WHAT do you do if you desperately need help, yet can’t ask? How do you defend yourself if you have no voice, no physical ability to run or fight, no friend in your corner? How do you protect yourself if you’re abandoned, alone, and utterly defenceless?
It’s a story that’s been covered extensively and with professional rigor and restraint by this newspaper and by the RTÉ programme This Week. It is the most disturbing story I’ve heard for a long time.
The story concerns an adult, a defenceless voiceless adult with a profound intellectual disability, who (it is alleged) was left in the care of a person or persons who (it is also alleged) abused them without mercy or restraint, to the point where an already vulnerable life has been degraded and damaged beyond repair.
I am not going to repeat here the details of the abuse suffered by this person, because I wasn’t able to sleep after hearing them.
But for the sake of context, it’s important to know that this person was a woman, a citizen of Ireland, and a resident of the South-East of our country.
Most citizens, if they need help, can call out. Help might be slow in coming, or begrudgingly offered, or bound up with bureaucratic red tape, but most of us know how and where we can get the help we need.
Or we can find an advocate, someone who will help us and advise us. If we have no voice, no ability to cry for help, nothing but a label, where do we turn then?
I suspect that the woman at the heart of this story has been labelled all her life. Profound, retarded, handicapped — labels like that. I suspect that even in the reports of the investigations carried out, in the usual way of these things, she has probably been labelled with an initial — the usual reason given for that is the need to protect identity.
The people writing these reports never seem to realise that when we don’t have a name it’s even harder for us to assert an identity. Even the TDs like John McGuinness and John Deasy, who have taken up this case and have acted entirely honourably, have fallen into the trap of using words like person or individual.
As have I. I don’t know this woman’s name, and I’ve already referred to her several times in an entirely anonymous way. The loss of her identity only adds to the terrible injustices that have already been done to her.
So, let’s call her Grace. According to the CSO, it’s one of the five most popular names for girls, and it seems to me entirely fitting for someone who has lived a life where she simply cannot be to blame for the things that have (allegedly) happened to her. Grace is entirely innocent, and has lived a life of innocence, but that has not protected her.
Because of her disabilities, Grace was entrusted to the care of the State at an early age. The State ultimately appears to have discharged its responsibilities by placing her in the care of a foster family. That’s not all that unusual.
There are thousands of foster families in Ireland doing extraordinary selfless work and helping many more thousands of young people to find the care and stability that, for one reason or another, they couldn’t find at home.
I know many young people who are growing and developing, and finding happiness, in foster situations. I know many foster families who maintain close and supportive links with the young people who have been in their care, even after those young people have become adult or otherwise moved on.
There is a system in place to manage this. Its purpose is to ensure that there are enough foster parents, that they are fit for the job, that they are adequately supported in the vital work they do. Above all, it carries responsibility for ensuring the safety and wellbeing of anyone in the care of the system.
As the story has unfolded so far, the system became “concerned” about a foster family to whose care they entrusted dozens of people like Grace. So concerned that a decision was made that this family would no longer be allowed to foster anyone.
Except Grace. For some unimaginable reason, Grace was left in the care of this family for a dozen more years. In that time she suffered, if the accounts are true, unspeakable and degrading cruelty. The kind of cruelty that would destroy the body and the soul of someone better able to defend themselves than Grace ever was.
Where is Grace now? How is she being cared for? Who is taking responsibility for her?
We don’t know the answers to these questions. We know more than the system wants us to know, because of the actions of a brave whistleblower. We know there have been Garda investigations and internal investigations.
We know there has been no prosecution, and no prosecution seems likely — because Grace can’t give evidence in respect of any abuse that may have happened. We have no reason to believe that anyone involved in the decision-making about Grace has ever accounted to anyone for those decisions.
Instead there appears to be a row going on about whether the HSE apologised. Who cares? The only value in an apology is that it admits there is something for which to apologise.
It means nothing when set alongside the self-evident lack of accountability.
There is no higher obligation on any state than to defend the defenceless. Democracy means nothing if those who have no voice can be treated as Grace has been treated simply for that reason — the lack of a voice.
If I was health minister, I would (I hope) regard it as my paramount duty to find out what happened to Grace and how it happened. I hope I would demand that every scrap of paper relating to Grace’s treatment was delivered to my office, and I hope I wouldn’t rest until I got to the bottom of how this was allowed to happen to a defenceless fellow citizen.
At the same time I would want to know exactly what arrangements are being made for her enduring care.
At the end of that process, when I was able to account to Grace, to her family if she has one, and to the people generally, I would apologise. Not the mealy-mouthed pro forma apology that a lawyer would draft for a bureaucracy, but from the heart. We have betrayed one of our fellow citizens. We need to feel a sense of shame about that.
Grace will never expect us to be ashamed. She expects nothing. She has no reason to believe she has any rights at all, any entitlement to our protection. But she has. She has more rights than most, because that’s what we’re supposed to be about.
We think of ourselves as an independent state, proud of our achievements. But if we can’t protect Grace, we don’t deserve statehood at all.