Tuesday, 2 February 2016
Establishment of a Statutory Commission of Investigation into a Foster Home in the South East: Statements
I would like to say a few words on the Government decision to appoint a statutory commission of investigation into a foster home in the south east. When this Government came to office, we set out to undo the damage and heal some of the hurt inflicted on the most vulnerable in our society. One of those groups was the Magdalene women, the unseen launderers of our country's stains and secrets. We issued a State apology to those women and established a restorative justice scheme in June 2013. When I met them in London, they told me about the difference that apology made to their lives and the changes the restorative aspect is making. There have been 804 applications to the scheme, with €23 million paid out to date.
In 2015, we set up the statutory commission of investigation into mother and baby homes and certain related matters. We need to know, and will find out, what happened to these women and their babies between 1922 and 1998.
In 2014, the Government established the surgical symphysiotomy payment scheme to provide an alternative, non-adversarial option for the women affected. There were 578 applications resulting in €23 million in allocations at the end of 2015.
If Ireland was declared by Yeats to be "no country for old men", the legacy issues I have just mentioned suggest it was positively treacherous and at times omnipotent when it came to our girls and women. Immediately when we came to office, we began to look at these issues and started by focusing our attention on our children, which coincided with the Cloyne report on sexual violence inflicted on children in the Cloyne diocese. I was anxious that the trauma inflicted on these children would be addressed and that we would make it clear as a country that the Constitution and our code of law were paramount and nothing else. For the first time, we set about creating a full Cabinet ministry for children and youth affairs. We established the Child and Family Agency with a regime of strict governance and stricter accountability for child and family services. Under new national standards for the protection and welfare of children, front line services for children and families became subject to independent HIQA inspection for the first time.
The new Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill 2015 includes stronger sanctions aimed at protecting children from sexual exploitation, child abuse material and online grooming. The Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012 makes it an offence to withhold information on serious offences committed against a child or against a vulnerable adult and with the Children First Act, the Government gave children their voice. It recognised them as individuals in their own right under the Constitution for the first time and because it did, the best interests of the child now are paramount in every decision taken by a public body in matters related to children. Putting children first was a long time coming but at last it is here. In respect of disability, HIQA, has carried out 1,370 inspections of residential settings for adults and children with disabilities since regulations came into effect in 2014.
I believe I can speak for everyone in the House and many outside it when I state words do not exist to describe adequately the depth and volume of revulsion we feel about the allegations of abuse and failures of which we have heard. I believe equally that the agreement in principle of a statutory commission of inquiry is the right way to address the enormity of the depravity that has been uncovered. I acknowledge these are allegations but I believe the response of the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, and the Government is the right way to proceed. Grace, because of her condition, was silent but as I stated earlier, by her treatment and her abandonment she was silenced. Those who left her to her fate pressed the mute button on her young life and on an appalling experience. Above all, the mute button was pressed on her dignity, her humanity, her civil and human rights and on her innate worth as an innocent, precious fragile life on this earth.
The question is: in ticking its boxes, was the system blind and deaf? Did the system possess so little awareness and so little accountability that it could become a stone to Grace, a non-verbal person, to her abject experience or to her desperate need? I expect the commission of investigation will answer these questions and will get the answers the people need. It is critical that it should so do in finding and re-establishing our co-ordinates as a people and as a functioning, moral and responsible society. I hope the drafting of the terms of reference for this commission will have a sound basis in the scoping exercise of the senior counsel, Mr. Dignam, that currently is under way and to which the Government has given additional resources and that the two reports, namely, the Devine report and the Resilience Ireland report, also will provide the basis on which an accurate and precise set of terms of reference can be put in place. This should not interfere with the ongoing independent Garda inquiry. The Ryan report into institutional abuse is a precedent in this regard, whereby a commission of investigation can proceed in parallel with a Garda inquiry and it remains for the next Administration to approve these terms of reference, to approve a sole member to deal with the commission of investigation and to proceed.
I am sure the hearts of the many excellent foster parents in Ireland are breaking when they hear all these allegations. They love the children who come to them as though they were their own. I believe there is a resonance here that the present Government should concern itself with these matters as it comes to the close of its term because they are matters of doing not what is correct but of doing, as I stated here on my first day as Taoiseach, what is right. The Government will seek with this commission to do what is right by Grace and all the young people and adults about whom allegations of maltreatment have been levied. I believe it is the best, most powerful and thorough way to treat them with the respect and kindness of which their experience in their lives in care were so devoid. This is a highly sensitive case and many allegations have been made. It is right and proper that a structured, precise focused commission of investigation should be able to get at the truth for everybody in order that a similar event to this particular issue will not occur in future. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to say these few words.
I must state that on reading the reports in the media in recent days and weeks on this case, I felt a sense of dread, worry and, to be frank,déjà vuabout yet another story that appears to have its origins in the early 1980s and which went on for a considerable time. This has been one of the motifs of the last five years of this Oireachtas, namely, all the different stories of the hidden Ireland that have come to view, from the women who were in Magdalen laundries to the children who were in institutions and to those children who died in institutions and the information Members heard about Tuam. Members are aware that from the 19th century onwards, Ireland was a place with many hidden histories and a lot of institutional care. While some people received very good institutional care, as has been stated, nonetheless what really separates people in institutional care from other people is they do not have parents to whom they go home at night. Regardless of whether such care is in a school, an institution, a hospital or a home, they do not have parents to whom to go home at night and to complain if something bad and wrong has happened to them.
As for this case, I understand the communication capacity of the woman who has been named as Grace is limited and therefore she was not really in a position to communicate what may have been happening to her. Consequently, it is important that the Government reached the decision to provide for a commission of investigation. It is known that the allegations have surfaced over some time and that, for instance, the Committee of Public Accounts has received a series of protected disclosures about the care of a particular individual who lived in that foster home from the age of 11 for a period of approximately 20 years. It also is known that approximately 21 years ago or after 1995, no more people were admitted to this particular home through the health services. This morning, the Cabinet received a briefing from both the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, and the Minister for Health.
However, the point I wish to make is the extent to which people have been fostered or have been in institutions and in care in Ireland probably is far wider than the public understands and for anybody who has been in care, these revelations are extremely disturbing. I am very friendly with a number of foster parents, including foster parents who particularly look after children with significant disabilities and who give a huge amount of care, attention and love. I can only imagine these revelations are extremely distressing for them to hear. As somebody who was both in care and foster care until the age of two and a half, I must state that for anybody who was in care - and in the context of the history of the past 50 or 60 years in Ireland, this relates to significant numbers of people - it is important this issue not be made into a political football. This is about people's lives, that is, it is about the quality of their lives, about their dignity and about respect for those people.
It is important that we define a pathway to the truth, which will enable us to find out what happened, in this and related cases, to people who were in this home. A significant number of people stayed in the home, in some cases on a permanent basis and, in others, on a temporary basis, for respite care.
As the Taoiseach said, over the lifetime of the Government, we have done a number of significant things in respect of children. At the outset, the Government made a decision to set up a specific Department with responsibility for children and an agency, Tusla, to deal specifically with the care of children requiring different supports, with the oversight of children in different scenarios and with parents or foster parents who require various supports. We also had a referendum of the people to emphasise the significant position of children in this society and there have been a number of significant legal developments to underpin the referendum that the people passed some time ago.
I refer back to Grace's case. I heard the interview with the chief executive officer of Barnardos, Mr. Fergus Finlay, in the media about the whistleblower's decision to name this woman, Grace. It was a good thing to do in order to personalise the case. It means we can see an individual who may be like somebody we know or for whom we care. The story becomes personal rather than being subject to the dry language in which cases are often addressed by people in the legal profession or, indeed, social workers. The Government has passed groundbreaking legislation in respect of whistleblowers supported by the parties opposite. I remind Deputies that we are in a position to begin to find out the story of what happened in this home as a result.
I commend my colleagues, the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, and the Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, on having the courage to ensure we will get to the truth of this. It will probably take a significant period because, first, Mr. Dignam, SC, must finish his work. We have also been advised of two existing reports while a Garda inquiry is ongoing and has not concluded. There are a great number of areas around which we have some information but the information is not necessarily complete or conclusive. Yesterday, I met the Taoiseach to discuss the recommendation by the Minister of State for a commission of inquiry into this matter. The proposal in this regard was strongly supported by the Minister for Health. It will take some time and it will be for the next Dáil to decide on the detailed terms of reference but the work commissioned some time ago by the Minister of State and the work being done by Mr. Dignam will lead to important information about what the detailed terms of reference of this inquiry should be.
We have a history in this country, unfortunately, of political violence, we have a history of sexual abuse and we have a history of institutions in which there have been both violence and sexual abuse. I felt a terrible sense of déjà vuas I read about some of the elements of this case which have come into the public domain. I welcome the fact that Mr. O'Brien of the HSE appeared before the Committee of Public Accounts earlier and what he said can be subject to further examination and consideration in resolving what is, undoubtedly, yet another element in the story of hidden Ireland. The Dáil, particularly in the past five years, has played an important role in setting this story out for people in order that we understand our society and history better and move towards making Ireland a better place for everybody but, in particular, for people who are vulnerable or who have been abused.
This case is harrowing and shocks people to the core, particularly given the fact that such a young child was left in a vulnerable position for such a prolonged period between 1996 and 2009. She was not in a position to speak or to defend herself and the whistleblower is clear that the most appalling acts of abuse were perpetrated in this case. We have a dark history in respect of child abuse in this country. We have had numerous inquiries on many fronts that have sought to get to the truth of different incidents and systemic abuses against children in different settings such as institutions, the church and many others. In this case, we are examining summer respite services. Apparently, in this foster home, a family allegedly provided a service during the summer offering two to three weeks respite for the families and children concerned. Up to 47 individuals availed of that service over a period. Grace was there for a prolonged period. The question screaming out for answer is: why was she left in that position for so long? Given the then health board had decided in 1996 that there was enough concern not to recognise that this service should be availed of by its clients and their families, and given no new placements were made, why were that child and another, Ann, left there for so long, right up to the present day? Deputy Clare Daly has made assertions in this regard and they need urgent clarification. If there is correspondence, it should be published. That needs to be clarified for everyone's sake.
I welcome the fact that a decision, in principle, has been taken to establish an inquiry and that will fall to the next Oireachtas to establish. I would have preferred if Ministers had taken questions on this. In previous Dáileanna, when issues of this substance emerged, there was always a practice of taking private notice questions, or special notice questions as they are called now, where Ministers would spend an hour to an hour and a half answering a series of questions on an issue but that has not happened during this Dáil. The House is not fully au faitwith the entirely of this issue. The Committee of Public Accounts has obviously done a great deal of work and the whistleblower has been in touch with members of the committee but the Dáil, in plenary session, would have benefited from Ministers taking questions, which was the norm during previous Dáileanna but not apparently during this one.
The Taoiseach said the precedent for this is the Ryan inquiry. I do not understand how that is a precedent for a commission of investigation because that was conducted prior to a commission of investigation.
The Ryan inquiry was set up under separate legislation. I established the commission, which initially was the Laffoy commission and later became the Ryan commission. It was a generic investigation largely; it was not an investigation into specific abuse. Given our experience of the Siteserv-IBRC investigation and the issues raised by the judge in terms of his sense of the limitations of that model and given a Garda inquiry is under way into reckless endangerment by health service officials in this case, I am still not clear about the capacity of an inquiry to conduct its work in parallel with the Garda inquiry.
During Leaders' Questions, the Taoiseach said it might be the case that the conclusions of a commission of investigation could not be published prior to the conclusion of the Garda investigation.
We need to be very straight regarding what exactly is the position. Is it the case that the outcome of this commission of investigation cannot be published until the Garda inquiry is concluded? Is it also the case that witnesses may not co-operate with the commission of investigation for fear of prejudicing matters and so on? Is that a concern? The terms of reference can be agreed. We know that from the issue relating to the IBRC and Siteserv. The terms of reference can often be an issue of contention but not the core issue. The core issue is legal competence and the capacity to have the comprehensive inquiry that is required. There was an appalling series of events and a bungled apology by the HSE but, to a certain extent, that is not the core issue. In one sense, the core issue is the scale and horrific nature of the abuse that was perpetrated on the young, defenceless children involved. That seems not to have been brought out by either the criminal justice system or, for whatever reason, there might have been genuine obstacles in the way of the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, in terms of bringing prosecutions. I am realist in that sense but, nonetheless, the whistleblowers are clear that appalling abuse was committed. The rest of us are saying that. I am simply saying that files went to the DPP. Essentially, people were sufficiently concerned about these matters to ensure that no new placements were made. They had real concerns and saw to it that placements ceased.
Grace was left in that facility far longer than any person would have liked, either then, apparently, or subsequently. It seems to me that the inquiry must be fairly comprehensive and perhaps - I am just making a point here - a stronger type of inquiry is needed to deal with those issues. From what I am told and from I have read, there will be no prosecutions. I am proceeding on the basis of what I am reading. I watched the proceedings of the Committee of Public Accounts this morning and observed the toing and froing between its members and the HSE officials. In respect of that whole period in the 1990s and later on, there is a lack of clarity in terms of the abuse allegations and what happened in respect of them. Why did prosecutions not materialise? It is clear that there were concerns. The house in question ceased to be used as a recognised fostering facility for summer respite services by the health board at the time yet people still remained in it. Then there was the phenomenon of families being referred to this home on a private basis as well. Watching the Committee of Public Accounts there seems - if I am correct in my assessment - to have been this tortuous engagement between the HSE officials and the foster parents about ceasing that activity in respect of Ann. She is the second person who was in the home up to 2013. There is a question in that regard. I ask the Taoiseach to share the legal advice with people on that issue. We had all of this with the IBRC and it continued for months and months until, lo and behold, at the 11th hour we learned everything had been for naught because the judge could not continue with the investigation. We do not want to go down that particular route again.
I commend the whistleblowers. In the Neary case and many others, whistleblowers spoke out and focused concentration on the issues. In this instance, the matter has come to light through the Committee of Public Accounts. Whistleblowing, fundamentally, is about culture in any organisation in the sense that people have the freedom to come forward and say what they have to say in a protected environment whereby they will not be penalised subsequently for saying what they have to say. We know from experience in other cases that it can take some time for the whistleblower to be heard and for the impact of what they are saying to be felt.
The other point I would make is that there are 47 children involved. The Resilience Ireland report involves a review of the cases of those 47 children. The HSE says it cannot publish the Resilience Ireland report. I ask the Taoiseach to revisit that matter and to consider what the State can do in respect of the 47 families who had children placed in the foster home in question during the relevant period. The Devine report, which deals specifically with the case of Grace, was commissioned in 2010 and was concluded in 2012. Two years later, the Resilience Ireland report was commissioned. That report examined at the other 46 cases, which was the obvious thing to do. What proactive action is the Government proposing to take in respect of engagement with the families to which I refer? Are counselling services required? Is redress required?
I ask the Taoiseach that, painful as it might prove to be, a proactive programme of engagement be entered into with those families. This matter is very painful for the families concerned. However, I think something proactive and comprehensive must happen in respect of the conclusions in the Resilience Ireland report and with regard to how the State can make decent recompense. I am not thinking of monetary recompense, I am thinking in more general terms.
Go raibh míle maith agat. It is with a sense of déjà vuand deep sadness that I speak on this harrowing issue. The detail of the abuse, in so far as we know it, suffered by Grace makes for distressing and disturbing reading and her treatment and the other elements of this dreadful episode in the life of this citizen warrants the most thorough Garda investigation. The DPP also has serious questions to answer about how it handled the allegations of abuse at the foster home in question. The HSE, the Oireachtas and successive Governments must also questions to answer about the persistent failures of child protection systems over the decades.
I commend the whistleblower but we must acknowledge that there is no culture, at this time, to encourage people to blow the whistle or to tell their stories. In fact, the contrary appears to be the case. As an 11 year old child, Grace, who has severe intellectual disabilities and is non-verbal, was placed in the foster home in 1989 and was only removed 20 years later. Her abuser shamefully and outrageously exploited her disability. We may never know the full extent of the abuse but it seems that the foster care was never properly assessed. It appears that the serious allegations of abuse and neglect were ignored. Five files arising from concerns about abuse were sent to the DPP since 1990. There were no prosecutions. The whistleblower said he brought Grace to hospital twice because of the extent of her injuries. Despite this, he claims he could not persuade the HSE to take the legal steps needed to end the placement. Grace was left in this foster home for 13 years after new HSE placements had been stopped.
The whistleblower asserts "that a wide range of southern eastern health boards and HSE employees, including senior managers, had known about this case since the 1990s but no one was prepared to terminate the foster place and move the young woman to a safe accommodation." This story is the stuff of nightmares. It is a litany of failure and cover up. If the whistleblower had not gone to the Committee of Public Accounts and if a row had not erupted because of the botched nature of the apology, this tragic account of abuse of a young woman might have remained largely hidden behind unpublished reports. It was only when it was faced with public outrage that the Government finally acts and establishes a commission of investigation. I welcome this decision but I am concerned that it is being dealt with in the way that it is.
Some 47 highly vulnerable children and young adults were placed in this foster home. I have no doubt that their families are deeply traumatised by this unfolding story and wondering about their loved ones. I ask the Taoiseach to ensure that the terms of reference of the commission of investigation are discussed with opposition spokespersons to ensure that it is comprehensive and secures the widest possible support in this Dáil. This is particularly important given that there has been a succession of damning reports about the treatment of women and children by the institutions of this State over many decades. Currently, one in five foster carers do not have a social worker. This is actually in breach of the regulations. How can the State ensure there are no other Graces in the foster care system if there are not the social workers available to provide the necessary level of scrutiny. This morning the chairperson of the Irish Association of Social Workers, Donal O'Malley, said he is not confident that there are sufficient safeguards in place to prevent another case like Grace happening again.
Last month, Deputy Ó Caoláin revealed there are 5,585 children waiting more than one month to be allocated a social worker and of these, 1,087 are classified as high risk. All of this represents a failure on the part of Government to fulfil its responsibilities and of the Members of the Oireachtas to fulfil our responsibilities. The Government is now in its last hours. What is certain is that the next Government faces a mighty challenge to right the mistakes that have left vulnerable people in the awful situation they were placed in and to ensure vulnerable women and children in particular are protected.
The recent abuse allegations surrounding a foster home in the south-east and the most horrendous treatment endured by an intellectually disabled young woman, whom we have come to know as Grace, depicts another example of the system that has failed to protect, respect and cherish those who are most vulnerable in our society. It has been revealed that Grace was subjected to the most horrendous abuse by her foster parent or parents and was left in this home for more than 13 years after it became the subject of abuse allegations.
Two whistleblowers in the HSE came forward in 2009 and brought to light the horrendous abuse endured by Grace at the hands of her foster parent or parents. On the back of these allegations, the Conal Devine report was completed in 2012 but it has still not seen the light of day. A second report into 46 other cases in the foster home was completed in 2015 and that too has not been published. This blanket of secrecy depicts perfectly in my mind how badly the HSE dealt with these most shocking of allegations. In this particular case, the actions or lack thereof by the HSE has been disgraceful. It defies belief that an attempt was made to claim that an apology had been issued to Grace and that the HSE then had to admit last Saturday that no official apology had been issued to her. Furthermore, this case raises wider questions regarding the way social services and the criminal justice system deal with abuse allegations against vulnerable people. Grace's disability was used as a means to prevent legal action. She and her carers were told that her allegations could not be prosecuted because she would not make a good witness due to her inability to speak.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time that such an appalling case of abuse of the most vulnerable in society has come to light and I have no doubt it will not be the last. A range of other settings have been exposed for malpractice over recent years. Back in 2014, we had the disturbing revelations of abuse in Áras Attracta residential centre in County Mayo. The critical question now is how we ensure that a situation like this is not taking place as we speak and that such outrageous abuse and oversight neglect is not to occur time and again into the future. I am in no doubt that the critical matter now is not just the address of the individual care home setting and the tragedy of Grace's abuse and health board and HSE neglect, tantamount to her having been written off by officialdom as a non-person, but that there is a need for a root and branch re-examination of the level of training, management and oversight right across the HSE and all care settings. That is what is required. Anyone who knows of other cases and has kept quiet until now or who has behaved badly themselves towards these people, the most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters, I say to them to go now, to leave, as they are not suitable people to hold such positions of trust.
That said, as I have a non-verbal, intellectually disabled brother, I know at first hand the great work that so many employed in these settings perform. This drip, drip exposé of dreadful behaviour by some must also deeply hurt those who are true carers in these settings - people deserving of respect and support. I find it totally unacceptable that, once again, our voiceless in care have depended on whistleblowers to shine a light on the treatment they have endured.
We are, of course, on the cusp of an election but it is still essential that we all - I mean all of us, together - ensure that the next Government, irrespective of its make-up, takes real and immediate steps to ensure this most wicked behaviour, that presents time after time in one incident after another, is substantively addressed, once and for all. For those who cannot speak for themselves, such substandard care must be rooted out, and fast. We must take the required steps to help ensure that the highest standards are understood in the first instance and implemented by those we trust to look after those defenceless loved ones from our respective families. We must examine care settings right across the board and instil through retraining and up-training the highest standards in management and oversight in every care setting in the land. Our voiceless must never again have to depend on whistleblowers.
I welcome the plans for a commission of inquiry into these abuse allegations but I cannot help feel that, for the Graces of our land, this is coming too late; they have had to endure too much. What we need to ensure is that there are no more like Grace and those who we have perhaps yet to identify and who have suffered equally grievously.
There is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that the only reason this is the last act of Government is the botched arrogance of senior officialdom in the HSE in its apology-non-apology to the Committee of Public Accounts. This is not going to go away. The first point I would make is that what is in the public domain is only the tip of the iceberg on this issue. There are a number of aspects in regard to the Grace case which are unique and particularly horrific but what is not unique is the approach taken by the HSE in its failure to deal with it. In fact, that is something that is all too familiar.
The only conclusion one can draw from the manner in which this has been addressed is that it is now a systemic problem inside the HSE, at best characterised as incompetence, at worst as recklessness and deliberate cover-up. I do not make those points lightly. We know the organisations charged with investigating and examining some of these allegations were connected to some of the officialdom and upper management inside the HSE itself. We know the South Eastern Health Board had a long-standing knowledge of the allegations at the heart of this case for a period of decades. We know that, in the initial investigation, it was the social workers who were blamed for the problems - scapegoated, in fact - when, in reality, the role of a social worker is a little like the relationship of a garda to the DPP, in that a garda makes recommendations and the DPP decides whether to act. A social worker makes a report and the line manager decides what happens next - that is the reality.
There are a couple of facts we need to know more about. It is a fact there was a decision in 1996 to remove Grace from the foster home. It was based on a proper case study and supported documentation as to the rationale of the abuse and the reason that young woman should be removed - decision taken. We know that on 9 August, the foster father contacted the Department of Health and begged for his foster daughter to remain in his care. We know the Minister for Health at that time made inquiries as to why the decision to remove her had been made. We know that subsequently in September, the file shows, "We need to discuss this case", but the decision was overturned for legal reasons. No legal information was quantified and there was no proper case study as to the rationale for that decision.
I do not know who is responsible and I am not blaming anybody but somebody made that decision and somebody has to be held accountable. Rather than deal with that, the approach taken by the health board was to minimise and to lawyer up, the same approach I heard at the Committee of Public Accounts today. Again, the impression was given today that the HSE was on top of it, was dealing with this, kind of found out in 2010 and moved straight away. That is not true. The HSE knew about it well before then. It was reignited when a new social worker arrived in 2007.
Even in regard to the "Ann" case, we know that in 2010 the HSE contacted the family of that woman and advised it not to have a care arrangement with that foster home, but did not give the reasons. We know Resilience Ireland, appointed by the HSE, visited that family and told it not to have anything to do with the foster home, but did not give the family the reasons for that advice. That is in clear breach of all protocol in these situations. The HSE policy requires full disclosure of the reason for a review. Where there is sensitive information - the Barr judgment lays down the legal responsibility for this - and if somebody is in danger, there is an obligation, even if they are only allegations, to make those allegations known, as long as one notifies the person against whom the allegations were made. That was not done. The family was not given the reasons.
Up to 2015, the second person, Ann, was in contact with that foster home because of the breach in policy of the HSE. That failure led to further abuse, not just of Grace but of Ann and, I have no doubt, of the other people who engaged with that service. The accountability for this mismanagement goes right to the top of the HSE, to the people at the upper echelons. I do not know if a commission of investigation is the best way to deal with this, but I believe it needs to be out in the open. We, or whoever is back here after the election, will need to discuss the terms for a commission, but part of those terms must be about aftercare, about strengthening the obligations of the State to look after children when they reach the age of majority and, in particular, advocacy for vulnerable adults and no interference with or watering down of guardian ad litemsystems and so on. This is urgent and I hope it is the first job on the plate of whatever Government is elected.
It is with great sadness and shock that I speak on this urgent debate on the abuse of young Grace in foster care in the care of the State. I am also deeply hurt and angry as a parent of a daughter with an intellectual disability when I see how this person suffered, but nobody acted. She spent 13 years in a home - abused, tortured and exploited. That poor young girl - 13 years of sheer hell and 13 years of failings and neglect. I thought this issue was a thing of the past and that we had this debate in the Dáil more than a year ago.
Let us focus today on the victim and on the need to support her and let us forget for a while all this talk about a commission of inquiry. A person, a young woman, was savagely assaulted and those guilty or involved in any negligence or cover-up should be prosecuted. This is a policing and Garda matter. Those responsible must take responsibility for their actions and their incompetence. We should not have to wait for another two years for a commission of inquiry, which could end up in dodgy territory or in legal complications that cost the taxpayers millions of euro. We need to take three basic steps. First, those responsible must be held accountable and prosecuted. Second, compensation and support should be provided for the young victim and her family. Third, we must put in place adequate protection measures for all people with intellectual disabilities.
I warned about the dangers in this regard a number of years ago in the Dáil when we were discussing other cases of child sexual abuse. I warned that some of these abusers would come up with new ideas to infiltrate services where there are vulnerable children and young adults. We need to be very vigilant and to put in place adequate protections. We have some excellent protections in place in our primary and secondary schools and in other areas, but people with intellectual disabilities are often forgotten about.
I am glad the Minister is here to hear me mention another issue. Families and parents of children and adults with intellectual disabilities are extremely traumatised and very hurt and sad. This is the case all over Ireland as we speak tonight. That said, we should never forget that we have wonderful foster parents in this country who do an amazing job. I know many of those foster parents and they should not be labelled in any way in respect of this issue. We have excellent foster care families who do a great job with children in care and children at risk and I use this opportunity to commend them. However, we must be always vigilant.
Another issue in respect of children and young adults with intellectual disabilities is that this is just one case, but only God knows how many cases are out there. This leads me on to the issue of whistleblowers. I commend them because they are patriots who have stood up against the system to shout and scream to protect our young vulnerable people with intellectual disabilities.
We also need to deal with the issue of "accountability", a word that is often abused in public life. We need accountability and need to get away from the broad debates on management and policy matters. We need people in our services who are accountable and who provide transparency. We need the right people in the right positions.
The treatment of these vulnerable individuals points to serious human rights abuses that amount to inhuman and degrading treatment. I urge the Minister and the Government to be vigilant, although it is late at this late stage to say that. We need to be vigilant to protect all our young people, particularly those with intellectual disabilities.
I welcome the opportunity to speak to the House about allegations of heinous and horrendous abuse in a foster and respite home in the south east and the subsequent alleged neglect and endangerment by the authorities which should have acted differently. These issues are a matter of grave concern for me, the Government and, increasingly, the public as it has learned more about them in recent days and weeks. It is important, however, not to forget that no matter how horrific, these remain allegations. There have been Garda investigations, but there have been no prosecutions or convictions to date. An inquiry is certainly needed and that is the reason the Minister of State, Deputy Lynch, and I have recommended it to the Government. However, we should not and cannot have the inquiry here on the floor of this House. That is not our role. Also, we should not come to conclusions or prescribe outcomes until we know all the facts. Clearly, we do not know all the facts at this stage.
Every child or vulnerable adult who uses disability services is entitled to expect and receive care of the highest standard and to live in dignity and safety. Our aim always must be to ensure people maximise their potential and live rich and fulfilling lives. They and their families trust us to care for them with kindness, compassion and respect.
While it is clear that grave issues have been raised about the protection of vulnerable people, children and adults, in the south east, it has been very difficult to establish the facts with certainty. The matters relating to the allegations of abuse in the south east were raised by the Committee of Public Accounts in 2015, in the context of the procurement process for the Devine report and the Resilience Ireland report into these matters and the extended period of time during which it has not been possible to publish these reports. In response to these concerns and the delays in publishing these reports, which may yet answer many of the questions currently unanswered, with my support the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch appointed Conor Dignam, Senior Counsel, to undertake a review into these matters, taking into account the ongoing Garda investigation. This review is ongoing and will report back at the end of April. In many ways, it is scoping out the commission of investigation which will follow.
I have received assurances from the HSE that the person at the centre of the Conal Devine inquiry, whom we are calling Grace, was removed from the foster family seven years ago, in 2009. I understand that Grace is now in full-time residential care with a voluntary service provider and that she has been well cared for over the past seven years.
These matters are complicated by the fact that they remain the subject of an ongoing Garda investigation, which has precluded the HSE from publishing the Devine and Resilience Ireland reports because of Garda concern that nothing should happen, be done or said that might jeopardise the potential Garda investigation.
Those in this House who are demanding accountability and for people to be held to account immediately should consider the possibility that they may be helping, with their words, those people to avoid accountability and prosecution. I appeal to Members to bear that in mind in their comments. Trials have been halted in the courts in this State because of comments by politicians in this House and people who should have been convicted were not as a result of utterances in the Dáil. I ask Members to bear that in mind in any contributions they make on the issue. Privilege may protect the Deputies but it may put others at risk and allow certain people to evade their responsibilities. It may be frustrating but it is very important that we do not prejudge the outcome. Instead, we must maintain focus on the questions that remain unanswered and, in particular, why Grace, as we now call her, was left in that home for many years after the authorities determined it was unsafe to place other people there. We still do not have a clear answer to that question.
In view of the seriousness of the issues raised, conflicting accounts, the fact the various whistleblowers are not aligned, incomplete information and misinformation from the HSE and the unanswered questions, we need to establish the facts. We are all agreed on that and so the Government has decided to establish a statutory commission of investigation. This is subject to the agreement of terms of reference and approval of the Oireachtas. I am in no doubt that the work under way by Mr. Conor Dignam, senior counsel, will make a key contribution in informing the drafting of the terms of reference for the commission of investigation. Additional resources have been allocated to Mr. Dignam to allow him to accelerate the completion of his scoping report.
Both the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, and I have requested copies of the Devine report and the Resilience Ireland report from the HSE under section 40C of the Health Act 2004. This is an important development as we believe that direct access to these papers will assist our understanding of the relevant facts surrounding these disturbing allegations. The HSE has assured the Department of Health that it has not waited for the publication of the Devine report to act on its recommendations and that it has put in place a number of changes to take account of the service and management deficiencies identified. The Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, and I will verify that this is the case in the coming days.
The HSE has also assured me that work is well under way in implementing a comprehensive change programme of measures aimed at improving the quality of residential services for people with disabilities in the care of the State. This six-step change programme includes implementing the national policy and procedures on safeguarding vulnerable persons at risk of abuse as well as the appointment of Ms Leigh Gath as the confidential recipient. She will receive concerns of abuse, negligence, mistreatment or poor care practices in the HSE or HSE-funded services from patients, service users, families or other concerned individuals and staff. If people wish to make a confidential disclosure to Ms Gath, the option is now available. In addition, and at the request of the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, the HSE is establishing a national independent review panel with an independent chair and review team for disability services. That is in the 2016 service plan and the review panel will focus on serious incidents that occur in disability services across the HSE and HSE-funded services. It will review independently with a view to publication of its reports in order to ensure accountability and learning. We have already moved away from the idea of tendering reports to private companies and the Minister of State, Deputy Lynch, took action on this some time ago to put in place a standing independent national review panel. It will review issues like this independently and it is a pity that previous Governments did not do that.
I assure the House that the Government is committed to the protection of vulnerable people with a disability in the care of the State. I hope the new Dáil will approve the setting up of the statutory commission of investigation as one of its first acts and that this will also be approved by colleagues in the Seanad.
As our party leader made clear earlier, the Fianna Fáil Party welcomes the proposal to set up a statutory commission of investigation into the events in a foster home in the south-east. I salute the dedication, commitment and, above all, the actions of the whistleblowers involved. Without them, we would not have heard the details we heard over the past number of weeks and months in the discussions in the Committee of Public Accounts and in tonight's debate on a commission of inquiry being set up. I take this opportunity to thank and acknowledge the work and commitment of Committee of Public Accounts, particularly the Deputies from the south-east, Deputies McGuinness and Deasy, in highlighting what can best be described as a distressing and an appalling story. The Committee of Public Accounts has had many critics but as we have seen over the past number of weeks, it has done a significant job of work in its public service commitment.
It is grim that this new story of sex abuse has arisen and a new inquiry is required. It is appalling to hear about abuse against such a vulnerable person - a defenceless girl - who grew into womanhood in such a place. It is very disturbing and the State, as well as those in whom responsibility for care was vested, should take responsibility yet again for the failures in the support systems. Yet again the HSE has been left with a less than exemplary record and its response to the issue has made it worse. It continued to make statements that contradicted previous statements. The most dismal management in approaching the context of disclosure must come to an end. The inability of the HSE to respond in a humane or sensitive manner to these matters is simply incredible. There was a tardy apology from the HSE director general that did not reverse the trauma suffered by the victim and her family. Despite allegations of sexual assaults being made by the former residents of the home, no action was taken.
The events that played out over the week point to enormous dysfunction in the HSE and it appears there has been a lack of communication skills, humanity and compassion. Officials from the HSE deliberately misled the Committee of Public Accounts, which is a source of very serious concern. I accept that the Government needs to allow the senior counsel to conclude his work and that terms of reference in respect of the inquiry must be drawn up to protect the interests of the vulnerable. Vindicating the rights of people with disability, particularly those in residential settings, must be a priority for everybody in the 32nd Dáil. We have failed for far too long to establish an understanding of human rights and citizenship in these institutions. Yet again we are having another investigation and it is not clear if we will ever get to the bottom of it.
A number of very serious allegations have been made by Deputy Daly and it is incumbent on the Government to respond to the two charges made by her in the course of today's debate.
I join with everybody who has spoken so far in this brief debate and express my horror and revulsion at the reports that have emerged in the past week or ten days of abuse and neglect in this particular home in the south east region. I fully support and endorse the Government's decision to set up a statutory inquiry to ascertain the full facts and information surrounding what sounds like an horrific story. I wish Mr. Dignam very well in his task of ongoing review.
A number of factors make the information that has come into the public domain particularly appalling in this case. I am 37 years old and thought, as I drove to Dublin today, that for all my adult life, effectively, there has been at a different times different stories of abuse and neglect. We all hoped, I suppose, that the worst of those stories were over.
As we have ascertained, however, media sources indicate that may not be the case. I am conscious that a Garda investigation is ongoing, and we all have a duty to be careful about what we say in this House.
While I am not a parent, I do have a nine-year-old nephew and godson who cannot speak. I know that my brother, his wife and their family, including the extended family, invest so much love and attention in his care. The thought that somebody who cannot verbalise what is happening could have been subjected to such neglect and abuse brings this set of facts to a whole different level. In the case of a child with special needs of any description, the matter of trust is even more important than in the lives of other children. Given the facts that have emerged in this case, that trust has been shattered in so many ways and at so many levels.
It is incumbent on the State to ensure the full facts of this case emerge as soon as possible. In that way, the special efforts of the many loving people who open their homes as foster parents, and who do such great - in many cases unrewarded - work for children, will not be tarnished by this shocking case that has emerged in recent days. There is a moral obligation on the HSE, which was effectively acting in loco parentis, to explain the error. Error is too insignificant a word to describe the apparent oversight of this girl's existence, who we now call Grace. She was in care, yet the system seems to have been oblivious to her very existence. Those facts bring this situation to an appalling level, even in light of what has emerged in the past 25 years concerning other abuse cases.
I hope that Mr. Dignam will be soon in a position to give his initial report, and that shortly thereafter the Oireachtas will be able to establish a statutory inquiry so that we can get to the bottom of this appalling situation.
Tá sé dochreidte go bhfuil an díospóireacht seo againn anocht, díospóireacht ar scannal cosúil le scannail eile a chuaigh ar aghaidh sa tír seo. There is an air of, "Can this have happened again in recent years?", after so many similar cases in the past. It is so reminiscent of our debates and discussions on the Magdalene Laundries, the mother and baby homes, and the abuse in residential institutions where young men, women and children were so disregarded and brutalised. When we had those debates, there was a feeling that had happened in the past and could not recur, yet here we are discussing this matter tonight.
Language can sometimes fail to adequately describe how we feel or think about matters such as this. We use words such as "horrifying", "shocking" or "terrible", but they do not convey the enormity of what we are told happened to these young people. This is at a time when we supposedly know so much more and where safeguards are supposed to be in place. We have policies on child care and child protection, as well as complaints procedures. All of those measures, however, failed to protect these vulnerable 47 people, and especially those known as Grace and Ann.
It is therefore vitally important that the truth is established as to how such abuse could have continued for so long. We are having a commission of investigation and a Garda report to establish the truth. I wish to acknowledge the persistence of the whistleblower, who I believe is a social worker, who has tried for six years to bring to light this matter. There has been a spectacular failure on somebody's part to address the issues.
If persons fail children in whatever setting, and know about abuse, it should be a matter for dismissal - but not a dismissal that lands in court with the authorities being sued. Alternatively, those concerned should have the honour - if they have any - to resign.
I note that the Irish Association of Social Workers referred to the rapid turnover of staff and the relative inexperience of those working with children at risk. We know we do not have enough social workers and we can see that, in particular, concerning the provision of services for homeless people. Families have been in touch with me who have been waiting for very long periods to have a social worker assigned to them. Earlier today during questions to the Minister for Health, we were talking about cuts to intellectual disability services and a reduction in the number of trained intellectual disability nurses. They are being replaced by agency staff who do not have experience in that area.
The most important question is why children were left in the home when the allegation of abuse emerged. I would like clarification on new graduates going into Tusla. That agency finds it difficult to retain staff because they are moving on to less stressful positions. I agree with what the Minister said earlier about establishing the facts, but I want to return to another abuse issue that I raised here at Leaders' Questions with the Taoiseach. It led to me meeting with the Minister for Justice and Equality, and it concerns abuse in swimming circles. Some of the perpetrators were brought to justice but one known figure in swimming circles was not. By whatever means, he left this country and was able to live a fine life in another jurisdiction, leaving a trail of heartache behind him for his abuse victims. The facts were established and gardaí were confident that this person would be brought to justice. Gardaí met one of the victims and assured her that due process would be followed, the person would be brought to court and she would see justice. That would have been part of a healing process for her, which is so important for people who have been abused, but that did not happen because the DPP decided not to go ahead with the case.
When Garda detectives called out to tell this victim that the case was not going ahead, she tried to commit suicide. There have been other suicides of that person's victims since then because the person was not brought to justice, even though the facts were known. I am sorry, but I do not have much faith in the DPP, given that Garda detectives were confident the case would go ahead. I sincerely hope that does not happen in the current case. I do not want to jeopardise any investigation of a criminal case, but I have grave doubts as to whether justice can be done for those who suffered.
Finally, I wish to refer to the foster parents I met in my teaching days, who give exemplary care to children in their care. They must be feeling particularly hurt today because there is a danger of tarring everybody with the same brush.
I thank everyone who contributed to this debate, as well as those who referred to the matter before this debate. As other colleagues have said, these are particularly harrowing allegations. It is not often that everyone in the House is in agreement on an issue, and it is sad we find ourselves in agreement on how shocking and disturbing are these allegations.
Every person who avails of our health services is entitled to the best and safest care, and even more so when that person is vulnerable. Instead, we know that our health services failed Grace and other children and young people who were placed with this foster family at a time when they most needed our care and protection.
I have been assured that Grace is now being fully cared for in full-time residential care by a voluntary service provider. The HSE chief officer and her team in the south-east will continue to work collaboratively with the service provider, Grace and her advocates, to ensure the highest quality of service and support continues to be provided to her.
I strongly believe it is in the public interest that we establish the facts surrounding the care of Grace and other vulnerable people who were placed in this foster home but, more importantly, we owe it to those involved and their families who entrusted the health services with the safety and well-being of their loved ones.
The work which I have commissioned from Mr. Conor Dignam SC has been already mentioned and additional resources have been approved to allow him to expedite his review, which I expect to be completed by the end of April. We need to be precise and focused on the questions that remain unanswered and the work that is under way by Mr. Dignam will greatly inform the drafting of the terms of reference for a commission of investigation. As I said previously, there must be some political input into the terms of reference. Mr. Dignam has had access to the Devine report and the Resilience Ireland report in completing his review and I assure the House that I intend to read both reports as soon as I receive them from the HSE. I expect that the reports may make difficult reading but they will greatly assist us in understanding the facts surrounding these shocking allegations. I hope that they will be published in the future as everyone involved in our health services should be aware of the potential harm that can occur to vulnerable people in our care.
As the Minister mentioned, in view of the seriousness of the issues raised and the need to establish the facts, the Government has today approved the establishment of a statutory commission of investigation and I welcome that decision. The commission will provide a statutory mechanism to get to the bottom of these allegations. I am confident that this is the best mechanism to achieve this. I hope that early in the life of the new Dáil, this House will approve the setting up of this statutory commission of investigation and that this will also be approved by colleagues in the Seanad. That would be a powerful symbol of how seriously this House takes this appalling matter. It is clear that there have been failures in protecting vulnerable people in our care. For a number of reasons, it has been difficult to establish the facts with certainty. This has been acknowledged and I am confident that through the commission of investigation, we can resolve this. While this is very much in the public interest, it is also very much in the interest of those vulnerable people who are directly affected and their families.
I reiterate what the Minister said. Listening to some, although not the majority, of the contributions, I have very serious worries that while we are protected, what is said in here could impact any outcomes outside the House. This is why I deeply appreciate the fact the majority of people who spoke were very careful and conscious that our words are being listened to, not just by the public, which has an interest, but by those who may use those contributions to protect themselves. This is hugely important.
I also congratulate the whistleblowers. I very much appreciate that sometimes it is not an easy task and involves making oneself more vulnerable within the system in which one works. I also appreciate the many good people, who are in the majority, who provide care to vulnerable people. I say to each and every one of these people that this is not a reflection on them but things did go wrong, there were lapses and we need to find out why and how they happened and how we can prevent them happening in the future. I thank all the contributors.