Grace files: Will this inquiry finally speak out for the girl without a voice?

A lack of humanity characterises the case of Grace, an intellectually disabled girl the State viewed as a complex case file that had to be ultimately hidden, writes Claire O’Sullivan.

Grace files: Will this inquiry finally speak out for the girl without a voice?

IN THE report, they call her SU1.

It makes her sound like a model of car and as you read the Conal Devine report, the irony isn’t lost on you as everyone seemed to disregard her humanity.

Grace is what she has been called since the Irish Examiner began reporting on two whistleblowers’ fight for justice for this girl. It was the first step in reclaiming this forgotten girl’s humanity.

Even before birth, she was unwanted. Her mum was a single mother who had planned to give up her for adoption while pregnant.

An adoption was in train but when she was born with profound intellectual disabilities, her adoption fell through.

Instead, the baby was sent to a residential home for children with disabilities at around six months old.

Within a few years, it became clear that Grace would never be able to speak.

In her formative years, she was moved between different foster families with one seemingly stable arrangement falling apart when their own relationship broke down.

In 1989, Grace, now aged 11, was moved to a foster family in an isolated part of Waterford and to the nearest special school.

There is no evidence that the health board assessed the suitability of the home or the foster parents or that even references were sought under the 1983 boarding out regulation. Grace was likely in early puberty.

Staying with this family was supposed to be a short-term arrangement when something more suitable was found. It wasn’t to be.

We now know that this family have been linked to the neglect of up to 40 children and young adults over a 20-year period.

Soon after she arrived, she stopped attending school. The principal was told it was because of transport problems but nobody in social services, who were charged with her care, questioned why she wasn’t in school or tried to overcome the transport problems.

For the next six years she remained in the care of this family. Foster care reviews should have taken place every six months. They didn’t.

In 1992, documents show that social services sought a residential place for Grace in her birth mother’s home town. There are handwritten references to two home visits in 1994 but little else.

It seemed this girl, who couldn’t speak and who only had the State to look after her needs, had been willingly pushed to one side and forgotten about.

In 1995, after a psychological evaluation in which she was described as “content” it was decided that 17-year-old Grace should attend a day service as she needed more stimulation and contact with others.

Her foster father’s comments to social workers are telling: he thought the “workshop” was a waste of time as “there was nothing could be done with her”.

Within months, staff were concerned by sexualised behaviour. The young girl, who was classed as “highly dependent” had multiple bruises on her thin body.

A home visit around that time also recorded how she stripped off her clothes when she went home in the evening and within weeks, day service staff noted how she “stripped herself off for no apparent reason” or at the sound of a certain phrase.

She was also “wolfing down food”, stealing the dinners of others around her and headbutting other kids.

There is no evidence that the bruising and “chaotic behaviour” was investigated by social services other than being informally raised with the foster parents. Nobody seemed to care.

But then in 1997, a parent made a complaint that her daughter had been abused while in respite at the foster home where Grace had lived.

Key professionals met to discuss Grace in April and agreed she ought to be removed from the foster home as she could be at risk.

The family went berserk, however, saying that they’d appeal the decision: Grace couldn’t just move out like that, they said, as their grandson would miss her.

They lost the initial appeal but wrote to the then Minister for Health, Michael Noonan, asking him for help.

“At present, she resides in a family home, enjoys a happy and secure life, goes to the seaside, shopping and out for a meal and gets individual treatment for her special needs,” he wrote.

His department officials wrote to the then health board seeking information on the case and were told it was under review.

Six months after the health board had said that Grace should be moved out of the foster home for her personal safety, she was still living there.

Because of the department intervention, a second case conference was held and it was somehow decided that there was no evidence that the young girl had been ill-treated or that her welfare wasn’t being met by the family. How did they come to this conclusion?

No other child was to be placed in the home but somehow, and this is crucial, it was decided that Grace would remain.

In its investigation into the wholesale neglect by the State of this young girl, the Devine report could not elicit “the rationale for the key decision not to move” Grace.

“There is some dispute in recollection between professionals” as to why the decision to move her was overturned, it noted.

Instead it was decided a new key worker would be assigned to the young girl, she would transfer to Adult Mental Handicap Services as she was nearly 18 and would no longer be in the care of the foster care team.

Legal experts were also to look into making her a ward of court.

However, Grace was to be abandoned once more. Various staff were to follow up on decisions made at that meeting but there was confusion about who was to do what and lines of accountability were described as blurred.

There is no record of the actions agreed being followed up and Grace was not made a Ward of Court.

Meanwhile, at her day service, staff remained worried. Her attendance was poor and when she came back after prolonged absences, she often had bruises. One day, she came in with a black eye.

Between 1996 and 2009, there was no shortage of social care meetings. Discussions were held around moving Grace into residential care as her foster parents were ageing but every time, the foster family successfully blocked the move.

The foster mother argued Grace’s birth mother had to give full written permission. This argument seemed to work and they’d back off.

IN 1999, there was contact between social services and her birth mother about moving her into a residential home.

Her mother, now living in London, had not met her now 21-year-old daughter since birth, wasn’t sure about the transfer as it was a centre near her home town. She requested photos of her daughter but not to meet her.

Meanwhile, her foster mother pleaded with the health board that she needed the money she earned from looking after Grace: carer’s allowance, disability allowance, electricity allowance and telephone rental.

In 2004, she was taken off a waiting list for residential care, when her foster mother was queried about whether she should remain on it.

It’s unclear from her case file if the health board worker had even looked at her case file and ascertained the back story before they made that telephone call to the foster mother.

Three years later, her birth mother became involved again and gave permission for Grace to go into residential care but now HSE staff disagreed on whether she needed to become a ward of court first or not.

In 2008, Grace’s day services reported further concerns: she had “scratches on her back and also red marks on her spine and possibly friction marks that had no identified cause”.

That year, it was also reported that she “presented unkempt” and that her teeth and hair were in poor condition.

It would emerge that her teeth were rotting in her head, she wasn’t taken to GP appointments and when day services arranged holiday breaks for her, her foster family wouldn’t agree.

In the background, wrangling between different health service staff over whether Grace needed to be made ward of court before she could be put in a residential placement continued. Her foster mother said she would “rather die” than hand her over to residential care.

It was now 11 years since a case conference had recommended she be removed from the family and made a ward of court.

Reading the Grace reports, it seems like staff at the day care centre were the only people fighting for Grace, a now young woman who had no other voice.

The day centre staff continued to note the bruises and the extended absences. On March 27, 2009, they saw bruising on her thighs and breasts and immediately sent her to hospital where hospital staff reported the suspected abuse to gardaí and the Sexual Assault Treatment Unit.

But staff didn’t think it would be “appropriate” for her to stay overnight at the hospital due to her extensive care needs and they didn’t know where they could send her.

In what was an unconscionable decision, the care team sent the girl back into the foster family within which she had been likely sexually abused.

Fourteen years after serious concerns were raised about the safety of this young girl’s care in a foster family, she was eventually moved into a residential home — without being made ward of court.

And after all this time and the systemic neglect that characterised this case, the HSE didn’t even plan her transition, Grace wasn’t told she wouldn’t be going back to the foster family that night.

From the very beginning of this appalling story, it seemed like nobody, bar the two whistleblowers that fought tooth and nail for this girl, cared.

The state bodies charged with her “care” never made her physical safety their priority. To them Grace was a problem. She was a complex case file which had to be ‘managed’ and ultimately hidden. She was SU1.

Five years after she left the foster family, the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee heard that Grace had been adopting sexual positions on the command of a phrase.

Waterford TD John Deasy would describe to the Dáil: “One girl, non-verbal, had been raped anally with implements over a prolonged period of time. All of this had been medically attested and confirmed.

"The young woman cannot be operated on today because so much damage was done that to do so would threaten perforation of her bowel, which might kill her.”

Humanity has always been at the heart of this story — or rather a lack of humanity that left this girl without a voice. Maybe this Commission of Investigation will finally speak out for her.

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