Do we care for children or are we hypocrites?


Why was there no outcry over a recent inspection of foster care in a part of Dublin, asks BREDA O'BRIEN

HERE’S MY question. Are we really serious about safeguarding children in this Republic? If we are, how come there was no public outcry when a follow-up inspection of foster care by the Health Information and Quality Authority in the Health Service Executive North Central area of Dublin made findings like the following?

“Inspectors also found that foster carers that were deemed unsuitable to care for children were not removed from the local foster carer register and as such, could potentially foster children from outside the Local Health Area. Inspectors found that where the Social Work Department had identified serious risks to children in their placement, not all of these children were removed from these placements.”

Children end up in foster care when they cannot live with family either short- or long-term (be it due to illness in the family, death of a parent, neglect, abuse or violence). In short, they are highly vulnerable.

The current report was a follow-up to a damning report in 2010 and did find some improvements. These included greater numbers of social workers, fewer children with no social worker allocated to their cases and better record-keeping.

However, the report also found the Children First guidelines were not being adhered to and that some children were still at risk.

Allegations made a decade ago were still being investigated. Some allegations were listed as “inconclusive” because the resources were not available to investigate them quickly enough.

Coincidentally, a consultation document, Listen to Our Voices: Hearing Children and Young People Living in the Care of the State, was published this week.

The report describes how disappointing it was that so few children in foster care were informed about the consultations, because of the absence of a “comprehensive database of young people in care”.

The only mechanism for contacting young people was through social workers, but the report acknowledges “not every young person is receptive to information coming from their social worker”.

Non-statutory agencies had to be enlisted to encourage young people in foster care to participate, but despite an “arduous recruitment process”, young people in foster care are vastly under-represented.

Ninety per cent of the children (5,290) in State care are in foster care. Despite efforts, only 58 could be consulted and only 30 were aged between 13-17.

Think about it. The State cannot even find these young people to listen to them, while the normal conduit, the social worker, is acknowledged to be someone the young person is unlikely to be open to hearing. The report later acknowledges “the participants had a predominantly negative attitude to and experience of social workers”.

One young woman interviewed at length told harrowing stories of 20 to 30 placements, of being unable to get a placement close to her sister and only finding one social worker to whom she could relate over 10 years of care.

Contact with siblings was a huge issue. “In a number of cases, they did not even know where their siblings lived, which was also a source of considerable sadness for the young people concerned.”

So, where is the evidence that we really care about children? Certainly, most children are happy with their foster families and those families care. What about the rest of us? If we really don’t care, are we not guilty of hypocrisy? Stunning hypocrisy, of the kind usually attributed to the Catholic Church?

Ah, there she goes, I can hear people say. This is about a defence of the Catholic Church, more “whataboutery”. Cardinal Cahal Daly himself described “whataboutery” as the “commonest form of moral evasion in Ireland today”.

I don’t want to engage in “whataboutery”. It is only when we can say abuse of children is abhorrent no matter where it occurs, and by whom, that we can begin to take responsibility and perhaps institute change.

I have sympathy with the view that abuse committed by a priest or religious represents a deeper betrayal – something close to sacrilege. Jesus used very strong language about people who damage the “little ones”, so when his ministers and representatives either damage children or cover up damage, it is much worse.

There is so much I would change about the church I belong to. When the Vatican hides behind the structures of political diplomacy, instead of first asking, “How would Jesus act here?”, I cringe in shame.

The episcopal structure which means bishops can choose to adhere to child protection guidelines or not is profoundly dysfunctional. Even now, we cannot be sure all the dioceses are adhering to child-protection guidelines. There is no guarantee audits will be published, much less that there will be a general confession of wrongdoing that is not dragged out by commission after commission.

The reality that lay people only have consultative status in their church, and that an ordained elite makes the decisions, is completely wrong. Why is the Vatican a sea of black suits and soutanes, with nary a woman to be seen?

Yet the fact remains a series of reports has shown that in 2011, vulnerable children are at risk where their care is the responsibility of the State. Over 200 have died since 2000.

That is not “whataboutery”, but a troubling reality for anyone who aspires to a new and meaningful Republic.