Since early February, Finance Minister Michael Noonan has sidestepped questions over whether he had any role in the decision 20 years ago to allow a woman with significant intellectual disabilities to remain at an abusive foster home.
Mr Noonan and Taoiseach Enda Kenny have both told the Irish Examiner at press conferences in recent days that all Department of Health information about what happened in 1996 which led to the woman known as ‘Grace’ being left at the home has been made public. “No additional information” is available, as one Fine Gael spokesperson put it.
However, correspondence to and from the then health minister seen by this newspaper show this is not the full story, with the developing situation now likely to form a central part of the promised State investigation into the tragic case.
On April 2, 1996, on foot of concerns over the treatment of a vulnerable child at the foster home, a three-person south-eastern health board panel decided to remove Grace from the facility.
An appeal was lodged by the foster family in May of that year, but was rejected by two independent experts.
Under normal circumstances, that should have been the end of the case, with the decision to remove Grace and place her in alternative State care having been made and subsequently supported by an independent review.
However, from early August, a chain of events came into play which have led to fresh questions over why the vulnerable woman was instead left at the home until 2009 — allegedly suffering severe abuse in the process.
Documents seen by the Irish Examiner show that, on August 9, 1996, the father of the foster home family sent a two-page hand-written letter directly to Mr Noonan urging him to intervene in the removal of Grace which the foster father claimed was made by “some minion” and “to satisfy someone’s ego”.
The foster father claimed his family had just been informed their appeal to keep Grace in their control — rejected three months earlier — had failed and that, “in the best interests of Grace”, he urged Mr Noonan to intervene.
“For some reason the health board are prepared to deny Grace comfort and happiness — all I suspect because some minion has said let’s move her... Hope you can decide in our favour,” he wrote.
Six days later, on August 12, senior Department of Health mental health services official Caroline Hurley wrote to south-eastern health board programme manager Martin Hynes noting “representations have been received” and requesting a case report.
On September 6, Mr Noonan’s private secretary wrote back to the foster father confirming the child was removed under the terms of the 1991 Child Care Act.
The letter confirmed that Mr Noonan “understood” the health board had concluded that it was in Grace’s best interests that she be removed from the home. However, the letter goes on to state that the health board, at the request of the foster father, delayed Grace’s removal.
After being contacted by the Department child care policy unit official Malachy Quinn on September 11, again seeking a report on the case, on September 25 health board programme manager Mr Hynes wrote back, saying “the case is currently under consideration” by the health board and the principal of a local national school who had also contacted the health board for unknown reasons.
Two months later, private secretary to then junior health minister Austin Currie, Dermot Ryan, wrote to this principal confirming “the minister has made enquiries” and that the case was “currently under consideration” — seven months after the initial decision to remove her — adding: “the board have [sic] assured the Minister your views will be taken into account.”
At the same time, a note of correspondence between Department officials and the health board showed Grace’s removal had been stalled “since September 25” — the date health board programme manager Mr Hynes wrote to the Department saying the previously decided case was now “currently under consideration”.
It is unclear at this stage why Grace was left at the home despite earlier rulings.
However, what is clear is that after Mr Noonan sought further details in response to direct foster family representations, the removal was stopped. All that can be said at this stage is that Mr Noonan’s sudden interest dovetails remarkably with an apparent removal U-turn.
Through either accident or design the political intervention led to the vulnerable woman being left in a severely abusive home for 13 more years.
Hardly what Fine Gael has claimed is “no additional information”.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved