A story of shame

Thu, Jun 21, 2012, 01:00

NEARLY 200 young people died in State care during the decade to 2010. The fatality rate was eight times higher than that initially acknowledged by the Health Service Executive which, having attempted a cover-up of inadequacies involving its record-keeping and family services, hampered the subsequent, government-appointed investigation. It was a squalid exercise in official denial. One of the consequences is that a new child and family support agency will be established.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny described the report as “a story of shame”, while Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald found it “deeply disturbing” because it shone a light into a dark, often unexamined and tragic corner of Irish life. No doubt they were genuine in their responses. But, as politicians of long standing, they should have been aware of what was happening because of the culture of crisis management and penny-pinching that pervaded the HSE.

There has been too much hand-wringing over the way the State and society has consistently failed children at risk. The promise of a new agency and regulations on aftercare suggests that young people will be properly protected in future. But without strict administrative and political accountability, nothing will change. We have been here before. The Ryan report into the abuse of children in the care of religious orders; a damning Health Information and Quality Authority report on State residential centres, and the Mental Health Commission’s report on the forced detention of children in adult mental health units, all identified official apathy and inadequate management as contributory factors to disgraceful practices.

It is hardly a coincidence that those placed at greatest risk by State agencies are generally the most vulnerable and the least able to cope. That pattern has been repeated throughout the health services, from the treatment of old-age pensioners in nursing homes, to a lack of support for dysfunctional families and children in need of help. It is a particularly ugly side of a two-tier system where poverty marks the frontier. Failure to provide adequate funding may have been the cause of this malign development, but administrative connivance, apathy and public complacency have all contributed to it.

Early intervention, through the provision of supports for stressed or dysfunctional families, is a prime requirement. There is also need for effective multidisciplinary working and reliable partnerships among those who engage with young people. A fragmented approach to client care and limited out of hours services were identified as major shortcomings in the past. Most of all, sufficient funding must be provided for the proposed child and family support agency if it is to do the job that is needed. Some of the tragic young deaths, according to the report, might have been avoided. These will be examined to ensure lessons are learned for the future. In that future, the usual excuse of “systemic failure” should not apply.

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