Dáil debates

Thursday, 1 April 2021

Prime Time Investigates Programme on Department of Health: Statements


3:00 pm

Photo of Peter FitzpatrickPeter Fitzpatrick (Louth, Independent)

The "Prime Time" investigation was shocking. What was uncovered has truly angered people throughout the country. The programme has shown that the Department of Health secretly gathered information from private medical consultations to create files on children with autism who were involved in legal actions against the State. The files, which include sensitive medical and educational information of children involved in long-dormant court cases, were compiled and maintained by the Department of Health over several years without the knowledge or consent of the parents. This detailed and sensitive information is understood to have come directly from confidential consultations that the children and their families had with doctors and other professionals.

Furthermore, the Department instructed the doctors and others not to tell the parents. This is truly shocking and disgraceful behaviour by a public body.

I understand this information was compiled and shared so that the Department of Health could formulate a legal strategy in the cases brought by the children and their families. Even more disturbingly, this information was then used to determine when was a good time to approach parents to settle or withdraw their cases. This is shameful.

I also understand this information is being retained indefinitely on a searchable database. According to "RTÉ Investigates", doctors, consultants and psychiatrists shared the private and confidential information of parents with a public body. It is clear that the families affected by this have been treated with contempt, a lack of respect and with a complete lack of compassion by the State. I am completely disgusted and embarrassed by the actions of the Department of Health in this instance. There is no doubt the Government will say that what was done was not illegal. This is not the point. The actions of the Department in this regard are morally wrong. To treat families in this manner, especially those who are fighting for their autistic children, is completely wrong. Regardless of whether any laws have been broken, this should never have happened.

The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, made a statement in the Dáil this week. What struck me most was that not once did she or the Government apologise to the families themselves for this appalling behaviour by a public body. In her statement the Minister of State even tried to defend the Department by stating she was sure it intended no malice in its actions. If no malice was intended by the Department, why was it using this confidential and personal information to approach families with a view to settling or withdrawing their legal cases against the Department? The bottom line is that the State, through its public bodies, has acted in a most deceitful and underhand manner against the families of autistic children. There are many questions that need answers and I ask the Minister of State to answer them. How many cases are involved? Have the affected families been contacted subsequently? If not, why not? When did this practice start? Who sanctioned this approach? How often was this confidential information sought? How many cases were withdrawn as a result of the use of confidential patient information?

I welcome the announcement by the Taoiseach that a multidisciplinary team is to be set up to investigate the issues raised. The Taoiseach, however, needs to reassure all those affected by this that the investigation will be open and transparent and will not leave the families with more questions than answers. What the State has done, through the Department of Health in its dealings with families of autistic children, is both shocking and disgraceful. Answers are needed and there has to be consequences.

Of all of the people with special needs who come to my office, those with autism have the greatest needs. No matter when they look for services, they can never find them. They have to beg and borrow, if not steal, to get their children seen because when they look for services in the system, they are not available and they then have to arrange private consultations. That is wrong.

In future, when parents visit doctors, consultants and psychiatrists, will they be able to trust them? When I visit a doctor or consultant and ask questions I hope the consultation is in confidence and the doctor will try to help me. Doctors have told the Department everything, and it has ruined families. I would appreciate a response to those questions.


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