Report provides opportunity for decisive change in care structure


ANALYSIS:The evidence is children and young people are tragically being failed right up to the present

WHEN IT was published in 2009, the Ryan report into the abuse of children in residential institutions set out in chilling detail how religious orders and the State failed to protect vulnerable children from abuse.

The country was shocked. Never again would children be made to suffer like this.

Today’s report into the deaths of children in contact with social services is, in many respects, more shocking still.

These are not deaths or care failures that took place in another era, during the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s. The Independent Child Death Review Group provides evidence children and young people are tragically being failed right up to the present.

The obligations facing the State when it comes to vulnerable children are clear. Under the 1991 Child Care Act there is a mandatory obligation on the Health Service Executive to “promote the welfare of children in its area who are not receiving adequate care and protection”.

This involves identifying children at risk and either working with a child’s parents or the major step of taking a child into the care of the State.

Whenever this happens, the HSE is taking a profound step in a child’s life by corporately taking on the role of a parent: it is responsible for the child’s welfare, safety and protection.

This is the context in which today’s report should be considered: did the State do a good enough job in meeting the welfare needs of these children?

Child protection is challenging work. Many of the children featured had troubled, traumatic and unstable childhoods. Others lived in chaotic homes where drug and alcohol abuse was rampant, or had undiagnosed mental health or behavioural problems.

Knowing how to intervene is complex and difficult. It requires a careful assessment of whether a child’s welfare is better protected by taking them out of their family and into the care system.

But the report shows that in too many cases the response of services was sporadic and inconsistent. Files in some cases were in disarray. Individual cases were being closed off even though children were living in unsafe and risky family settings. One of the most damning findings was that the HSE abdicated its duty of care to many of the most vulnerable – those leaving the care system – with tragic results.

These are the symptoms of a child protection system that is chaotic and not fit for purpose. It shows every sign that it is built on the principles of crisis management rather than responding earlier and more decisively in the lives of children.

How has this been allowed to happen? We can only assume child protection has failed to receive the priority it deserves and has been neglected by both HSE management and the political system.

There is now a once-in-a- lifetime chance to design a new system that is better able to meet the needs of children at risk, and to halt the sense of drift that has characterised our response.

The new agency being planned by the Government – which will take responsibility for child protection away from the HSE – will need authority, proper resourcing and to be accountable.

It will also need to ensure that, for once, there is a uniform and structured approach to protecting children with the right supports at the right time. Social workers and other professionals will also need support and supervision to give them the confidence that they can make a difference.

Too many reports have issued well-meaning recommendations such as these, only to be marked by the same pattern of inaction.

Perhaps this time a groundswell of public anger – as happened following the Ryan report – will finally result in meaningful changes.

Individual Cases

Danny Talbot (19)

Danny Talbot died in summer 2009 of a suspected drug overdose. He spent most of his life in the care system and was in receipt of aftercare from the Health Service Executive when he died. While he was placed in foster care after the death of his father at the age of nine, his behaviour began to deteriorate. He ended up in numerous emergency care placements, including out-of-hours hostels for homeless young people.

David Foley (17)

David Foley died of a drug overdose in 2005, three years after being admitted into the care system. He had voluntarily sought care at the age of 14 and ended up being admitted into a series of emergency hostels for homeless teens in Dublin’s city centre. Professionals familiar with his case say he should have received more suitable forms of care, such as family support, which could have allowed him to live at home or in his community.

Tracey Fay (18)

The Dublin girl died of a drug overdose in January 2002. She had suffered serious physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her mother and her mother’s partner. A subsequent report was highly critical of the health authorities for their “chaotic” provision of care services and highlighted the many “missed opportunities” when the State should have intervened during her life.

Kim O’Donovan (15)

Kim O’Donovan was found dead from a suspected overdose in August 2000 in a city centre BB. She had been in care under a High Court order but had absconded from Newtown House, the first secure unit of its kind in the Republic. A subsequent report was highly critical of the quality of care provided to the children in Newtown House. It was one of the factors that led to its closure.

Michelle Bray (14)

From Dungarvan, Co Waterford, Michelle Bray died in January 2007 after inhaling some of the contents of a deodorant can. The HSE had been warned more than a year earlier that the girl’s life was in danger unless she was placed in residential care.

William Colquhoun (16)

William Colquhoun was admitted into the HSE’s system of emergency care at age 16 after running away from home in Co Kildare. Within two years, and after a succession of care placements and social workers, he died of a drug overdose. Care workers familiar with his case say there were missed opportunities to provide him with a care plan and that more supportive forms of care were never made available.

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