Abuse allegations: Who protects our most vulnerable?

Changing an inadequate system of social care will require future investment and strict oversight

 

The story of a profoundly intellectually disabled and non-verbal woman called “Grace”, who was allegedly sexually and physically abused in foster care and effectively abandoned by the Health Service Executive, raises important questions for voters as the general election approaches.

They involve the kind of society that people wish to see develop; the division of available resources between tax cuts and services and issues of public oversight and accountability. Later today, the Cabinet will be asked to appoint a Commission of Inquiry to investigate what exactly went on.

Efforts were made by the HSE to defuse this controversy before the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee by insisting a full apology had been made to the woman involved and to her birth mother. No apology was issued.

The HSE then referred to a planned apology being “lost in the communication to staff”. Concerned ‘whistleblowers’ believed it had been an attempt to discredit them.

This case and its implications go far beyond the question of an HSE apology or how an Oireachtas committee was misled. The apparent failure by management within the former South Eastern Health Board, over many years, to protect “Grace” and other vulnerable individuals from alleged sexual and physical assault at this foster home represents the kernel of the matter. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that some stakeholders would walk away from the on-going mistreatment of intellectually disabled citizens.

Complaints of criminal negligence have been lodged against those who placed children at this foster home. An investigation that could delay the work of a Commission of Inquiry is currently underway, involving a deputy Garda Commissioner.

In view of the fact that five separate Garda files relating to suspected offences at this establishment were referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions and no prosecutions followed, what outcome can be expected? The Courts – and by extension the Garda – are not equipped to deal with cases involving profound intellectual disability and a lack of verbal evidence.

The HSE and the South Eastern Health Board failed in their duty of care to ‘Grace’. But successive governments and society as a whole have questions to answer. Legislation was passed but not activated; State funding was cut and advocacy services remained fragmented. Reports from health watchdog Hiqa and voluntary agencies complained about abuses of disabled people within institutional settings.

Changing that system of social care will require future investment and strict oversight. An historic pattern whereby vulnerable people in institutions, be they children, unmarried mothers, intellectually disabled persons or older people were mistreated is being challenged. Citizens should consider their social priorities when they vote.

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