A whistleblower at the Department of Health has said it is "mind boggling" the information that is available to Government departments.
Shane Corr, a senior civil servant at the Department of Health, has disclosed to RTÉ's Prime Time programme how the department has been secretly using information from doctor consultations to build and maintain dossiers on children with autism who were involved in historic legal actions against the State.
The dossiers, which include the sensitive medical and educational information of children involved in long-dormant court cases, are believed to have been built and maintained over a number of years by the Department of Health without the knowledge or consent of parents.
Mr Corr told the programme he made protected disclosures to his superiors highlighting the existence of detailed sensitive files being held on legal cases and was later told an external investigator’s report raised no concerns.
“It is mind boggling the information that’s available to Government departments and how they use it in this case is frankly shocking,” he said.
Mr Corr said he first became concerned when in the course of his work he came across documents concerning the treatment of vulnerable people, including a template letter indicating there was a particular approach to litigating Special Education Needs cases known as SENS.
“I saw something that frankly I can only describe as shocking. I saw an email from an official at the Department of Health to a doctor who is working for the HSE explaining that they were involved in litigation with one of her patients and asking for information from this doctor,” Mr Corr said.
According to documents seen by RTÉ, the doctor asked was the child's parents aware of this and had consent to release the details being given.
Mr Corr said the reply from the department was “no, we haven’t informed, we haven’t informed the patient, we haven’t informed the parents and we’re not going to. We don’t ask for consent.”
“This is standard practice when we’re running a case, litigating case, we ring HSE units around the country and we ask for information, any information that might be helpful to the case.”
The department received a lengthy clinical evaluation the following day detailing the child’s struggles, according to RTÉ, while the family’s underlying legal action had been dormant for 10 years.
Mr Corr also said he saw “several notes relating to alcoholism within the family structure”.
“I saw notes related to siblings of the children. They weren’t relevant. Every type of family information was there...whether the child is prone to violent acts towards its parents, its siblings, its teachers, its doctor. Everything that you would not want to know about the family living beside you, it was there,” he said.
Mr Corr said the files were not part of his work but could be accessed, searched and viewed by anybody working in the department’s division dealing with the likes of older people, social care and disability policies.
“All of this information was contained on a folder within the Department filing system,” he said. “I had my own password to get into the system, my own account. After that I went onto Win Explorer, I typed in the key words that I was looking for which would be generally ‘children’, ‘disabilities’, maybe ‘litigation’, and all of these documents were there. I mean they were just as available as if they had been paper documents sitting in a file beside me.”
Mr Corr said on one child’s record there was a video from the HSE in which the child was in an extremely distressed state.
“This information should not be there,” he said. Mr Corr described the video as “one of the most distressing things I’ve ever seen”.
“It’s a child literally breaking down. A video of a child and it’s in the folders of this litigation unit,” he added.
Department of Health
In a statement, the Department of Health said it was made aware of the RTÉ investigation last year and initiated an independent review of its practices.
On Thursday evening, the department moved to reassure parents, families and other interested parties that it “never unlawfully held sensitive medical and educational information of children involved in dormant court cases”.
In a statement issued just hours before the programme aired, it said it was conscious of the “impact that these headlines will have on affected families”.
It has undertaken to engage with stakeholders in the coming days to address any concerns.
“It is normal practice for defendants [OF]litigation to gather and maintain appropriate information in order to obtain legal advice and/or defend the proceedings. This is necessary to protect the public interest and is a normal practice for the management of litigation,” it said.
After being made aware of the programme last year, the Department said it commissioned an unnamed senior counsel to carry out a review, which was completed in November and which identified no breaches of data protection law.
“The review found that information contained on relevant files managed by the Department is consistent with, and typical of, the sort of information which arises in such litigation. The examination also found no basis to suggest wrongdoing arising from the information contained,” it said.
The Department of Health did not respond immediately to a request for a copy of its independent report.
Health Service Executive
The HSE said it lawfully shares information with the Department of Health on a range of issues, including the provision of health services to children with special education needs.
“It is normal practice for defendants to litigation to share information, and we do so from time to time to assist in the management of certain High Court cases taken against the State,” it said in a statement it first released to RTÉ.
“Furthermore the HSE regularly provides anonymised information to the Department of Health regarding ongoing legal cases, specifically in relation to the Disability Act.”
The HSE told RTÉ that, in relation to the alleged breach of confidentiality, it was “unable thus far to identify incidents that fit the not very specific description given” by the broadcaster.
“We would not knowingly share personal information in breach of doctor/patient confidentiality or otherwise unlawfully, and we take our obligations in this regard very seriously,” it said, requesting the ability to respond to any specific allegation before the programme went to air