Dáil debates

Thursday, 28 April 2005

Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (Amendment) Bill 2005: Second Stage (Resumed).


11:00 am

Photo of Liam TwomeyLiam Twomey (Wexford, Fine Gael)

Every time the issue of institutional child abuse is raised, people respond in the way they always respond to bad news that they cannot control. There is an obvious sense of the pain of the victims of child abuse but sometimes people attempt to ignore institutional child abuse. I have often noticed people switching channels when this issue is discussed on television and radio because they do not want to hear about it. Institutional child abuse is something over which we have no control that went on years ago. It was a blight on our society and many of the events we are talking about took place in a time period that most of us can remember. Not all of the incidences of this abuse took place in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Much of this abuse took place in the 1970s.

It is important that we get this legislation right with regard to the victims of institutional child abuse. Their cases need to be heard in a way that is satisfactory to them. It is surprising to hear that there are still more than 1,700 people wishing to come before the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse either to make their cases or to seek redress for what happened to them when they were under the care of the State. It is important to craft this legislation in such a way as to benefit the victims of institutional abuse.

When I read some of the transcripts and listened to Deputy Enright speaking on this matter, I got a sense that the State had dragged its feet with regard to this issue. At the moment, the Joint Committee on Health and Children is examining the Travers report regarding illegal nursing home charges. The committee gets the same sense that the political establishment is trying to wash its hands of the matter and deny involvement. Institutional child abuse happened over a long period. Although it was only exposed in the last decade, there were references to reports written as far back as 1970, which said that the State's handling of this issue was disgraceful. The fact that it was not dealt with then and rectified is a very sad indictment of our society. It is important that we do the right thing for the victims of institutional child abuse, whatever decision is made regarding this Bill.

I know that everyone who spoke on this issue in recent weeks will be compassionate and will speak very positively about what is going on. We should also look at contemporary society and ask whether similar instances of child abuse are happening now that we could do something about. There is no doubt that many of the elements of abuse that we read about are still there today. They may still be within certain institutions housing people who do not have full intellectual control over their lives. Their intellectual disabilities or other infirmities mean they cannot defend themselves from the types of abuse endured by young children in institutions many years ago. Those children could not defend themselves then and were not listened to when they made complaints. The reason is that they were vulnerable. Many people had no time for them or could not care less about what was happening to them. In some respects, there is an element of this in our society currently regarding people with other disabilities who are under the care of the State in institutions, who cannot stand up for themselves and who can be abused just as badly as those who were abused previously. At the time, many reports were written on this issue but nothing was done about it. We must ensure this does not happen now.

On the issue of reports about the illegality of nursing home charges, the claim that this has been occurring for the past 30 years is somehow supposed to make it justifiable. Will we justify what is happening today in this way when writing a report in 25 years time? Will we claim that, because something has been happening ad infinitum, we should accept it? I am sure the Minister of State is interested in the welfare of these people and is concerned that this should not happen.

We have seen little movement during the life of this Government on the issue of vetting those who work with children or people with disabilities but it is a matter of increasing priority. We make such a play out of how we feel about disability issues or children but we do not have concise legislation to protect the people who cannot care for themselves. This is an issue that should be viewed seriously by the Tánaiste and the Government should do something about it. The Government has been dragging its heels for so long that it obviously does not feel it is an important issue.

In the course of listening to these debates, one aspect arose that I hope the Minister of State will clarify for me. If the State makes awards to people, does the existing legislation allow lump sum payments only? Why can these payments not be made on an incremental basis over a number of years? The impression I received upon reading some of the reports is that awards cannot be made in the courts or by commissions where the money is paid out in instalments. This is fascinating because an important issue is how we, as legislators and members of society, treat children who are born with birth injuries. Currently, the only recourse any parents of a child with a birth injury have is to sue the hospital their child was born in and the doctors and nurses who looked after their child. I am shocked that this situation is allowed to exist. If a family takes the hospital or doctor in question to court and loses its case, it is liable for all the court costs involved and will not receive any services from the State. The State does not have a system to protect parents or to provide for such families in the long term.

These obstetric cases, especially those involving a child with a significant birth injury, are some of Ireland's most expensive court cases and the awards in these cases have gone out of control. The latest one was for €4.6 million. If, God forbid, this child were to die young for any reason, the money would stay with the family. I cannot have any control over this but it is a matter that should be discussed. Some families can be very successful in a court case whereas others get nothing and there is no help for them. There is no in-between. I am surprised the Government does not examine this issue in the context of a no-fault compensation scheme wherein families could have all the State-provided assistance they need to look after such children through the handing over of a sum of money on an annual basis rather than situations in which there is a large, single amount of compensation. I am not speaking about compensation for the psychological effects endured by families. These awards should be made in the amount of the maintenance costs required during a person's lifetime.

For the families involved it is a lottery because some of them have lost their court cases and have been required to pay the State's costs. Sometimes the State or the medical protection unions involved do not follow up on these costs but the families are left with no assistance from the State and no safety net to protect them. They must do everything for themselves. This issue has been raised a number of times but I have never heard the Government pay much attention to it. The Government has never tried to deal with these cases positively. There is a distinct lack of coherent policy on how to care for people who cannot care for themselves. The disability issue may be getting some attention at present given how money is being spent, but many problems relate to how people are being assessed.

The House should examine where problems exist in society and ask what we can resolve now rather than holding another tribunal of inquiry in 20 years' time during which we would be asked what was wrong with us that we did not deal with these issues. I am shocked by the number of reports made and briefing notes received by Ministers and their advisers of which I have become aware since I have become a Member of Dáil Éireann on issues about which nothing is ever done. There does not even seem to be a need to be responsible but we are making a play about how well we care for children and people with disabilities.

I attended the Irish Patients Association's launch of the European Charter of Patients' Rights a few weeks ago at which the Tánaiste spoke eloquently about the importance of patients' rights. We were given to hang in our offices a framed copy of the 20 core points considered to be patients' rights in the European context, yet we have fulfilled few of them. We pay lip-service to most of them but we do little about implementing more than a few of them. This is a thread running through the actions of Government.

Much of this Bill has been dealt with in detail by Deputy Enright on behalf of Fine Gael, and other Deputies will speak today on what has happened in the past. I hope this legislation will make amends to many of these people and will deal with the issue. We must start looking towards the future as we discuss this legislation and examine what we are supposed to be doing here. Why do we not have vetting legislation on people who work with children and the intellectually disabled? Someone with a history from this jurisdiction or another has no difficulty in obtaining work here with children or people with intellectual disabilities who cannot protect themselves. The Garda is straining to get this information for the Health Service Executive. Often the Garda will not extend this service to voluntary groups or small organisations because they say they do not have the resources. A quick glance at medical services, especially services provided for children and people with intellectual disability, will show that the voluntary sector has a considerable role to play. Yet we do not even have basic standards to ensure we protect these people years after all this abuse has been exposed.

Another issue I will repeatedly raise and will push if I ever have the opportunity to sit on the other side of the House is "no fault" compensation for children born with birth injuries. I am surprised the Government, which has done so well economically, has not been more progressive in implementing this policy for all parents. Will the Minister clarify that the legislation states that where the court makes an award, a certain amount of money, which is index linked, is given annually? I find that very strange.

When dealing with families and people in difficulty, those of us in the front line of delivering medical services, including the Ceann Comhairle in his time, use a considerable amount of common sense. One does not always totally fall back on the legislation, which is inadequate or too oppressive. In recent months, we saw a case where a family made a statement to the health board that it could not cope with the difficulties it faced in the home. In response, we saw the agencies of the State act in a very oppressive manner. Perhaps this came about because of the overbearing effect of the legal system or because public servants believe they are no longer well protected by the State.

When people make a complaint to me — I am sure the Ceann Comhairle came across this in his time — or to social workers, we try to use common sense and evaluate the situation to decide if a person will do what he threatens or if it is a cry for help. We should listen to those who cry for help. Instead, we have seen the strong-arm tactics of the State, which took children out of a stable environment simply because of the way the parents made their complaint. That issue has not been totally cleared up, that is, how those policies were followed through. Is the Health Service Executive afraid a person will do something and that it will be held responsible? It should evaluate a threat to establish whether it is a cry for help rather than an actual threat. Unfortunately, we will not get it right all the time.

Recently in my constituency, relatives made statements about an unfortunate woman who was not coping well with her situation but nobody felt the need to intervene. Sadly, as we know, that woman drowned her two children before drowning herself. We must be careful about using the strong-arm tactics of the State. The case I mentioned has never really been cleared up and no statement was issued as to why the HSE went down this route. It may well have had compelling reasons for doing so but we can get caught up in legal issues when dealing with patients and families who have problems. We seem to be putting common sense to one side and are not showing empathy for these families. We are using the strong arms of the law and implementing it in a very rigid fashion. Does the Minister have any opinions on that?

This Bill concerns the abuse of children in residential care. Little has been said about the abuse of children in non-residential institutions. Many people have complained to the commission that much of this abuse took place in day schools or elsewhere and not only in residential institutions. The State has claimed that it was not in loco parentis and, therefore, it has no responsibility for children in day schools. That issue should be looked into because the State has a significant role to play in that regard. Abusers were able to leave schools with excellent references in their back pockets and move to other schools and continue to abuse.

I will certainly not criticise the teaching profession or the religious institutions. I was a student in a religious institution and benefitted from an excellent education. I saw none of the things about which we have read in that institution. However, we should look into that issue also.


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