Dáil debates

Thursday, 28 April 2005

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


11:00 am

Paudge Connolly (Cavan-Monaghan, Independent)

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. The saga of physical, sexual and psychological abuse of children was one of the darkest chapters in human relationships in our long and chequered history. When we talk about abuse we often tend to forget about the psychological aspect of abuse. It can leave many scars. It is important to point out that all child abuse does not and has not occurred in institutions. Abuse has occurred and probably will occur outside them. We should never take our eye off the ball in that regard.

The history of children having been betrayed by abuse in homes and institutions that were founded by the State has been extensively documented. To some degree such abuse has come out into the open in recent times. One of the major documentaries that shocked our nation was "States of Fear". It created a culture whereby people with cameras could go inside the gates and the walls of those institutions and explore what happened there. In the past when a person was ghosted away in one of these institutions, we felt secure in the knowledge that the person was cared for by the State. Years later, those walls came down, so to speak, when the television cameras were brought into those institutions and programmes on life inside them brought the issue into our living rooms. Those programmes gave us a real sense of what institutional care was like in some cases.

However, not all institutions were bad. To some extent, they provided good care for some. It is important to point out that not all who worked in institutions were bad. However, all it takes is one bad apple to taint the whole box or to create the impression that everyone who worked in those institutions was a bad apple. That perception is bound to be frustrating for many good people because no matter where one goes, one will find people with kind hearts. The system might not be good but at least there are kind people and that should not be forgotten.

A number of films were made that detailed abuse. Survivors have stated that the films understated the levels of abuse that took place. I am sure that is not meant as a cut at the producers or film makers. There are types of abuse that a film, no matter how graphic the scenes, will never capture. Those who suffered the pain will say that the scenes did not capture how they felt at that time. That will be true. The guy who cracks that formula will make a blockbuster. The film, "Song for a Raggy Boy", is one such case in point. It graphically illustrated abuse that was commonplace in children's lives and about which there was a lack of public awareness.

Largely as a result of the catalogue of child abuse coming into the public domain, the position for children has changed significantly during the past two decades for the better. There has been a shift away from institutionalised residential care towards foster care and efforts to keep families together in the first place. As a State, one of our core values should be, where possible, to keep the family unit — for example, a brother and sister — together. There is a bond between siblings and it must be fostered at all times in such circumstances.

Fostering may be a temporary respite arrangement to care for a child where a parent has been killed, the parents are going through a difficult time coping with a problem such as alcoholism, depression or illness or where the parents do have not basic coping skills. Fostering can help by giving parents some breathing space. While parents may not be able to cope, it is important for them in such circumstances to feel secure in the knowledge that their children are being looked after adequately in a family environment by a family who can give them more love. This caring work of people who take children into a foster home must be encouraged. Foster parents, to a large degree, provide a wonderful service. It is very unselfish of them to do that. They are bound to develop emotional ties with the children for whom they care. They know that at some point they will have to give back the children and that loss is almost like a death to them. When the right type of people are attracted to fostering, they care for children for the right reason. We should encourage such fostering.

At least two thirds of children who are looked after by health authorities are in foster families as opposed to residential homes. The trend to move away from care in institutions is continuing. This move is to be welcomed. Health boards are enlightened in that respect. It is a major job for them to adopt this approach. I note they regularly advertise for foster parents who must go through a vetting process. The easy option would be to create an institution, place the children in them and throw away the key. The authorities could inform the public that the children are being cared for in a nice home which is inspected once a year and reassure them that the children are fine. Contrary to that, the type of work being done by the former heath boards is invaluable.

Their health authorities' care provision is more holistic. Efforts are made to ensure that these children gain academic qualifications, life skills such as looking after their health and the confidence to discuss problems with those in authority. It is important to give people who need it most the ability to discuss their problems with other people. A problem shared is a problem halved. That is the type of skill we should develop in these young people.

Children in foster homes not only experience life in a home environment which is beneficial, they also experience life in a community environment. Such an environment brings several benefits that one cannot buy which we take for granted, even if it is only going to a religious service on a Sunday or the odd football match. Being a member of a football team, taking part in a race or going to a dance class helps one become part of the community. We cannot take such connection for granted. This is a major plus a child will get from living in a foster home or being cared for in a loving home. We should welcome such care.

The child abuse scandals made people realise that the area of residential care has been neglected, thus making it fertile ground for predatory paedophiles. While not all are of that ilk, many people can worm and weasel their way into positions in various institutions where there are vulnerable people. They know how to get such positions. The fear this creates deters many good people from taking up a position in a running club, swimming club or in the boy scouts. A scout leader asked to take a group of children away for a few days, would be foolish to do so. One must ensure there are two adults in the group. These people would like to do excellent work for society but society has changed so much that people are looking over their shoulder in fear in case they put themselves in a compromising position. Teachers are afraid to give pupils additional lessons on a one to one basis because of the accusations that might flow from it. It is a pity society has moved in that direction.

The most important change was to open up the management of care homes to public scrutiny and make them more transparent. In the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, residential children's homes, even though not totally independent, were run like closed institutions, with periodic cursory inspections made to placate ratepayers and the public. The difficulty with these inspections was that notice of the inspection was given to the institutions. Human nature being what it is, people would put their best foot forward. If an institution were to be inspected, the manager of that institution would put his or her best foot forward and be on his or her best behaviour and have the place shining on the day. If a child had a visible scar, the excuse for it was that he or she had got it at hurling. There was an excuse for everything and the children were drilled on how to respond.

I have been extremely critical of the reports of the Inspector of Mental Hospitals, having worked in such an institution. One would be informed that the inspector would visit on such a day and it was a matter of pride not to let oneself down. The institution in which I worked is a world health model and an example of how mental health should be delivered. However, I would prefer if the inspector visited on days that were not made known to the institution to get the true picture of the institution.

The same applies to children's institutions. One can get around the system. A visitor is brought into the institution, given a cup of coffee and informed about the programmes and how wonderful the facility is. He or she is given the statistics and told how well everything is going. This appears all right to people who do not work in these institutions and who do not know how to ask the probing questions. We have seen examples of this in the recent past. One should be aware of the relevant questions to ask and given time with the children in a non-threatening environment. Children should not feel they cannot relate to the inspector. An inspector should be someone with a degree in psychology or, at least, someone who can relate to children, who could take the story out of the child. In most cases, one can see the fear in children, and it takes time for them to relax. One cannot take a story out of a child in two minutes but must develop a relationship with the children.

People from outside should be allowed to visit these institutions. Perhaps they could become mentors and the children would see them as people they could trust. This is what a real inspection should be about. The reports written are usually similar to each other. We must move forward from this type of scenario. A charismatic controlling individual running the home, together with a complicit team, would have no difficulty getting around the inspectors.

I welcome the requirement for employment in residential homes or areas where there is the potential to abuse people. I am talking in particular about the health services. To work in the health services and the learning disability services, one must be screened by the Garda, which is a welcome requirement. It is difficult to pin down people who move from country to country. I welcome the screening programme because abusive people can worm their way into the system. Some people feel offended that they or perhaps colleagues from another jurisdiction must go through the Garda screening programme, but that is life. I am not saying this will stop abuse from happening, but it is a step in the right direction, which must be welcomed. It will safeguard individuals. If this requirement was in place years ago, it would have made life much safer for people who were vulnerable to attack.

I would like to have addressed a number of other issues but my time has run out.


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