don’t know if there’s any other place to go.

Mary’s case

Mary first made her disclosure of historical familial abuse in 2010 at her counsellor’s recommendation.

“When I first made the decision to do it I thought I’d die. I thought the ground would open up and swallow me, I was that scared and nervous. This was standing up to something,” she says.

The day I made my first statement I went home and got sick. I was shaking.
My counsellor said they’d send a receipt to prove the disclosure. And no receipt came.

In fact, her disclosure had been lost. It would be fully nine months before Mary even got to meet a social worker to talk about her case. That social worker subsequently sent a letter to Mary detailing intimate details concerning her disclosure. It was sent to the wrong address.

“A few months later I was still calling up asking what was going on. It was at that stage I started to lose hope. It actually went worse than I thought it ever could have gone. I’m someone who wants to see the good in people, but the level of mismanagement, mishandling, lying, burying heads in the sand, covering their own behinds, and then they made out that I was being oversensitive, and that I needed to let it go.

Even speaking about this is embarrassing. Can they not understand how hard this is for someone? Putting yourself out there. You don’t know how people will react to the most personal stuff you have. It’s heartbreaking.
People who’ve been through these things, they’re in a vulnerable place. And if they have kids, how are they supposed to process this to them? Yes, I made a complaint, but nothing ever happened because the social worker didn’t have a clue what they were doing. And these people are in a job for life…

“To be honest with you I’d love to sue them. If I had the money in the morning I’d do it in a heartbeat. If I had a solicitor willing to take it on I’d do it in a heartbeat. Because I feel it’s the only way to make them listen even a little bit. I’d love to name every one of them, and say this is who they are, this is what they did. But I can’t because I wouldn’t want to drag my family through it.”

The report

The report issued by the ombudsman on 18 July is one that Mary has myriad issues with.

20170803_172713 Source: Office of the Ombudsman

Her own case is referenced, one of the nine anonymised complaints in the report, its outcome summed up succinctly: “apology provided” (“It wasn’t provided”, says Mary, “it was forced out of them”). And the redress provided? “Explanation given”, reads the report.

Apart from feeling entirely underwhelmed with what was published, Mary has multiple concerns with what the report’s publication really means.

“There’s no accountability, no sanctions, no reprimands. Only promotions. Tusla acknowledges the report and then it’s ‘nothing to see here, move along’,” she says. “It minimises those complaints. It makes light of them. ‘Yes, we’ve had a complaint’, they say. ‘Yes, we’ve upheld it, but we’re not going to do anything about it’. All they have are recommendations, and these are recommendations I was making a year ago when the ombudsman asked me what I thought.”

She thinks Tusla’s response to the report is “disingenuous”. “The report is out, they’re thinking ‘it’s out, and now nothing more needs to be done’,” she says. “‘Move along now, we’ll work on it’. No, they won’t, they’ve proven that.”

What if she were allowed to interpret the report her way? “I’d name and shame definitely. I’d want these people taken out of the roles they’re in, because I don’t think they’re genuine enough to be doing these jobs.

“I’d like to get this air of arrogance off them, the feeling that they can walk on water and the people they deal with, well their feelings don’t matter.

They say they’re retraining. Why? Why can’t these people do their jobs? Why do they not know to take notes, to not lose notes, to not lose people’s files with the most awful, sensitive stuff in them? I mean, how can you lose seven interviews’ worth of notes (this refers to a social worker who asked Mary for her own copy of her case notes, and who subsequently claimed she had kept no notes of the interviews she conducted with Mary’s family members, a fact Mary blames the collapse of her garda case on – the same social worker also claimed to have personal knowledge of Mary’s mother, a fact that Mary says meant she should have immediately disassociated herself from the case)?

Tusla’s official response to the publication of the report was to say it provides “us with valuable feedback and (assists) us to continuously develop and enhance our services”.

“We engage with difficult situations and in the vast majority of those cases we do so appropriately. Only nine complaints that went on to the ombudsman were upheld.”

8915 Tusla CEO_90503503 Current Tusla chief executive Fred McBride Source: Leah Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

“Well first of all, why should there be even one complaint?” says Mary. “But that’s besides the point. This report is about the complaints process not being dealt with properly. The amount of people who maybe have made complaints, and then their voice wasn’t heard so then they didn’t complain any further. I mean I had to look up the ombudsman to advance my case when it was going nowhere. They don’t tell you how to complain if you’re not happy, and they’re supposed to (Tusla undertook in 2016, it says, to provide “guidance for members of the public and staff and a complaints leaflet for young people”).

It’s not just me either, look at the other complaints and the issues they show. The guy who waited five years and then died? I mean Jesus Christ…
There should be a time limit on these jobs. And anyone who thinks being a social worker, dealing with vulnerable children, and they just see it as a nine-to-five, they shouldn’t be allowed do the job.

TheJournal.ie queried Tusla regarding Mary’s assertion that the ombudsman’s report, and Tusla’s response to it, serves to ‘minimise’ the complaints made.

“Taking Stock provided valuable learnings for us. We are actively working with the ombudsman in relation to implementing the recommendations in the report,” a spokesperson said in response.

Listening to the perspectives of people who experience Tusla services is not discretionary, it is essential.
Tusla is committed to learning from feedback and complaints and to using those learnings to improve services provided to children, young people and families.

“While the number of complaints upheld by the ombudsman was relatively small, the issues raised in the complaints were serious, and it was considered likely that others had been affected,” a spokesperson for the ombudsman said meanwhile.

The report makes a number of recommendations. Tusla has committed to implementing those recommendations, and (we) will monitor their implementation to ensure full compliance.

The words ‘social worker’

Mary has her own observations as to her experience of the complaints process.

“My heart breaks for anyone who is going through it or who will go through it to be honest. I just couldn’t recommend it. But if you have to do it, record everything. It’s the only way. If I’m in a meeting, I can document it, but if you’re coming from a troubled background, maybe your literacy levels are low, and you’ve little knowledge of the law,” she says. “You have to record everything, you just have to, because you cannot trust that it will be documented accurately, that it will be recorded as it should be.

You have to understand how intimidating it is when someone walks in and you hear the words ‘social worker’.
For most people, the immediate reaction is that your children will be taken away, if you have them. Or that they’ll destroy you in some way. They may never do that of course, but that’s the power of the role. That’s why I feel the complaints that were upheld were really minimised. It was like they were saying, ‘this is social workers, this is what they do all the time, it’s no big deal’.

“So if you’re going through Tusla, please document everything. Note when you meet someone, when they arrived, what they wore, what they ate, what they said. Because they won’t. And if you can record it, absolutely do so.”

Mary is not sure where next to go with her own case: “Hindsight’s a great thing. If I’d known seven years ago what I know now I’d never have said anything,” she says.

She will continue to seek the details of her own case – something she has been trying to do for several months via a series of freedom of information requests (the first of which was ‘misallocated’ by the HSE, leading to a ‘sincere apology’, one of many Mary has received over the last five years).

“They’ve blocked me, they say it’s not in the public interest that I see these things, or that I haven’t been specific enough. I don’t really see why there’s any cause to refuse me.

“Personally, I feel the only reason it’s happening is because there’s something to hide. And because I’m looking for things, well they think ‘we’re not going to make this easy for you’. But I won’t stop until I get it.”

She says the only way she can carry on is to try to be positive.

“You do have to say to yourself – ‘this can either break me, or it can make me stronger’. And then you go again. But still, I can’t imagine a vulnerable person having to deal with this.”

Read: Tusla inquiries are a ‘major distraction’ according to chief executive

Read: ‘It’s not always as straightforward’: Tusla chief on removing children at high risk from State care

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