We finally have our own general to lead the fight against child abuse

ABRAHAM Lincoln was plagued with bad generals.

At the start of the American Civil War, when the Confederates were winning victory after victory, Lincoln appointed George McLellan at the head of his army.

But McLellan kept on delaying action, insisting that his own troops weren’t ready, and constantly sending reports that over-estimated the strength of the opposition.

When eventually McLellan won a battle, the Battle of Antietam, he refused to pursue the fleeing enemy, and allowed them to regroup. Eventually, months into the war, Lincoln was forced to remove him, and he replaced him with several others who were equally cautious, before finally settling on Ulysses S Grant, a soldier who knew how to fight. In his frustration, Lincoln famously said about McLellan, “If he can’t fight himself, he excels in making others ready to fight.”

Forgive the analogy, but the battle to protect children from abuse in Ireland is just that — a battle. And in that battle, we need a Ulysses S Grant, not a George McLellan.

We now, finally, have a set of politicians that appear to be determined to win this battle, and to take no prisoners in the process. We’ve had years of apologies, promises, words — action plans without action. Now, at last, we have the shape of a plan that can really make a difference. Work is finally being done to implement the action we were promised after the Ferns report, and again after Ryan, and yet again after the Murphy report on the Dublin Diocese.

Leaders need soldiers. We have brave soldiers. For example, I’ve written before here about Ian Elliott, the head of the Catholic Church’s National Board for Safeguarding Children.

I don’t trust his employer, but I do trust him. I know that he is totally committed to the protection of children, and that he has fought many internal battles to try to secure that protection. If it weren’t for Ian Elliott, his insistence and determination, we would never have had the report on the Cloyne diocese that has made such damning and revealing findings in the past few days.

I also know that people like Ian Elliott have to use coded and careful language sometimes. When he talks, as he did in a recent statement, about the difficulty of resolving “data protection issues”, he means that some bishops are using legal technicalities to withhold information from him. And when he says that the “majority” of the bishops and religious orders are complying with higher standards, we know that what he is really pointing us to is the minority who are not. Isn’t it astonishing, after all we have discovered, that the Church’s own regulator can’t say with confidence that he is getting 100% compliance?

But the Ulysses S Grant in this battle needs to be Gordon Jeyes. Gordon Jeyes is the National Director for Children and Families within the HSE. The HSE didn’t want him and resisted appointing him for years. I don’t mean they didn’t want him personally — they just never saw the need for an accountable line of authority that would make decisions in this area.

The culture of the HSE under its first CEO, Brendan Drumm, was that all authority, in an organisation employing 130,000 people, would be vested in and around the CEO’s office.

Thankfully, new CEO Cathal Magee doesn’t think like that. He may not have as high a profile as his predecessor, but the signs are that he is interested in getting decisions made, and that means changing the way things are done.

It can involve tough and unpopular decisions, especially when there is no money for anything, but any organisation that is managed according to a plan is going to produce better results eventually than an organisation that is only managed by crisis.

So Gordon Jeyes was appointed some months ago, and given authority to make change — to go and do battle, if you like. He has made it clear that he is not particularly interested in defending the past, and is more committed to changing the future. And he wants his troops in battle.

Last week, he wrote to everyone who works in the HSE in the provision of child and family services. His letter was very widely circulated by his office, inside and outside the HSE, so there is no reason it couldn’t or shouldn’t be referred to in public. The purpose of the letter was to welcome the new Child Protection Guidance published by the minister, and to commit everyone in the HSE, without exception, to its full implementation.

The surprising thing about this, at one level, is that he should feel the necessity to say it at all. But it’s a fact — and the Ombudsman for Children Emily Logan has done sterling work to highlight this — that there are parts of the HSE where child protection, and the national standard around it, has been seen as an a la carte menu. If there are tasks they don’t feel like doing, they don’t do them.

In Gordon Jeyes’s eyes, that has to stop. In his letter he says “all our work needs to be accountable, consistent and transparent”. It is crucial, he goes on, “that we act decisively, objectively and consistently, recording clearly the evidence, the decisions and the reasoning”.

Getting the kind of consistency he is after will need even more training, and a series of events is being planned to ensure that everyone who works in the service will be in no doubt about what is expected of them.

I understand a considerable amount of work has already been done on the preparation of a handbook to accompany the new child protection guidance, so that there will be no excuse in future for the inconsistent application of standards.

It’s towards the end of his letter to staff that Jeyes shows signs of being Ulysses S Grant rather than McLellan.

“Cases judged to meet the criteria of a child not receiving care and protection must be accepted at the point of intake and subject to a formal initial assessment. If the assessment confirms the risk then a child protection plan is instigated and the child is counted as in receipt of protective services. Capacity problems, such as waiting lists and unallocated cases, are management issues to be dealt with after cases have been accepted as eligible for a service.”

Now, everyone knows that resources are, and will remain, a huge issue. The Irish Association of Social Workers for one haven’t been slow to point that out, and they do represent a profession that has been under huge pressure.

But the point about that paragraph above, I think, is that the head of their service is accepting that resources can no longer be accepted as an excuse for inaction. I’d love to see some timelines in a paragraph like that, and I’ve no doubt they will come as part of the handbook and the training.

But we know what needs to be done. There is real concerted political will for the first time. There is leadership and know-how.

There are still thousands of children at risk. It really is time to stop worrying about the provisions, and start to fight.

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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

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