Monday, 29 March 2021
Reports on Department of Health Policy in RTÉ Investigates Programme: Statements
That is difficult to follow. I thank Senator Ruane and her daughter.What really struck me was Senator Ruane's comment that her daughter asked whether her stuff was in there. That tells us that one our first jobs is to now reassure every child who has sought help that his or her stuff is not in there and will not be used. I put the Department on notice that this issue must be tackled immediately.
I thank the Minister of State for making herself available today. She only received our request last Friday and her attendance shows how seriously she takes this issue. I know she had no hand, act or part in any of this, but it falls to the current ministerial teams in the Departments of Health and Education, and the Government as a whole, to respond to this issue and address it in a meaningful way, one that shows there are consequences for what has happened. The response must not be a report that will gather dust on a desk.
On the "RTÉ Investigates" programme that was aired, it is remarkable to say in this Chamber that the Department of Health was secretly using information from private consultations to build and maintain dossiers on children with autism to aid it in legal actions that were taken against the State. I am still trying to come to terms with the fact that this happened in this country. The work was done in co-operation with the HSE and the Department of Education. It involved detailed information sourced directly from confidential consultations between children and their families and doctors and professionals. These dossiers include sensitive medical and educational information on the children involved. They were built and maintained over a number of years by the Department without the consent or knowledge of parents. The reports include details of specialist service provision and document the well-being and mindset of parents as they cope with the needs of their child. Families were completely unaware that their disclosures to medical staff were passed on to the Department. Nobody knew about this. The information was then shared to aid the Department in putting together its legal strategy and help it determine when might be the best or most opportune time to settle cases out of court. It all came down to money rather than the well-being of the children.
The practice only came to light because a brave individual made a protected disclosure. An employee of the Department of Health gave information that files were being kept on children that were detailed, extensive and involved material sourced directly from consultations with psychiatrists and other medical professionals. I commend the individual on being brave enough to step out when others felt they could not do so. It is welcome that the Taoiseach has asked the Minister for Health to review the matter but that is just the beginning of the process. The fundamental role of the State is to advocate for the child and ensure that every child reaches his or her full development and potential. Above all, the State must protect the rights of the child. That did not happen in this case.
I know the Taoiseach believes this issue merits a full examination and will consult the Ministers for Health and Education. A multidisciplinary team involving the whole of government will be established to respond to this matter. We need to fully understand what happened but we must see real and meaningful consequences. As Senator Boylan said, we need to know who made the decisions, when they were taken and who was involved.
I acknowledge all of the employees who may have been aware of this issue over the years. We must be careful to acknowledge the difference between somebody who had the power to make a decision and those who were powerless to do anything about it. I say that because many people will feel an element of guilt for being complicit to a certain extent but many of those who were in that position may have felt they did not have the ability or space to come forward in a safe way. I emphasise that we are looking at the top level of management here over a number of years.
This is a nasty legacy issue, one of many that the State is grappling with and one of many where children have been failed by the State. I appreciate that the Minister of State is here to listen to the concerns of Members across the House. It is important, first and foremost, that we provide every person who is following what came out of the "RTÉ Investigates" programme with reassurance about their information, privacy and confidentiality. We must then examine, assess and provide the full facts of what happened. There must be consequences.