HSE pushed to reveal alleged sexual assaults in Donegal care home, families claim

Assaults on 18 intellectually disabled adults happened over 13-year period, report says

Donegal TD Thomas Pringle outside the disability services centre at Ard Greine Court, Stranorlar, Co Donegal: The whistleblower contacted the TD as  repeated failings remained unaddressed. Photograph: Joe Dunne

Donegal TD Thomas Pringle outside the disability services centre at Ard Greine Court, Stranorlar, Co Donegal: The whistleblower contacted the TD as repeated failings remained unaddressed. Photograph: Joe Dunne

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Families of some of the 18 intellectually disabled adults who were allegedly sexually assaulted in HSE care over a 13-year period say they don’t believe the HSE “had any intention of telling us” until pushed to do so by the actions of a whistleblower.

The families were not told until December 2018 that a now-deceased former resident of the 40-bed Ard Greine Court centre in Stranorlar, Co Donegal had, according to a report, subjected their loved ones to “a vast number of highly abusive” sexual assaults with the “full knowledge of staff and management”.

The unpublished report from the National Independent Review Panel (NIRP) says the assaults happened between the late 1990s and 2016.

The families, who live across the county, say they are “shocked”, “disappointed” and “very let down” that a HSE-run centre they believed they could trust had “failed” them and their vulnerable loved ones.

Almost three years on from being told the abuse happened, they are left still “with many unanswered questions”.

The sister of one victim who still resides at Ard Greine Court said: “We would have concerns about future care and the integrity of this current organisation as it is today.”

‘Regularly targeted’

Details of the abuse and the response of staff and management are detailed in an anonymised, unpublished report from the NIRP, seen by The Irish Times. Commissioned in December 2018 and completed in February this year, it has not been provided to families.

Referring to the perpetrator by the pseudonym “Brandon” it says: “Evidence … would suggest that Brandon regularly targeted particular individuals and was able to identify particularly vulnerable residents whom he pursued relentlessly.”

Though the review team were asked to examine “serious incidents of concern that took place” in the HSE facility in 2003-2016, it says earlier records “suggest this sexualised behaviour had been ongoing ... prior to 2003”. The first recorded incident, where Brandon was found with his hands on a resident’s genitals, was in January 1997.

It reports repeated efforts by nursing staff from 2008 for effective action to protect residents from “Brandon’s assaultitive nature” and by an external psychiatrist in 2011 warning about the “sexual threat of the opportunistic, predatory and recidivistic approach of this man”.

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The most common response was to move him around various wards. “Brandon was moved … nine times in the ... period of this review. While each of these moves provided some respite to the staff and residents from the ward Brandon was vacating, unfortunately they also gave him access to other residents many of whom became new victims.”

Bungalow campus

The intellectually disabled residents lived in three wards of the Sean O’Hare Unit in St Joseph’s Hospital until 2008, when they moved across the road to the Ard Greine campus, which comprised seven bungalows.

Brandon was placed in House 1 with five other men – a decision described by NIRP as “devastating for all the other residents living” there.

A report from an external psychiatrist, dated April 12th, 2011, says: “It is totally inappropriate to allow this man to continue to live with and sexually exploit vulnerable, learning disabled men.

“The fact that relatives of his known victims have not been informed of the episodes of abuse could be interpreted as collusion or complicity if the situation were ever the subject of an investigation.”

On November 16th, 2011 a forensic psychologist advised management that a policy should be formulated “regarding the circumstances in which to inform families”.

In December 2011, Brandon was moved to his own self-contained accommodation with one-to-one care. The abuse reduced dramatically.

“Unfortunately, on 5th September, 2013 he was moved back again to House 1 to live with residents he had previously assaulted.”

Minutes from an October 2013 meeting note that because Brandon was now wheelchair-bound, he was considered less able to abuse. The minutes also say that the cost of one-to-one care for Brandon in House 2 meant the service manager “advised it could not continue, hence his move to House 1”.

Brandon was discharged to a nursing home in 2016 and died in 2020. His family were never told about his abusive behaviour.

Local TD

A whistleblower, who had contacted the Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) and Garda between 2011 and 2016 and felt the repeated failings remained unaddressed, approached local Independent TD Thomas Pringle in October 2016.

Mr Pringle describes what he heard as “horrifying” and said he “had to deal with it”. He brought the allegations to the regional HSE area manager in November 2016, and later documentation provided by the whistleblower to then minister for disabilities, Finian McGrath.

Mr McGrath referred the documentation to the HSE national management – a “key intervention”, according to Mr Pringle.

Despite the evidence provided by the whistleblower, families were still not told until after a review, commissioned by the HSE in Donegal in 2016, was completed in November 2018. Nor were Brandon’s victims assessed for trauma.

“This reluctance [to take action] resulted in a less than robust approach to ensuring the ongoing safety and wellbeing of the residents ... for at least two years,” says the NIRP report. “The review team are … concerned that the impact of Brandon’s behaviour on each of the residents … has not been fully understood by those who have responsibility of caring for them.”

When the review did not tally with the whistleblower’s documentation provided to the HSE’s national office, NIRP was commissioned to investigate, says Mr Pringle. “When I first raised this in 2016, I didn’t think we’d still be here five years later trying to get answers for the families.”

The HSE declined to comment on the issue. The NIRP did not respond to requests for comment.

The Garda has sent a file on the case to the Director of Public Prosecutions.