The Matt Talbot Adolescent Service treats 200 young addicts a year in Munster — but an ongoing HSE review may jeopardise its funding and its work, says Michael Clifford.
The treatment of addiction is highly complex, and doubly so when the addiction afflicts young people.
To that extent, the Matt Talbot Adolescent Service does invaluable work in the Munster region. The MTAS treats over 200 teenagers and young adults every year for addiction and related problems.
The service includes day care and educational facilities, and a residential centre that is one of the very few in the country to provide a service for adolescents.
Outwardly, the organisation has attracted many plaudits. Behind the walls of its three centres in Cork City and West Cork however, there has been much unhappiness from a growing number of employees about culture, practice and the effect this is having on clients.
The MTAS mission statement lays out its priorities. “Our belief is that the welfare of the young person in paramount; and in the dignity of all young people urges us to embrace a holistic approach and to seek to realise their full intellectual, spiritual, emotional, social, cultural, and physical potential.
“We endeavour to ensure that the welfare of staff is paramount in relation to their working environment.”
An investigation by the Irish Examiner has established that a number of staff in MTAS, HSE personnel, and others aware of the workings of the agency are deeply unhappy with its current environment.
It should be stressed that there have been no findings against anybody in MTAS and a HSE “review” has not yet delivered its report.
However, the HSE has been in receipt of at least four protected disclosures from staff in recent months.
The allegations in the disclosures include:
Another person is under long-term suspension in MTAS in highly unusual circumstances. And a crucial internal review, conducted by MTAS in 2016, was not furnished to the HSE over a two-year period despite repeated requests for it.
MTAS was established in 1999. It grew out of an organisation affiliated with the Catholic Church that provided services for troubled teenagers.
Through its first decade in existence it established a reputation for working with youths with addiction problems.
The seven-person board is chaired by Christy Cooney, former president of the GAA. He joined the board in October 2014 and took over as chair in June 2015. He is also a member of the board of the aid agency, Goal.
From the late 2000s until 2014, the CEO of the organisation was John Beasley, an experienced manager who had worked in the corporate world up until his retirement when he took up the role in MTAS. He was well regarded inside and outside the organisation and fulfilled the CEO role on a part-time basis three days a week.
His successor was appointed in May 2015 following an open competition for the job. Patrick Relihan is a former priest who left the priesthood the year before his appointment.
He had been a school chaplain inthe Cloyne diocese. According to his LinkedIn page, he has a diploma in applied chemistry and acquired a batchelor in theology degree, the latter from a university in Rome. Since his appointment he has also acquired a diploma in management in 2016.
Mr Relihan’s appointment coincided with plans to expand the organisation and attempt to source funding outside of the traditional funders, principally the HSE.
Attempts to contact Mr Relihan for comment about the HSE review proved unsuccessful.
The health body contributes in the region of €1.25m per annum to MTAS, accounting for over two-thirds of total funding. In pursuit of these plans, Mr Relihan was appointed CEO on a full-time basis, rather than the part-time status of his predecessor.
Six months after the new CEO was appointed, an organisational review of MTAS was conducted. Among the recommendations from this was for a clinical review of the services.
The Irish Examiner understands that the individual who was involved in the former was also appointed to conduct the latter review. One issue that the HSE is examining is whether there was a tender for the clinical review.
Around this time, in mid-2016, asenior member of staff was suspended. The staff member was subjected to a disciplinary hearing but there was no definitive outcome from it. The suspension has included a period of over a year without pay, but following interventions the staff member was restored to full pay in late 2018.
The staff member remains suspended on full pay and has now initiated a High Court action over how the case was handled. The position was subsequently filled by the person who had conducted both the organisational and clinical reviews.
The clinical review was not furnished to the HSE when requested in 2017. Further attempts to gain sight of the document were also unsuccessful. Staff at MTAS were not provided with a copy either.
Issues around how this clinical review was conducted and what exactly it said prompted dissatisfaction in the HSE which in turn led to the current investigation.
Since the commencement of the investigation last May, four employees have come forward with protected disclosures. These, which were all made separately and concern different issues, allied to the long-running dispute with the fifth employee, are believed to have heightened concerns in the HSE.
As of now, nothing has been proven and no allegations have been officially substantiated.
The chair of MTAS, Christy Cooney, told the Irish Examiner there is nothing “abnormal” in what he terms the review by the HSE.
“It’s a review, not an investigation,” he said. He declined to comment on any specific allegations or the submission of any protected disclosures from employees.
The MTAS employs around 40 people in a service that is people-heavy, sensitive, and focused on addressing complex needs of vulnerable young people. That there appears to be such disharmony within its ranks does not auger well for the quality of service available to its clients.
As the organisation’s missionstatement lays out, the welfare of the young clients is paramount, and by extension their welfare is to a largeextent dependant on the welfare of the staff.
The HSE investigation was delayed on at least two occasions since August 2018 but finally got under way before the summer. It is expected to furnish the board with its report in the next week or so.
There are a number of possible outcomes. The investigation could conclude that everything is being done in a fitting and proper manner within MTAS. Or it could recommend that a few minor issues be dealt with through different governance practices.
Alternatively, if serious issues are deemed to have arisen, it is open to the HSE to withdraw funding.
Such an outcome would have devastating consequences for a vital service for hundreds of vulnerable young people and their families.