Key questions in Grace abuse scandal must finally be answered

Last month’s long-awaited independent report into the HSE’s handling of the Grace foster abuse scandal has given Government a clear blueprint for what its state inquiry into the case must examine, writes Political Correspondent Fiachra Ó Cionnaith

Conor Dignam, Kathleen Lynch and John Deasy

FEARS that files may have been “deliberately destroyed” amid persistent cover-up claims.

Calls for two unpublished inquiries to be released immediately, as doing so will not “fatally” wound future criminal cases.

Potential conflicts of interest from officials now in senior positions, who were central to the scandal when it first occurred.

A still-unexplained two-year block on releasing Freedom of Information documents on her own daughter to the mother of the woman allegedly forced to endure two decades of physical and sexual abuse in a foster home.

And, crucially, fresh questions over who exactly allowed it all to happen and why at least four opportunities to remove a vulnerable woman from a dangerously abusive situation in 1996, 2001, 2004-05, and 2007 were delayed, not acted upon, and ultimately ignored.

Despite the legal jargon peppered throughout his report, you cannot accuse senior counsel Conor Dignam of pulling any punches.

Last month, after almost a year and a half of repeated delays, the Government moved a significant step closer to beginning a long-awaited state inquiry into an issue that, despite alleged attempts by those involved, is simply not going to go away.

A full 16 months after it was first called for by his predecessor and former Labour TD Kathleen Lynch, Disabilities Minister Finian McGrath published the lengthy 309-page report by Mr Dignam into the Grace foster abuse scandal.

The document is couched in carefully chosen legal phrases which on the surface appear to simply skirt around the reality of what took place.

In addition, it understandably takes no risks in over-stepping its terms of reference — which were specifically focused on how the HSE handled its investigations into what happened — meaning evidence of the alleged abuse itself has not been detailed.

However, despite its legally necessary limitations, the Dignam report is nothing short of a blow-by-blow account of the serious issues behind a scandal whose true scale has yet to be fully dragged out into the public spotlight.

The airing of these issues last month has now cleared the way for a long-awaited inquiry into what happened to finally be set up as planned by the start of December.

But just as importantly, it has provided a detailed blueprint for what this state inquiry needs to examine, not only in terms of the alleged abuse but how and why it was able to occur and seemingly remain hidden for two decades.

The Dignam report was requested by the Government in summer 2015 in response to disturbing allegations of serious sexual and physical abuse at a partially state-funded foster home in Waterford, where up to 47 children and teens with severe intellectual and physical disabilities were placed from the mid-1980s until 2013.

The most high-profile of these incidents relates to a mute woman given the pseudonym ‘Grace’, who was placed at the home between 1989 and 2009 and whose experiences are central to the allegations being made.

After concerns over the foster home were repeatedly raised by the Irish Examiner, RTÉ’s This Week programme, and Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil TDs John Deasy and John McGuinness in the previous Dáil’s public accounts committee, the then-disabilities minister Kathleen Lynch asked Mr Dignam to investigate claims of a cover-up of what happened, in June 2015.

While the investigation was asked not to examine the alleged abuse itself, as this had already been the subject of two HSE-commissioned reports, it was specifically tasked with reviewing the credibility of these two reports and the HSE’s own responses to repeated concerns about the home — issues which are now crucial to uncovering what happened.

Although Mr Dignam did not cast any personal claims against the authors of the previous Conal Devine Associates and Resilience Ireland reports into the case, which remain unpublished despite concluding in 2012 and 2014, it said the way in which both documents were procured could not “ensure the independence of those carrying out the review” — highlighting previous concerns over the role of former HSE officials linked to the scandal in the process.

The Dignam report further said both documents were ultimately “inadequate”, due in part to the terms of reference provided in both circumstances by HSE officials in the South-East, a point it said “gives rise to specific issues of concern” and meant “serious issues were not investigated as soon as possible”.

These “issues”, it noted, include “allegations of a cover-up, the alleged danger of a deliberate destruction of files, allegations the decisions were made by the HSE in the best interest of the HSE and not the service-user” and “an alleged threat to the funding” of an agency which employs the whistleblower who has highlighted the case.

To date, neither the Devine nor the Resilience Ireland report has been published by the HSE due to Garda concerns that such a move may impact on potential future criminal inquiries into the alleged abuse.

However, in a move that has caused fresh difficulties for the HSE and was at the time of going to press still unresolved, Mr Dignam said it is his view that publication would not “fatally interfere with a fair trial” — and crucially noted that while both reports were concluded by 2014 and therefore free to be published, the first time the Garda halting request emerged in files was in 2015, questioning the formal HSE position.

The details contained in the Devine and Resilience Ireland reports, how they were procured by the HSE, and whether they will be published, are crucial issues which the imminent state inquiry must now examine. But so too are the missed opportunities to address the alleged abuse — which are also highlighted in the Dignam document.

Throughout his own review of the previous reports, Mr Dignam notes that the local managers in the HSE and the South Eastern Health Board repeatedly failed to act on chances to move Grace from the alleged abuse, and while not drawing any conclusions specifically, he states this must be examined.

 

IN 1996, the report points out, a U-turn was made on a decision to remove Grace — who had just turned 18 — along with other vulnerable people placed with the foster family, after the foster father wrote a pleading letter to then-health minister Michael Noonan.

After Department of Health officials asked the South Eastern Health Board’s three-person panel overseeing the move for information on the issue, a decision was made to leave Grace in the home. Worryingly, however, Mr Dignam noted that no records are available to explain the rationale for this decision.

In 2001, when officials were informed Grace was still at the home a full decade after serious abuse concerns were first raised, a decision was again made to put her on a priority waiting list for a new home. However, nothing happened, a situation which was repeated in 2004-05 when the mistake was realised.

Two years later, in 2007, Grace’s birth mother requested her daughter’s files under the Freedom of Information Act, at which point officials are said to have once again realised the vulnerable woman was still at the home.

However, instead of acting immediately, the response to the straightforward FoI request was delayed two full years for unknown reasons.

While insisting the situation demands answers, Mr Dignam did not reference the fact that four individuals who were local health service managers in the South-East in the 1990s had at that time been promoted to senior national positions in the HSE and child protection agency Tusla — roles they continue to hold.

Although for some, the missing records suggest a cover-up over what happened, Mr Dignam’s report is careful not to draw any conclusions on the matter.

However, he pointedly notes that the cover-up claim itself has not yet been examined and that alleged evidence pointing towards the conclusion must form a central part of the upcoming state inquiry.

While stressing that he is not making any judgment on the issue, one of the most eye-catching of Mr Dignam’s 30 inquiry terms of reference recommendations is for an examination of whether “any deliberate suppression or attempted suppression of information” by HSE officials took place.

He added this should have “particular reference” to the period 2009 to 2016 — the seven years since the whistleblower flagged concerns over what happened, drew high-profile media attention, and demanded clarity on who is to blame.

When it was published last month, Mr Dignam’s detailed report into the Grace foster abuse scandal — and how key sections of the HSE and its predecessor the South Eastern Health Board repeatedly failed to address it — quickly drew attention, before fading just as quickly from public view.

But while that unavoidable news cycle necessity was a cause of concern for some, it is worth stressing that the 309-page document was never intended as a mere media talking point.

The issues highlighted by Mr Dignam, alongside those underlined repeatedly by the whistleblower central to the case, have finally brought clarity for what the inquiry into the scandal must now examine in terms not just of the abuse itself but how the HSE failed to respond to the situation. For now, they remain cloaked in intrigue and unanswered questions.

However, due to Mr Dignam’s thorough examination of the health system’s response to the Grace scandal, there is now not just a reason but a clear blueprint for Government to find the long-delayed answers as part of its imminent state inquiry.

Foster abuse whistleblower wants reports published immediately

Whistleblower at the centre of the scandal has since 2009 repeatedly called for full openness on what happened to Grace, writes Fiachra Ó Cionnaith, Political Correspondent

THE whistleblower who first highlighted the Grace foster abuse scandal has called on the HSE to immediately publish two unseen reports into the controversy.

The individual, who cannot be named due to strict protected disclosure rules, made the comments to the Irish Examiner just 48 hours before a Government-imposed deadline for when a decision on the matter must be made runs out.

Since first highlighting the alleged abuse seven years ago in 2009, the whistleblower at the centre of the scandal has repeatedly called for full openness on what happened to Grace and whether 46 other vulnerable people may also have been abused.

The whistleblower’s call for the release of both reports comes after a number of disputed claims she and her agency have been the subject of attempts to silence their concerns over what happened.

After the publication of the Conor Dignam report late last month, Disabilities Minister Finian McGrath said the HSE-commissioned Conal Devine Associates and Resilience Ireland investigations into the abuse must now be published as suggested by Mr Dignam.

And with the HSE given until this Wednesday to act, despite repeated Garda views the documents may impact on possible criminal convictions, the whistleblower said the files now need to be made public in order to allow the full extent of prevous inquiries to be made known.

“I would welcome the publication of the Devine and Resilience Ireland reports, particularly if publication removes the perceived barrier to disciplinary action against those responsible for failing vulnerable people and leaving them at risk,” said the whistleblower.

“Also, if it allows us to learn from their mistakes to ensure it doesn’t happen again. This is why we sought an inquiry in 2009.”

The whistleblower added that potential Government plans to hold a short interim inquiry into what happened to Grace before examining wider issues at the foster home deserve consideration to ensure full transparency is achieved.

“I would also be open to the suggestion that the [imminent Government inquiry] commission might produce an interim report, if it ensures the public gets long awaited answers as to how this could possibly have vbeen allowed to happen as quickly as possible.”

The whistleblower’s call for the release of both reports comes after a number of disputed claims she and her agency have been the subject of attempts to silence their concerns over what happened. As previously reported by this newspaper and highlighted by Fine Gael TD John Deasy during a Dáil exchange late last month, after seeking further information about the case in 2011 the whistleblower was the subject of a legal letter from the HSE’s local area in the South-East.

The letter — which was sent to the whistleblower, her agency and another state body — alleged she was unfit to be involved in the Grace case and should be removed from the role, due to concerns raised by a new official with the HSE.

However, when that official was asked about the complaint by the whistleblower, the official said the suggestion was entirely “fabricated” and signed a written letter entirely disputing the legal letter.

Separately, at the start of the year the previous Dáil’s public accounts committee was provided with evidence the whistleblower’s agency was the subject of a number of funding cuts in the years after it began raising concerns over the alleged abuse.

However, the HSE has argued the reductions occurred in line with other service reductions in the area during the same period.

The whistleblower further claimed that attempts to obtain vital documents relating to her client have been blocked since she first raised concerns in 2009, with only limited information about what happened made available to date.

The whistleblower said this underlines the need to publish the Devine and Resilience Ireland reports as soon as possible in order to ensure all information about what happened is released.

Whistleblower at the centre of the scandal has since 2009 repeatedly called for full openness on what happened to Grace

Pressure mounting on the HSE

HSE director general Tony O’Brien has been given until Wednesday to clarify if two reports will be released, writes Fiachra Ó Cionnaith, Political Correspondent

THE HSE is facing mounting pressure to release two unpublished reports into the Grace foster abuse scandal after an independent review found releasing them would not “fatally” wound any future criminal case.

HSE director general Tony O’Brien has been given until this Wednesday to clarify whether the high-profile documents will be released after the call was made by the Conor Dignam report and backed up by Disabilities Minister Finian McGrath.

The debate on whether the reports should be made public is just one of a number of complex legal difficulties facing Mr O’Brien, which also includes an inability to discipline individuals allegedly involved in what happened while investigations continue as they are entitled to “due process”.

HSE chief Tony O’Brien faces a number of complex legal difficulties amid the fallout from the Grace foster home scandal.

In a detailed analysis of how the HSE and the then South Eastern Health Board failed to fully address serious concerns of severe sexual and physical abuse in a Waterford foster home between the mid-1980s and 2013 released late last month, independent senior counsel Conor Dignam said health service officials should release two previously commissioned files into what happened.

The request was in relation to the Conor Devine Associates and Resilience Ireland reports into the alleged abuse and why it was not stopped despite numerous opportunities to do so.

While both reports were commissioned by the HSE, concluding in 2012 and 2014 respectively, the HSE has repeatedly insisted it has been told by gardaí not to release them as there are two criminal investigations — on the abuse and another on claims of “reckless endangerment” by named HSE officials — already under way.

However, after reviewing the case for the past 16 months, Mr Dignam concluded there is no legal impediment to publication and that such a release is unlikely to “fatally” wound any criminal inquiries.

In his conclusions, the independent senior counsel found: “While of course there is a risk involved, publication of the reports at this stage is unlikely to fatally interfere with a fair trial, if such a trial ever occurs...

“Given that the party referred to above [an individual related to the case] has not raised any objections to publication subject to redaction, there does not seem to me to be any civil law bar on publication,” he added.

The conclusion led to Disabilities Minister Finian McGrath calling on the HSE to publish the Devine and Resilience Ireland reports by this Wednesday.

However, to date the HSE has made no decision on whether it is in a position to act on the request.

It is one of a number of legal quagmires facing senior HSE officials who are entirely unconnected to the abuse claims and have been tasked with addressing the issues central to the case.

In meetings with the Dáil’s cross-party public accounts committee before February’s election, HSE director general said the key problem with publication is that gardaí specifically told him not to release files at this stage.

The HSE is separately in a complex legal situation over what potential action might be taken against individuals who were responsible for Grace and who are now in high-ranking positions with the HSE and state child protection agency Tusla.

While repeated calls have been made for those involved in the case to be suspended or disciplined for what happened, Mr O’Brien, and recently appointed HSE head of social care provision Dr Cathal Morgan, have repeatedly said employment law means they cannot act.

Speaking on RTÉ Radio’s News at One after the Dignam report’s publication last month, Dr Morgan said it “wouldn’t be fair” to discipline individuals — some named in the Devine and Resilience Ireland reports — at this stage as “everybody’s entitled to due process”.

HSE director general Tony O’Brien has been given until Wednesday to clarify if two reports will be released

Timeline

1983-95

A total of 46 children and young adults, most with intellectual disabilities, are placed with foster family in Waterford.

1992

South East Health Board becomes aware of concerns about the standards of care in foster home, but continued to send children to home.

1995

Following concerns raised by the Brothers of Charity in the UK, who also used the home for foster care, placements by the then health board stop. The concerns centre around allegations of sexual abuse of the children. However, one child, ‘Grace’ who was placed there full-time, remained in the home.

1996

SEHB decides to move Grace from home.

1996

The foster father writes a letter to then health minister Micheal Noonan, who then referred the matter to his officials and junior minister Austin Currie.

1996

Following the intervention, Grace is ultimately left in the home and remains there until 2009.

2009

On foot of whistleblower concerns about Grace’s care, in which she displayed sexualised behaviour, she is removed from the foster home and moved to an “appropriate” care setting. Gardaí and HSE begin investigations.

2012

Conal Devine is commissioned to conduct an investigation into the foster home and Grace’s care and produce a report. His €100,000 report has not yet been published.

2013

Another child is only finally removed from the home in 2013, despite all of the concerns and investigations. It is later claimed that the child is a private patient.

2014

The PAC first hears of issues around the procurement of services relating to reports into foster home.

2015

Documents obtained by the PAC allege some of the most “savage rape and abuse” of those in the care of the home. Grace was found to be adopting sexual positions on the command of a phrase.

2015

Calls for a commission of investigation come as PAC hears a “clique of HSE managers” covered up allegations of abuse.

Jan 2016

Irish Examiner reveals the HSE finally admitted liability in relation to failures of care at foster home. However, claims of an apology given to Grace are contested.

Feb 2016

HSE is caught misleading Irish Examiner and PAC over apology claims, and eventually apologises for doing so.

Feb 2016

After 10 days of controversy, health ministers Leo Varadkar and Kathleen Lynch relent and announce commission of inquiry.

Jun 2016

Conor Dignam scoping report due to Government on foster home allegations.

Nov 2016

Dignam report is published by Disablities Minister Finian McGrath.

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