Case illustrates gaps in system continue to fail vulnerable young

 

ANALYSIS: Abuse case underlines need to place Children First guidelines on a statutory basis quickly

THE HANDLING of the Michael Ferry case has identified yet again how gaps in the State’s child protection system continue to fail vulnerable young people.

Yesterday, Mr Justice Paul Carney struggled to comprehend how a school caretaker was able to keep his job, despite a conviction for sexually assaulting a pupil. “He remained working in the school to continue to engage in the stalking and grooming with which we are concerned with today,” Mr Justice Carney said. “This must have been known to the local gardaí and presumably the school authorities.”

But, to anyone working in child protection, it is little surprise that information fell through the cracks. If the State’s guidelines for sharing and handling information between organisations working with children – Children First – had been followed in this case, it’s likely the school would have been aware of it and the caretaker would have been removed.

The guidelines are just that, however – guidelines. In the absence of any real accountability for organisations which fail to pass child protection information to relevant bodies, information will continue to get lost.

This lack of inter-agency co-operation is not a new problem. It was flagged as an urgent issue in relation to the Kilkenny incest case, the Kelly Fitzgerald case in Mayo, the McColgan cases in Sligo, the Dunne family in Monageer and the Roscommon abuse case.

In many cases, the reasons offered for not passing on details of abusers relates to a lack of legal protection over “soft information” – that is, information which is disturbing but not robust enough to lead to a criminal conviction.

Not in this instance. Ferry had in 2002 been convicted in a District Court in Donegal for two incidents of indecent assault at the school in 1985 and 1986. This was rock-solid information.

Yesterday’s case raises uncomfortable questions for the Garda and the school’s authorities. The Garda says since last year it has a new policy on the investigation of crime against children which places a major emphasis on information-sharing and avoiding gaps when it comes to child safety. The school, so far, has not commented.

If anything, yesterday’s conviction underlines the need to place Children First on a statutory basis without delay. To its credit, the Government has pledged to do this by the end of this year, as well as introduce an offence for any person who knowingly withholds information on child protection.

Gaps still remain. Garda vetting of staff working in schools is not mandatory (it’s “best practice”), and the capacity of the system to respond to the volume of cases is a worry. Also, there is no statutory provision to allow ongoing monitoring of sex offenders after their release, or to require them to continue any treatment programme started in prison. These are some of the steps we need to take if we’re serious about putting children first.