While we are busy apologising for the past we are creating tomorrow’s scandals
The conditions that created the Tuam mother and baby home scandal continue today in the form of unaccountable authorities, misplaced values and warped priorities
A shrine on the site of the former mother and baby home in Tuam, Co Galway, where babies and toddlers were found buried. Photograph: Peter Nicholls/Reuters
It’s the details of the stories that shock: children growing up in institutions in grinding poverty, vulnerable youngsters damaged or dead after falling through the cracks of a system, young mothers unable to live in their family homes.
The era of mother-and-baby homes or today’s Ireland?
The scandal of the Tuam mother-and-baby home dominated headlines again this week, accompanied by a suffocating shame at what was allowed to happen in this country. As we struggle to absorb the gravity of that situation it’s tempting to comfort ourselves with the idea that State-sanctioned mistreatment of citizens is historic.
“We had better deal with this now,” Taoiseach Enda Kenny told the Dáil, “because if we do not some other Taoiseach will be standing here in 20 years, saying, ‘If only we knew then,’ ‘If only we had done then.’ What will be his or her then is our now. Now we do know.”
There is still a mindset that vulnerable people are largely responsible for their own problems and misfortune
Yet very modern scandals are unfolding in the here and now under the watch of the State. They are not newly unearthed revelations. They have not convulsed our political establishment. Nor have they jolted a society baffled at the warped values of a previous generation.
In a sense the legacy of Tuam – and our wider history of coercive confinement – casts a shadow that is still here in the form of unaccountable authorities, misplaced values and warped priorities. There is still a mindset that vulnerable people are largely responsible for their own problems and misfortunes.
How else to explain ongoing scandals about the treatment of, and responsibility for, children who are damaged in our care system, of children whose potential is squandered while they wait for vital therapies, or those who spend their childhoods in our bleak and dehumanising direct-provision system?
When they combed through Danny Talbot’s belongings at the hostel where he lived, everything fitted in a single black plastic bag.
There wasn’t much; some clothes and hair gel. There was also a creased photograph of him as an eight-year-old on the day of his Holy Communion, smiling broadly, his hands clasped together.
“He kept that photo with him through everything,” says Sandra Lamb, his aunt. “Through all the hostels and places he stayed in over the years he kept that dear to him.”
Danny’s childhood in the care system was scarred by neglect, ill treatment and missed opportunities by State services to intervene.
Teachers at his school were so concerned about Danny’s state that they wrote to social services. They worried about his home and how he had “a knowledge of sexual activity way beyond his years”.
By the time he was taken into care he was deeply troubled and on a downward spiral into drugs, homelessness and crime.
His life slipped quietly away at 19 years of age, from a drug overdose, in much the same way that he slipped through the cracks of a chaotic and largely dysfunctional child-protection service.
Of course we care about vulnerable children in the care system nowadays. Many front-line social workers do heroic work each day. We spend millions on care services. We now have a dedicated agency to tackle deficiencies in the sector.
But we don’t care enough. Ireland can afford a reasonable system of care for vulnerable children. It chooses not to pursue this for a simple reason: the lives of troubled children, usually from chaotic families in deprived communities, are not a priority in any public policy.
Tusla, the child and family agency, was supposed to put children to the fore of State services. From the outset it has been starved of funding and political will. It limps along with enough resources to function but nowhere near enough to shift the agency’s focus away from firefighting and towards the resource-intensive, preventive work so urgently required.
A lack of early intervention. Too much focus on emergency cases. Poor co-operation between State agencies
A new State inquiry is about to be launched into the treatment of “Grace”, who suffered within a care system that was meant to protect her. But we don’t have to wait for the findings. We already know how the child-protection system is failing some of the most vulnerable young people.
A lack of early intervention. Too much focus on emergency cases. Poor co-operation between State agencies. A system responding too late to neglect and welfare concerns. A front-line service struggling to deal with the volume of referrals.
These issues may sound familiar. That’s because they feature in the recommendations of almost 30 inquiries into the State’s handling of child-abuse cases over the past two decades. They are in the recommendations of the Kilkenny incest case, the Kelly Fitzgerald case in Co Mayo, the McColgan case in Co Sligo, and case reviews into the deaths of children such as Tracey Fay and Danny Talbot.
So why hasn’t there been systemic change? Much of it is down to a lack of accountability. Accountability is not a simple demand that heads must roll: it comes through a system and culture in which someone is in charge and takes responsibility.
There is no record of senior officials being dismissed or reprimanded in connection with any of these scandals. In the world of Irish public services nobody seems responsible for anything. Nobody learns, and the patterns repeat.
Natasha and Minahil
Natasha and Minahil don’t need reminding that their lives are very different from those of Irish children.
The 14-year-olds spent much of their childhoods in a mobile-home park behind a security barrier on the edge of Athlone, in Co Westmeath.
They are among the 1,600 or more children who have grown up in a direct-provision system for asylum seekers. This form of communal accommodation has been consistently criticised for the long time people spend there, for overcrowding and for the inappropriate environment.
“You don’t have the normal life of a child,” Natasha says . “When I look back on my life I’m going to know that I didn’t do the things I wanted to do because I’m stuck here . . . It’s like being stuck in a cage.”
After more than five years in the system Natasha has secured permanent residency. Minahil recently secured her status after about nine years. They are both settled now and preparing for their Junior Certificates outside the direct-provision system but feel strongly that it needs to change
“It makes our parents think they’re low and that it’s their fault we live like this,” Minahil says. “I don’t want them to feel like that. I think they do more than any parent could. They deserve a Nobel Prize.”
Intertwined with a systematic lack of accountability are skewed values that underpin public policies. The experiences of hundreds of young people in the direct-provision system have been documented in recent years by the United Nations and other organisations.
They paint a troubling picture of damage done to children by years of living in institutional accommodation, far from the atmosphere of a family home. Family poverty only adds to children’s exclusion from society.
Yet the State has repeatedly failed to improve conditions, despite overwhelming evidence that it is storing up problems for the future. So, if the system is toxic, dysfunctional and damaging, why has it been tolerated for so long by successive governments?
A clue lies in Government briefing papers that concede that, although the system is “not ideal”, improvements might raise the risk of asylum seekers in the UK moving here to avail of better conditions.
The system does not want asylum seekers
“Leaving aside the considerable difficulty in putting in place alternative reception conditions for those asylum seekers already here . . . the biggest concern would be the ‘pull factor’ involved,” the papers say.
In essence the system does not want asylum seekers. There is no mention of its international human-rights obligations or values. Instead it has established a system to keep the problem at bay.
We are finally, after a decade of promises, introducing a single application procedure, aimed at speeding up claim processing. It should mean that fewer lives get stuck in long-term limbo. Yet we are still waiting for wider reforms that would create a more humane and civilised setting for some of the world’s most vulnerable.
Megan Halvey-Ryan has scoliosis, an abnormal curvature of the spine. It has grown so acute that the 13-year-old finds it difficult to attend school.
“Megan is not great,” her mother says. “She’s very upset, and she is finding it hard to breathe and sleep.”
Ideally, children with scoliosis should be operated on between three and six months. After that the condition can deteriorate, making surgery more complex and potentially resulting in lifelong difficulties.
Waiting lists for surgery are between 15 to 18 months, according to the HSE. Two years ago Megan had a 20-degree curve. Now it has extended into a protruding S-shape.
She became the moving face of a recent RTÉ documentary chronicling the stories of those stuck on hospital waiting lists.
She was told by the HSE, before a recent Late Late Show appearance, that her surgery was finally due for this week. But it has been delayed yet again.
In Ireland, consistent child poverty almost doubled during the economic downturn, due in part to a series of regressive budgets.
It means that the crisis had a disproportionate impact on low-income and vulnerable groups without access to private care.
Evidence increasingly shows, to a frightening degree, how people’s postal codes and financial circumstances affect their health
It means that more and more low-income parents rely on a creaking public service to meet their children’s basic health needs, exacerbating inequalities in health and life expectancy.
Evidence increasingly shows, to a frightening degree, how people’s postal codes and financial circumstances affect their health: children living in deprived areas, for example, with an unskilled parent are far more likely to die earlier than those born to professionals in affluent areas, according to the Institute of Public Health.
Although there is plenty of rhetoric from political leaders around protecting the most vulnerable, it often isn’t matched in reality.
One argument is that the recession meant we had little choice but to make hard spending decisions. Many other European Union countries also had to cut spending. How did they manage in terms of social justice, and how does Ireland compare?
We can answer this question because the German-based Bertelsmann Foundation publishes an annual index of social injustice in the EU, using a broad set of objective measures. Ireland came out badly in its most recent report, last year. Most member states managed to get through the past seven or eight years without making social injustice very much worse than it was. Ireland, by contrast, was one of the worst performers. Social justice simply wasn’t on the agenda.
The most degrading part, Sandra Hanley-Hand says, was having to use the side entrance of the hotel with her children . “You weren’t allowed to walk in the main door,” she says .
She and her husband, Brendan, were homeless for 11 months after the house they rented was repossessed. They were rehoused in a series of hotels or hostel-style accommodation, along with their two children, Jasmine and Ryan. Keeping them in the same school meant catching up to eight buses a day.
Added to the uncertainty of moving from place to place was the chaos of living out of a suitcase in confined conditions. “My husband and my two kids . . . we have to eat, sleep and wash, all in the one room,” she told RTÉ last year. “It kills us, because we feel that we put our children into this situation.”
The number of homeless adults and children has reached a new high. About 2,400 children were in emergency accommodation at the end of January, stripped of the freedom, dignity and security that every child needs and deserves.
What this mean for a child is living in a single room with their parents, with nowhere to cook and eat, no room to play indoors, and no safe place to go outside.
Although a belated political focus on the problem is helping families and others move out of homelessness, the system is struggling to keep up with the volume of new homeless people.
There was a time in the early part of the last century when child homelessness was blamed on its being a “legacy of alien rule”. The disgrace, now, is all ours.
The failure to ensure that Nama was given an explicit social remit means it sank down the priority list
If a lack of accountability and skewed values are underlying issues, then misplaced priorities are another. We are told that a series of obstacles, such as a dysfunctional housing market, is preventing quick solutions. Yet in the 1940s and 1950s, when the country was on its knees, tens of thousands of social-housing units were built.
The failure to ensure that Nama was given an explicit social remit means it sank down the priority list during the downturn. So it is only now that thousands of homes have been promised over the coming years, long after the scale of new homelessness began to emerge.
John McDonald is haunted by his son Seán’s lost opportunities. If he had been able to afford speech therapy and other interventions, he believes, his son, who has autism, might be able to communicate better.
“It kills you,” he says. “There were missed opportunities over the space of five years to maximise his potential. It hurts to say it, but financially I wasn’t in a position to offer him speech and language therapy. I feel like I’ll live with it forever.”
McDonald struggled to get access to these services through the public system when his son was diagnosed. Forced to rely on HSE services, he says, he hit a brick wall of bureaucracy and excuses.
After threatening legal action he did eventually get access to therapy, but McDonald says it was sporadic and nowhere near enough.
Seán is now 14 and attends a special school. His father’s big worry is where his son will go when he turns 18. No service is available, he says.
“I know there are people in worse situations. But our focus is on providing for him. It’s just frustrating when you try to get a service . . . All you get is a bureaucracy saying no.”
Experts agree that early intervention is crucial. For children with autism especially, the right kind of support at the right time can help unlock some of the most restricting aspects of the condition.
All children with a suspected disability are legally entitled to have their needs assessed within six months. Once any needs are identified the services should follow. But in many parts of the country these services appear to be in crisis. Thousands wait years for interventions such as speech and language therapy.
That is just half the story. Although legislation provides for an assessment, there is no guarantee of services. No one is compelled to do anything. The only thing a Minister must do is “have regard to available resources”. The result is a queue for basic services and an underfunded system that’s unable to meet children’s needs.
There has been wringing of hands by the State, and hollow apologies, followed by the dead hand of change
The irony is that disability legislation passed a decade ago was supposed to replace charity with rights. Yet parents are still battling to secure the most basic services for their children.
Successive reports and inquiries have highlighted a careless waste of young people’s potential. There has been wringing of hands by the State, and hollow apologies, followed by the dead hand of change. Whistleblowers who tried to shine a light on injustice often had to endure bullying or intimidation.
It is a mindset not a million miles away from that which surrounded the unaccountable and authoritarian mother-and-baby homes, industrial schools and Magdalene laundries.
It should instil rage or despair, as the Tuam scandal has, but neither response is much use to vulnerable children. The challenge is to face up to what these children’s stories tell us about the State and to build a society that puts the needs of its most vulnerable young people at its heart.