Deliver the safeguards to protect most vulnerable
While there are encouraging signs of draft standards being introduced, promises have been made and broken in the past
THREE YEARS on and the findings of the Ryan report haven’t lost their capacity to shock.
The sheer scale and longevity of the torment inflicted on defenceless children – more than 800 known abusers in over 200 State-funded institutions during a period of 35 years – makes clear this was systematic abuse rather than anything accidental. Between 1936 and 1970, 170,000 children were consigned to the 50 or so industrial schools.
But why did this abuse happen?
It wasn’t because the nuns and brothers who ran these schools were monsters. They were girls and boys from good families, the ones whose parents aspired that one day they might enter a religious order.
In so far as it’s possible to explain why abuse took place, we know of some key reasons: a huge imbalance of power and a lack of rigorous oversight.
Perpetrators abused children because they could. Poor, defenceless children were in no position to question the actions of their masters. In addition, the system of inspection by the Department of Education was fundamentally flawed and incapable of being effective.
It would be reassuring to think that we have moved on. There is, after all, much talk these days of safeguarding young people, protecting the rights of the most vulnerable and expressions of regret over past failures.
The truth is, we haven’t really moved on all that much. Today more than 10,000 vulnerable people with disabilities – including 650 children – are living in State-funded residential centres that are not subject to mandatory care standards or independent inspections.
This is despite evidence which consistently shows that children with learning disabilities face a much higher risk of abuse or mistreatment than the general population.
They are far from family. They may not understand what’s happening to them. Even if a family member suspects something, many fear retribution or losing a residential placement.
In a landmark study of more than 50,000 school-age children in the US in 2000, researchers Sullivan and Knutson found that children with disabilities were 3.4 times more likely to be physically, emotionally or sexually abused compared with other children. Deaf and hard-of-hearing children had twice the risk for neglect and emotional abuse, and almost four times the risk for physical abuse. Children with speech and language difficulties had five times the risk for neglect and physical abuse, and three times the risk for sexual abuse.
The Health Service Executive does not release details of individual complaints. But we know that about 500 official concerns over care were recorded over a period of more than two years, from 2007 to March 2009. They ranged from issues over lack of communication and poor living conditions to allegations of abuse, assault or mistreatment.
In one case of alleged physical assault at a centre in Co Cork, a staff member was removed from the area where the resident was based following an investigation by a complaints officer.