Thursday, 1 April 2021
Prime Time Investigates Programme on Department of Health: Statements
David Cullinane (Waterford, Sinn Fein)
I am sharing time with Deputy Ó Laoghaire.
I commend the whistleblower, Shane Corr, on coming forward and "RTÉ Investigates" on airing the programme, bringing very distressing information into the public domain and making us aware of a practice that has scandalised and horrified the family members of children with autism and special needs. When I watched the programme last week, I was not surprised but I was sickened. I was not surprised because the engagement between this State and the parents of children with special needs has far too often been too adversarial, and that has to stop.
It is completely unacceptable that because the State refuses to provide the services that children with special needs need, their families have to take the State to court and involve themselves in litigation to get their children the services they need. That adversarial approach simply has to stop. Even the response from the Department was adversarial. It cannot hide behind legal issues here. We will debate whether any of this was legal, a matter for legal experts, but there are moral, ethical and trust issues, as well as issues relating to patient-doctor confidentiality, that need to be seriously addressed.
The trust issue is very important because families of children with special needs will find it very difficult to send their child for therapy, psychiatric evaluations or psychological assessments if trust is breached and if the families feel that the results of those examinations will end up on some database somewhere in the Department of Health for many people to see. Some of the graphic information that was held is absolutely outrageous. There can be no justification for it.
There are ethical and cultural issues in respect of how the Department and the State engage with vulnerable citizens.
We are again seeing a drip feed of information such as we saw in respect of CervicalCheck and the tracker mortgage scandal. For the love of God, can we have full and open disclosure on this matter once and for all? Family members have not been notified of the files the Department has on them at this point in time. Yesterday, the Taoiseach disputed whether they were dossiers. Whatever they are called - databases, spreadsheets or dossiers - information is being held on those families and they are not aware. The State must make them aware now. It must not hide behind any review. We need full and open disclosure now. Those families need supports. Let us not push back against them. Let us make sure that phone lines and other arrangements are put in place so that, if they have any questions, they will be given the information they seek without any legal pushback or any other kind of pushback.
In the case of litigation, there is typically disclosure. All the cards are on the table. All the cards were not on the table in this case. Cards were under the table or being pulled out of the sleeves of the Department of Health, which was keeping secret dossiers on these families' children and on very sensitive information regarding the relationships within those families. It is appalling. The Minister of State needs to make sure this practice is stopped. There needs to be full and open disclosure. We need to know that all of these families will be supported. Is it the case that 400 families are involved? What is the number? Can that be confirmed? Will all of those families be notified? Is it the case that senior counsel was not given the legal advice furnished to the Department after a medically qualified person had raised concerns with regard to patient confidentiality?
I tell the Minister of State very directly that rights must be put in place very quickly. There must be full and open disclosure and there has to be proper engagement with those families. I ask the Minister of State to put a stop to this pushing back against children with special needs and their families who are looking for supports. If the State spent a fraction of its time putting supports in place rather than acting against the interests of these children with special needs and their families, we would all be in a much better place. In fact, we would not be here today having this discussion and debate.