Health board loses custody of girl


A High Court judge has removed from the Mid Western Health Board custody of an out-of-control girl after the board failed to alert the court over five months that the girl had gone missing many times.

A Garda inspector said he suspected she was being sexually abused by older men.

The 16-year-old girl, who was placed in the custody of the board in April, was missing for three weeks last August and on average every one in three nights in recent months. She was involved earlier this year in a prostitution and phone-sex ring and was said to have had 75 sexual partners at the age of 15.

The girl was again missing this week but was arrested under a court warrant on Tuesday night. She is now detained in a State remand centre in the absence of any suitable facility.

Her case was listed by Mr Justice Kelly on Tuesday morning after he received a letter from the girl's aunt expressing fears for her niece's safety. The same letter, the court was told, had earlier been sent to an assistant chief executive officer with the health board, Mr Gerry Crowley.

The judge said he received the letter on December 4th and waited a few days to see if the board would enter the matter in the court list. When it failed to do so, he listed the case himself.

If the aunt had not written, he would still be in the dark about the child's situation. This raised a question mark about whether this child should be in the custody of the board. In his view she should not.

In the letter, the aunt said she was "appalled" at the way her niece was being "neglected". She said the girl had gone missing regularly, and this had been drawn to the board's attention. The aunt had also asked Mr Crowley: "Explain to me what needs to happen before this is taken seriously."

A Garda inspector expressed serious concerns for the girl's safety. She was mixing with undesirables, was drinking and was believed to be in a sexual relationship with a man 10 years older. The court also heard she was seen with a woman who was allegedly involved in an escort agency. The inspector said he had asked the board last month to return the matter to the court.

The board said it had worked closely with the girl, her aunts and family in relation to improving her behaviour. It had allocated social workers and other professionals to the case.

The girl had made some progress up to August, but her behaviour then deteriorated. It was concerned when she went missing but was aware she was in the vicinity.

It had contemplated returning the matter to court several times but was trying to maintain her in the community.

The court option was discussed at a case conference on November 14th. The girl undertook to improve her behaviour, and it was decided to give her a last chance. She did not honour those undertakings, the board said, and it decided earlier this month to list the matter before the court but did not proceed when it became aware the judge had listed it.

After hearing this and other evidence in court on Tuesday, the judge made an order for the girl's arrest. Gardai asked for no publicity until the girl was found.

Mr Justice Kelly was told yesterday of the girl's arrest and said his request that there be no publicity no longer applied.

The judge had on Tuesday removed the girl from the custody of the board and placed her in the joint custody of her father and an aunt. The board will continue to exercise care and control over her but not custody.

He directed that the girl remain in the State remand centre but stressed this could only be a short-term option. The board would have to devise a more appropriate plan and put proposals before the court in January.

Mr Justice Kelly expressed astonishment that the girl had been missing so many times in the past five months and still the MWHB had not alerted the court.

He was sorry to say the board could not see what was immediately apparent to the girl's aunts, gardai and himself: that the longer she stayed in an insecure and unsupervised place, the longer was the nightmare.

The aunt said in evidence she had sent a letter to the judge because the girl was missing "and no one seemed to be taking it seriously". Only when a letter was written to the MWHB, asking if it had to wait until a body was found, had an emergency conference been convened.