State of neglect: Failing the most vulnerable

Daniel McAnaspie’s short life and violent death reflect badly on any notion that State and society have left behind the appalling treatment of children who find themselves beyond the sanctuary of a family home, writes Michael Clifford.

State of neglect: Failing the most vulnerable

The case got a brief mention in the Children’s Court in Dublin. Garda Seamus Twomey made an application for the charges against Daniel McAnaspie to be withdrawn.

The 17-year-old had been up for stealing a TV from a residential home he’d been staying in. It was a first offence. He had been out on bail, due to appear that day to answer the charge on the day in question, Monday, June 14, 2010.

Daniel’s solicitor Garth Noble told the court that his client was deceased. His body had been found in a drain in Co Meath the previous month.

He had died “in the most horrific circumstances”, the solicitor told the court.

The body had a number of stab wounds, inflicted with shears. He had been missing since February 26 that year.

Daniel McAnaspie ‘begged for his life’ before he died.
Daniel McAnaspie ‘begged for his life’ before he died.

In April, when Daniel’s whereabouts were not known but the worst was feared, his solicitor gave the court a summation of his client’s life. He’d had a troubled upbringing, in and out of care.

The court could, if it so wished, make an order to place him in a special care unit in Sweden, to which two other youths had been referred. The placement offered hope, maybe a last chance for the youth, at a shot of some kind of normal, functioning life.

But even at that point, with him listed as missing, it looked as if Daniel’s case was simply waiting to be closed.

There would have been no need for his solicitor to make an appeal to the court for a referral if the HSE had simply done so on the basis of Daniel’s needs some time over the previous year or so.

But, like so many other children in care, those needs were relegated below more pressing priorities which received greater attention in the body politic or the media.

All of that was irrelevant on June 14 as the judge ruled that the charge of stealing a TV was withdrawn. Daniel was no longer around to answer for it and no State body or individual would ever have to answer for how he had been failed and failed miserably by the system that purports to care for the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.

Shiver of horror

In the week in which a shiver of horror ran across the country at revelations of how children were treated in the past, the conviction of a man for the murder of Daniel McAnespie passed with little comment.

Richard Dekker was found guilty of the murder of Daniel McAnaspie in 2010 at Tolka Valley Park, Blanchardstown.
Richard Dekker was found guilty of the murder of Daniel McAnaspie in 2010 at Tolka Valley Park, Blanchardstown.

Richard Dekker, aged 30, from Blanchardstown in Dublin, was found guilty by unanimous verdict of the murder of Daniel at Tolka Valley Park on February 26, 2010. As Dekker was being remanded in custody, friends and family of the victim cheered and clapped.

One shouted: “Well done, judge, well done, jury,” while another loudly proclaimed: “Justice for Daniel”.

Trevor Noone, aged 28, had earlier pleaded guilty to manslaughter for his role in the killing. The court had heard that the victim had been drinking with the two killers, along with others, on the night he disappeared.

Trevor Noone: Manslaughter guilty plea.
Trevor Noone: Manslaughter guilty plea.

One of the men decided they wanted to give Daniel “a hiding”. He was lured to Tolka Valley Park, where he was stabbed with the blade of a shears. One of the men told gardaí that Daniel “begged for his life” before he died.

At the time, Daniel was in the care of the HSE.

Daniel’s short life and violent death reflect badly on any notion that the State and society have left behind the appalling treatment of children who find themselves beyond the sanctuary of a family home.

No longer are such children cast at the mercy of religious orders advocating a warped interpretation of morality and love. But neither are they nurtured in a manner that we would like to think befits the most vulnerable of the State’s children.

Daniel was known as Dano to friends and family. The odds were stacked against him from the word go. While still in his mother’s womb, he was known to the HSE. Both parents had problems, principally related to alcohol and substance misuse. They had six children and lived in overcrowded conditions in a house in Finglas, north Dublin.

When Daniel was four his father died from a drugs overdose, leaving his mother, who struggled with alcohol addiction, to raise the family on her own.

Despite the obvious problems the situation gave rise to, the HSE closed the file on the family two years after the father’s death.

A mother of six, parenting alone and addicted to alcohol, was no longer considered worthy of attention from the State.

Three years later, when Daniel was 10, two school principals and a social worker not attached to the HSE raised serious concerns about the conditions in which the children were living.

The answer was to move the mother and children to a family care placement, but it took eight months for the place to become available, despite the urgency of the children’s predicament.

During those months one of Daniel’s sisters was moved to a foster home due to concerns for her welfare.

The new accommodation for the family involved sharing a home with another family. Things didn’t work out and eventually the HSE removed the children from the situation and effectively set their mother adrift.

She went downhill rapidly, grappling now with the reality that she was no longer considered fit to take care of her children in any guise. Thereafter, her contact with her brood was confined to visits.

From the age of 10, Daniel lived in the care system. The one bright, shining light in his life was his family.

On two occasions during his teenage years, he left the system to live with relatives. Most of his siblings had managed to do likewise, and were beating the odds in making lives for themselves.

Daniel wasn’t so lucky. By the time he’d gone to live with aunts, he was already acting out the kind of behaviour that is moulded during tender years devoid of tenderness.

When he was 15 his mother died. According to a later report on his life, he was with her at the time of her death, at his own request.

Despite the support he got from his family, things deteriorated. He stopped attending school because no local school would admit him. That issue could have been down to the fact that he was moving around so much, but the fact that he couldn’t read left him extremely frustrated.

His aunts attempted to get him help, but time was against everybody. The longer there was a failure to provide Daniel with the kind of intervention that might have improved his life, the further away he slipped.

There was some effort to get him the appropriate help.

“An application was made by the HSE Social Work Department when he was 16 years old to admit this young person to a special care facility,” the Child Deaths Report, published in 2012, recorded of Daniel’s case.

“This application was refused on the grounds that he did not meet the criteria. A Guardian ad Litem was again appointed, who recommended that a placement abroad be considered but this was not agreed to …the failure to act on the recommendations of the report of the Guardian ad Litem is not explained in the documentation.”

Later, when he was missing, Daniel’s solicitor would claim the HSE used the fact that children like Daniel had come into contact with the criminal justice system to deny them access to the proper intervention.

If that claim is accurate then it reflects appallingly on the HSE. Children who have been thrashing around in the system, acting out the problems that nobody appears to want to notice, inevitably end up engaging in petty crime. That any agency would use that as an excuse not to provide them with the proper intervention speaks volumes for an indifferent attitude to the most vulnerable.

The last year of Daniel’s life was the most chaotic.

He was in 16 different placements over that period, shunted from pillar to post. At one point, he went to a Garda station to sleep as he had nowhere else to go.

In late 2009, he was moved to a residential centre that wasn’t even registered with the HSE. Four months later he was asked to leave there without any notice, allegedly because the owner was unhappy with his behaviour.

“Fifteen days later he went missing from a house where he was then living with agency staff and his body was not found until some months later,” according to the Child Deaths Report.

Daniel was murdered in a brutal manner by an individual who simply took a dislike to him over something he said. In the circles in which he moved, a vulnerable individual like himself, devoid of confidence and ill-equipped to take care of himself, was an easy target.

Daniel is among a small number of young people murdered while in the care of the State. His short life was one of constant struggle.

He “was presenting with difficult behaviour from his middle childhood years,” the Child Death Review Group reported. “He had experienced significant bereavement and loss during his childhood. He had severe dyslexia, which does not appear to have been diagnosed until he was 15 years old. While he was anxious to read and write, there was the lack of a timely appropriate diagnosis and programme of treatment.”

The circumstances of his death and details of his short life gave rise to major public comment and some outrage at his treatment at the hands of the State. This led to the setting-up of the independent child death review group to examine the deaths of children and young people in care.

It reported in 2012 that in the decade from 2000 to 2010, 196 children died in State care. Of these, 110 were ascribed to “non-natural causes, including drugs, suicide, fire, drowning, traffic accidents, and homicide.

The report noted that good practice was absent in most of the cases examined.

The shock and controversy around Daniel’s violent death faded. Life moved on. Priorities were reasserted, and the plight of children in care once more relegated.

According to Tanya Ward, chief executive of Children’s Rights Alliance, there have been “considerable improvements” since the publication of the report, but vulnerable young people continue to fall through the cracks.

“Of the five deaths reported last year up to July 2016, four of these were by suicide and the other was due to an overdose.

"It is clear that much more must be done to ensure that social workers carry out proper risk assessments, that there is continuity of care and that children can access adequate and appropriate mental health services and receive the necessary interventions at the earliest stage possible,” she said.

Noel Baker’s report on the McAnaspie case for the ‘Irish Examiner’ on May 22, 2010.
Noel Baker’s report on the McAnaspie case for the ‘Irish Examiner’ on May 22, 2010.

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