‘He was some man’: Shane’s journey from care child to fearless activist

Friends and family recall children’s rights activist Shane Griffin, who died on New Year’s Eve

Shane Griffin grew up in residential units and in foster care, he was interviewed by the Irish Times in 2016. Shane died on December 31, 2019. Video: Enda O'Dowd

 

When I first met children’s rights advocate Shane Griffin in 2016 he was standing in the lobby of The Irish Times holding a thick file filled with documents he had accessed via “freedom of information” requests to State bodies.

Shane – who died on December 31st last – was then trying to piece together the story of his life, and I was writing an article about him.

He, his brother and two sisters had been taken from the home of their mentally ill mother and put into care when he was seven. His siblings fared a little better, but Shane went on to have 19 different placements between foster families and residential homes.

The story he told was heartbreaking. He had been a remarkably resourceful kid. He would find receipts in the car park of a supermarket then go in and “return” items he picked up from the shelves to get money for his siblings’ breakfasts. He told me about barricading himself into a room on the day social services came to take them away.

He had experienced physical and sexual abuse both inside and outside the system. The documents he had received included police reports and inconclusive investigations into allegations of abuse.

He had also been given some letters he had written as a child. In one he asks to go back to his mother. “She is the only one who cares about me, who wants me even when I’m good or bad,” he wrote.

Shane Griffin: “No matter what was going on for him he always sent a text: ‘How did that go for you?’ He always kept an eye out for everyone else’s welfare.” Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Shane Griffin: “No matter what was going on for him he always sent a text: ‘How did that go for you?’ He always kept an eye out for everyone else’s welfare.” Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

The social workers’ reports depict a traumatised child yearning for connection, overly possessive of kind care workers, eager to help, but prone to lashing out.

He told me about the day he accidentally broke a school principal’s nose and how guilty he felt about it. After the article on Shane came out, the man read it, called him and they met up. “I never blamed you,” the man said.

One report that Shane got through his freedom of information requests writes about him going out to help some nearby builders. “They’ve described Shane as ‘a great little lad – he’s no bother at all – we’d have him out here every day’.”

Even as a child he knew that his life wasn’t what it should have been.

“I was watching Little House on the Prairie and The Brady Bunch,” he said. “TV was painting an image of how a family was constructed. I saw how my friends and their families functioned.

“I knew from a young age that this stuff shouldn’t have been happening. I knew it should be different. I want that for my daughter – a place she can call home. I haven’t had it since I was five years old.”

When he was 16, for reasons he never understood, Shane was allowed to return to his mother (his siblings remained in care), and he ended up being taken advantage of by another man who sexually abused him.

Some structure entered his life when he became a car-obsessive, and he said that a community of like-minded and passionate young men helped save him.

At this time Shane went to therapy. He renewed his relationship with his family, especially his older sister Ciara. He had a young daughter, Haley Anne, whom he loved dearly. He studied social care at Carlow IT, and worked as a social care manager.

Shane got involved with the Care Leavers Network, and became a passionate critic of a childcare system whose social workers are overburdened, placements frequently break down, aftercare is lacking and where children’s care plans are ignored or often never written at all.

He wanted to make sure that no more traumatised children were further traumatised by a thoughtless system.

He spoke at events and in universities. He became an unpaid advocate for children whose placements were collapsing or care leavers who were leaving the system with no supports.

He struggled financially and worried about providing for his daughter. He started a gardening and landscaping company. He continued to be an advocate for children in care.

Last year Shane joined the Social Democrats. Over the past three years whenever I was writing a piece about children’s rights or the care system someone would suggest I talk to Shane Griffin. “Oh, I know Shane,” I’d say.

I’d say it proudly.

A letter Shane wrote as a child sent to a judge asking for help.
A letter Shane wrote as a child sent to a judge asking for help.

He was a warm, funny, intelligent man. He was very kind. He died on New Year’s Eve at the age of 33 after a long struggle with his mental health. He deserves to be remembered.

*****

Wayne Dignam met Shane in 2014 at an event where Dignam first pitched the foundation of a Care Leavers Network to an audience of care leavers and childcare workers. “Shane came up to me afterwards and was the first one who really decided to devote himself to it wholeheartedly.” They bonded over their shared experiences.

“It’s a hard road. When you start healing from that pain another bit of pain comes up and then another bit … Shane had a lot of trauma and a huge sense of loss and pain, but he tried his best to help others as a way to cope with that. He wanted to understand legislation. He wanted to understand what was happening out there currently for children in care...

“He prepared our first pre-budget submission in 2015…. He was a great listener to other care leavers, and really connected to them in terms of what he was going through and he had great connections… He really was the go-to person. People said: ‘If I’m in difficulties Shane will have an answer for me, and if he doesn’t know he’ll find out’.”

Linda Hayden, a candidate for the Social Democrats in Kildare South and the founder of Action Against Sexual Violence Ireland, recalls meeting Shane at fellow party member Chris Pender’s selection convention in Newbridge,. “Chris said to me: ‘He’s very important. You need to pay attention to him’.”

As well as becoming party colleagues, Shane and Linda became friends. They spoke to each other about their trauma as survivors of abuse and their experience of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD).

Shane aged between three and five
Shane aged between three and five

“There are big holes in the system, and if you fall through a hole pulling yourself out of it is nearly impossible because it’s too easy to fall down other holes when you’re down there, the holes of pain relief and drugs and alcohol or consistent trauma,” she says.

“Every time you have a conversation about something like sexual violence or child abuse you take a bit of the shame away. If you can take shame away from one person it’s worth doing. Any survivor will tell you that. Shane did a huge amount.”

*****

The documentarian Kim Bartley became friends with Shane when they were working on a documentary about his life (it ultimately couldn’t get funding).

“He didn’t want any more children to go through what he went through,” she says. “He was very involved with liaising with Tusla and Epic, and trying to get more aftercare services for children leaving care….He was just totally hands-on, so he’d get a call from someone saying, ‘look there’s someone about to lose their placement’ and he’d go and meet them or ring around.

“He took on an awful lot. And it was all voluntary too, because at the end of the day he wasn’t getting paid for any of this….No matter what was going on for him he always sent a text: ‘How did that go for you?’ He always kept an eye out for everyone else’s welfare.”

Don O’Leary, director of the educational organisation the Cork Life Centre, invited Shane to speak at a conference about children in care in 2017. “He spoke about his life in care and outside of care, the fact that he was abused, that he’d been through 19 care placements,” says O’Leary.

“He had ideas. He had principles. He knew things that would make a difference in this country for the most vulnerable young people in our society who found themselves in care.”

Shane with him mother when he was aged between 10 and 13
Shane with him mother when he was aged between 10 and 13

Several of the young people who use the Cork Life Centre’s services have spoken at conferences about their own experiences. O’Leary believes they were inspired to do so by Shane.

“On social media Shane would say ‘keep it lit’ and it’s one thing here we intend to do. We have to keep fighting for what Shane believed in because his voice was a clarion call for what was right for children.…When you take a decision to take a child out of their family home, whatever the reason is, then you owe it to that child to ensure that they have a childhood and that their voice is heard.”

The Cork Life Centre plans to hold an event in Shane’s honour in May. They hope to screen some of the documentary footage filmed by Bartley. “He was a friend to us here. He was a dad, he was a brother and he was some man.”

*****

Shane and his older sister Ciara had become very close in adult years. When they were children, she says, “it was always me and him against everyone else, but we used to kill each other… I used to get into awful trouble because of Shane when he was young. My mother would say, ‘you have to look after him’ and then I’d be annoyed at him for getting me in trouble.”

When they were taken into care due to her mother’s mental health and addiction problems, the family were separated. Ciara had a better experience of the system than Shane. She was placed, barring one year in residential care, with her godmother. Their younger sister and brother also fared better. They were both ultimately sent to live with the same foster family.

Shane was moved from family to family and residential unit to residential unit.

“He believed that the more he acted up the more likely it would be that he would get home, whereas that was never the case. It was never simple for us to go home.”

Shane and Ciara saw each other regularly but they never experienced family life together again.

A case review letter about Shane
A case review letter about Shane

“It wasn’t actually until I got pregnant with my first son that we got really close. We could talk to each other then. He was brilliant. He was really good to talk to.” She laughs.

“He loved talking, bless him... He was the only person that I could fully speak to about anything from years ago because he was the only one who understood it… Unless you’ve been through the system you never fully understand it.

“I’m not like Shane. Not many people would have known [I was in care]. I never really told anyone. I kind of just put it in a box and that’s where I left it. It’s an awful thing because even when you’re older there’s always a part of you that wants to please people, to get acceptance from people. It’s as if you’re not enough. It kind of breaks you, in a way.

“And because Shane had such a hard time he really understood it, and he was so passionate about it. And he put himself out there. The time your article came out in 2016, for a whole week I couldn’t keep myself together... I always felt a terrible guilt for Shane because I always felt I should have minded him better. I know I couldn’t have. I was a child.”

Over the past year Shane was struggling. Before Christmas he was researching new therapies that he hoped might help him with his PTSD but he wasn’t sure how to pay for them. Those who loved him feel the system failed him once again.

“He needed help, and it was heartbreaking,” says Ciara. “He always wanted to help everybody. He was always a helper... He used to come up to Dublin and stop and talk to homeless people. He said ‘you wouldn’t believe how many of them were in care.’ He was just terribly good. He was so strong. He was so brave.”

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