The Taoiseach has asked Ministers to set up a team to examine issues raised by an investigation which revealed the Department of Health’s maintained dossiers of sensitive information on children with autism who were involved in legal actions against the State.
A spokesman for Micheál Martin said he believes the issues raised by a whistleblower who spoke on an RTÉ Investigates programme on Thursday night merit further examination.
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.
Shane Corr, a senior civil servant at the department, 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.
Robert Watt, the interim Secretary General of the Department of Health, said he wanted to reassure all parents, families and interested parties that the department has never unlawfully held sensitive medical and educational information of children involved in dormant court cases.
“We take the allegations made last night extremely seriously and the Taoiseach has today announced that a multi-disciplinary team will now be formed to consider the issues raised with the aim of understanding fully what happened here,” Mr Watt said.
The spokesman said the Taoiseach was consulting the Ministers for Health, Children and Education, and the Minister of State with responsibility for Disability, with a view to setting up “a multi-disciplinary team” to consider the issues.
“This is with the aim of understanding fully what happened here and also to ensure a proper policy framework and guidelines for the future.
“Above all, confidentiality in relation to a child’s medical and educational needs must always be protected.
“The fundamental role of the State is to advocate for the child and to ensure that the State provides services and facilities to children to enable their full development and potential to be realised.
HSE director general Paul Reid has said the organisation will investigate the issues that emerged from the investigation.
Trust must be the cornerstone of the health service, Mr Reid told RTÉ radio's Morning Ireland.
Nothing could be right about the sharing of sensitive information inappropriately, he added. “If it has been done we will get to the bottom of it.”
On the same programme the Children’s Ombudsman, Niall Muldoon said that while the actions of the Department of Health may have been lawful, they were “absolutely not” appropriate.
It was not appropriate that private information was being gathered solely with the purpose of putting pressure on families to drop legal cases, he said.
Mr Muldoon added that he was concerned that such actions were systemic as the files remained open for years through different staff.
The actions of the Department of Health were an abuse of power, he said and he wanted to know if similar actions had happened in other cases involving children, maternity cases or school issues.
Minister of State for Education Josepha Madigan defended her department’s role in the controversy.
Information relating to children’s schooling was also collected including school reports and psychological assessment.
Ms Madigan, who has responsibility for disability, said in the Seanad that her department “is not aware of any instance of inappropriate sharing of information, nor does it take lightly any decision to defend cases concerning children with special educational needs and the rights of the child to an appropriate education under the Constitution.
She said the “needs of the child and a desire to act in the child’s best interests are always to the fore in the making of any such decision”. Ms Madigan told Green Party Senator Pauline O’Reilly that “in defence of any legal proceedings, it is appropriate for the department to engage with relevant State bodies and the school or educational establishment in which the litigant is a pupil to understand fully and appreciate the education provision on offer. This is to ensure that any alleged deficiencies in provision can be appropriately considered and, in many cases, to look at what further supports might need to be provided.”
Seanad leader Regina Doherty said the Upper House would on Monday debate the issues around the documentary. The Department of Health has not yet confirmed which Minister will attend for the discussion.
Earlier, Sinn Féin health spokesman David Cullinane called for Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly to stop the practice of gathering information on children with special needs and their families. Mr Cullinane also said the new current secretary general of the department Robert Watt and former secretary general Jim Breslin should attend before the Oireachtas health committee which meets on Friday afternoon in private session.
He also said they had to find out “who knew what and when” and this also involved former ministers for health Simon Harris and Leo Varadkar and other senior civil servants. Mr Varadkar told the Dáil on Thursday he was minister a number of years ago and “I don’t have any personal recollection of this at all”.
Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty on Thursday called for an inquiry similar in scope and duration to the Scally inquiry into the cervical cancer screening programme, which should investigate the roles of the Departments of Health and Education and the HSE.
Mr Cullinane told reporters “the very first that needs to happen is for full disclosure that the families of those children with special needs are informed of exactly what information was stored on these data bases in relation to their child”.
Meanwhile, the deputy chief executive of autism charity As I Am, Fiona Ferris, said questions needed to be answered "internally and externally" about the actions of the department. This was "yet another breach of trust".
The actions of the department would raise concerns for families and would make them question their trust in the team working with their children.
There was a need for a full legal review along with an examination of the culture and ethics surrounding the action, she said.
The Department of Health has 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.