Cries for help going unanswered

HSE’s system allows troubled teens to suffer on, writes Jennifer Hough

IT was clear to all the professionals involved in his case that long before 17-year-old Christopher O’Driscoll was found dead clutching a rosary beads in a derelict house in Cork city he was on a self-destructive, downward spiral.

Just weeks before his death, he had smashed up rooms in Pathways, a homeless shelter for teenagers in Cork city, and started throwing himself in front of traffic. He was also refused entry to B&Bs used by the Health Service Executive because of his increasingly chaotic behaviour.

Unofficially, it was felt there was nothing more that could be done for him, and that all options had been exhausted.

So what can be done for someone so far out of control that they are refusing all interventions? The special care system, whereby young people are detained for treatment was set up exactly for this purpose, and indeed Christopher was placed in special care on three separate occasions, although for short periods.

Perhaps by the time this intervention came, it was too little too late. Christopher had first come to the attention of social services when he was 10. He became addicted to prescription drugs in about 2008 and was using heroin a year later.

After his sister Celina died of an overdose, the year before he passed away, he became highly disturbed and refused offers of help and support.

In a case like this, and others relating to young people who died while in state care, it is impossible to lay blame solely at the door of the HSE, and certainly not on the over-burdened shoulders of social workers who do their best in difficult circumstances.

However, the question must be asked — how many more children will die in the care of the state before decisive and radical action is taken to ensure child protection services are robust and trustworthy?

We now know, after much to-ing and fro-ing between the HSE and the Minister for Children — including the drafting of legislation compelling the HSE to release files to him — that at least 180 children who were in state care, or known to child protection services died in the last 10 years.

It is astonishing to think these deaths went unrecorded in a meaningful way and were, it seems, swept under the carpet rather than investigated so that lessons could be learned. We are consistently told that the facts around these deaths are highly sensitive and must be kept confidential to ensure the privacy of the child is protected.

But who is this really protecting? And who is it really serving?

Clearly the time has long past for any arm of the state to be able to help or protect those young people who have already passed on.

In the case of two young men — Daniel McAnaspie and Danny Talbot — and indeed before them Tracey Fay and David Foley, their families have urged that the cases be looked at in an open and transparent way in order to get some answers.

In the case of David Foley, his family maintain they were only made aware of an investigation into his care after reading a media report about it.

The HSE often criticises the media for probing into sensitive issues, but without scrutiny it seems it is not willing to even keep family members informed.

Two reports into the deaths of Mr Foley and Ms Fay found the HSE had failed adequately to address their care, protection and accommodation needs. Minister for Children Barry Andrews does appear to be serious, however, about getting answers from an agency rife with secrets.

Independent experts, too, are strongly signalling the HSE is not capable of adequately caring for troubled youths.

The Ombudsman for Children, Emily Logan questioned whether the HSE is the right place for child welfare and protection services.

During her 18-month probe, the Ombudsman found a lack of matching resources with needs around the country and highlighted shortcomings in the administrative areas.

Similarly Fergus Finlay says there is an urgent need for transparency in how the HSE deals with these young people and questioned whether it is the right organisation to do so.

Mr Andrew’s independent review group started out with just over 20 cases. Now it has almost 190, and this could rise. It is understood the review group will not be able to look at each individual case in depth such is the volume of the caseload, and that it will take some time to complete and could be extended into next year.

Meanwhile, young people who are out of control, crying out for help will continue to “float” through the overburdened under-resourced system.

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