Child death report exposes endemic dereliction of duty
IF ANY single document of recent years should cause us shame as a people it is the report of the Independent Child Death Review Group led by Geoffrey Shannon and Norah Gibbons.
At almost 500 pages it is unlikely that very many people will have read it in full. But the detail is as meticulous as it is shocking. In its “Summary of Concerns” it lays bare an appalling catalogue of incompetence, dereliction, lack of professionalism and failure in duty.
In the decade from 2000 to 2010, 196 children died while in State care. Some deaths were due to illnesses. But 110 are ascribed to “non-natural causes”. These include drugs, suicide, fire, drowning, traffic accidents and homicide.
The responses from the political and administrative establishment were as expected. Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald had long flagged her personal intolerance of this cesspool. She will entrust childcare to a new Child and Family Support Agency and there will be a constitutional amendment on the rights of the child.
These measures may prove themselves in time. But they rather skirt around the reality that at the heart of this scandal there was a sizeable cohort of people who, for whatever reason, were simply not doing the jobs they were paid to do.
Shannon and Gibbons acknowledge that many individuals within the childcare system gave of their very best. But “good practice” was not evident in a majority of cases.
No doubt there can be pleas of overwork, poor leadership and inadequate resources within a dysfunctional Health Service Executive. But can any of these explain or excuse a widespread failure to discharge basic individual responsibilities and functions?
In case after case the report tells of failure to keep records, to hold case conferences, to notify the Garda of violent crimes. There is “no evidence of professional supervision” in many cases. In others there is “no care plan”. Basic documents such as birth certificates are missing from files. In other cases there was “no forward planning” and “no risk assessment”.
We are told “the system” failed. It seems we are reluctant to acknowledge that the “system” comprises identifiable people. We have a deep-seated national tradition of avoiding the apportionment of individual responsibility when things go wrong.
We prefer to speak of “failure of oversight” or “systemic inadequacies” rather than identifying individuals. So in reality, throughout much of the public service, people are simply not challenged on how well or otherwise they do their job.
If individuals are not meaningfully accountable – in the sense of facing sanctions for poor performance – the result invariably will be low standards and dereliction.
If we want it otherwise we require objective evaluation of performance for civil servants, social workers, teachers and others. This implies the imposition of real sanctions when performance falls short. And it implies that those in leadership and supervisory roles will have the moral courage to face down the non-performers.
This, of course, is anathema to our public service tradition.
A system of performance assessment introduced some years ago in the Civil Service was quickly discredited as it became clear that nothing short of absolute indolence would incur a poor rating.