The Irish Times view on child protection: what can go wrong

The review conducted into “Mary’s” case showed what could and did go wrong within a secretive healthcare system lacking public accountability

A review of the case of “Mary”, who was fostered as a baby with her grandparents in rural Ireland in 2000, before finally being removed from them 14 years later, shows what can go wrong when health administrators either don’t care sufficiently about vulnerable children or are fearful of taking action. Photograph: iStock

A review of the case of “Mary”, who was fostered as a baby with her grandparents in rural Ireland in 2000, before finally being removed from them 14 years later, shows what can go wrong when health administrators either don’t care sufficiently about vulnerable children or are fearful of taking action. Photograph: iStock

 

When past horror stories about the abusive treatment of children – inside and outside of families – emerge into the light, there is a tendency to take refuge in the notion that it could not happen today. Unfortunately, it can. And it does. But it occurs with much less frequency because of reforming legislation, public awareness and new administrative and social care structures.

The veil of secrecy began to lift and it finally became possible to report on decisions about taking children into care

A review of the case of “Mary”, who was fostered as a baby with her grandparents in rural Ireland in 2000, before finally being removed from them 14 years later, shows what can go wrong when health administrators either don’t care sufficiently about vulnerable children or are fearful of taking action. Tusla, the newly established Child and Family Agency, commissioned the damning review, reported in this newspaper on Monday, when it took over responsibility from the Health Service Executive in 2014. The HSE, in turn, had inherited the case from the local health board in 2005.

It is important to put the case into a political and social context. Up until 2013, reporting on family law cases and on taking children into care by State agencies was banned. Catholic dioceses remained in denial about the extent of child sexual abuse. But the veil of secrecy began to lift and it finally became possible to report on decisions about taking children into care. Frances Fitzgerald, then minister for children, signed regulations that permitted social workers to make unannounced visits to family homes and she opened up HSE files to public scrutiny. A referendum on children’s rights followed, along with the establishment of Tusla.

The review conducted into “Mary’s” case showed what could and did go wrong within a secretive healthcare system lacking public accountability. Many other distressing failures of care towards vulnerable children took place during those years. In some cases, neighbours ignored the abuse and communities turned away. The situation is improved today. But horror can always return in the absence of acute public awareness.

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