Handling of abuse allegation a big concern for child protection groups

Many are against waiting for a public inquiry to make answers public, writes Claire O’Sullivan

Dozens of questions need to be answered about how the McCabe allegations were handled by the HSE via its counsellor, and then by Tusla

In the past 24 hours, child protection and advocacy groups have been coming out one after another in response to the most recent McCabe scandal.

However, their focus isn’t on the political fallout, but the shambolic handling of a child protection allegation against the country’s most high-profile whistleblower by the child and family agency, Tusla.

Tusla chief executive Fred McBride has confirmed he will appear before the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Children and Youth Affairs next Wednesday after its chairman, Fine Gael TD Jim Daly, urged people to realise that “the relevant child protection issues to arise from this must now be prioritised”.

The Cork South West TD also called for an international expert “to review the internal systems and practices within Tusla without delay”.

On Monday, Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone revealed that an independent statutory investigation, headed up by Hiqa, will be established to look at how Tusla manages child abuse allegations. That is a second investigation on top of the internal review the agency is already carrying out.

Sinn Féin’s spokesman on children, Donnchadh Ó Laoighaire, said it was vital to know if the ‘clerical error’ that created the accusation against Sgt McCabe was “a local weakness or a national systemic weakness”.

Barnardos chief executive Fergus Finlay said it was “inexcusable” to leave cases unallocated and ignored.

Children’s Right’s Alliance CEO Tanya Ward said Tusla and the gardaí have “sweeping legal powers” and must be held accountable.

“We need to know that when a complaint is made to Tusla about a child that it will be properly investigated and that families will be treated fairly,” said Ms Ward. “Just like the gardaí, Tusla has sweeping legal powers that empower them to intervene to keep children safe from abuse. Hiqa’s inquiry must provide answers as to how many mistakes were made in this case. Why was the original complaint not effectively investigated? Why were fair procedures not applied to Maurice McCabe? What data protection procedures were in place? What oversight was in place?”

READ MORE: Q&A: Commission of inquiry or tribunal

None of these groups or politicians think it is acceptable to wait for a public inquiry to provide answers.

Also, if the McCabe file was a ‘clerical error’, how come a second garda whistleblower also suddenly found themselves facing social workers when a senior garda reported a domestic row to Tusla. After the family had assured social workers that there was no case to be answered and their children weren’t at risk, a home visit was suddenly organised by Tusla after a garda rang a social worker’s superior.

Tusla chief executive Fred McBride is set to appear before Oireachtas Committee on Children and Youth Affairs. Picture: Gareth Chaney

Dozens of questions need to be answered about how the McCabe allegations were handled by the HSE via its counsellor, and then by Tusla (child protection services were looked after by the HSE until January 2014, when Tusla took them over):

  • If a Tusla file with such grievous allegations was opened about the country’s most high-profile whistleblower, why wasn’t Sgt McCabe contacted or interviewed?
  • As Sgt McCabe himself questioned this week, who were the gardaí who made/received the phonecalls concerning the allegations?
  • Why did Tusla not assess if Sgt McCabe was any immediate risk to children?
  • Tusla created files on the McCabe children. Why didn’t they interview them?
  • Did Tusla not query why Sgt McCabe hadn’t been interviewed by the gardaí?
  • Also, in early 2014, articles were appearing in newspapers in relation to an unnamed garda and child sex abuse allegations. Why did nobody in Tusla seek an update on this investigation?
  • How many people and of what rank in Tusla knew about the file?
  • How exactly was the ‘clerical error’ discovered eight months later, in May 2014?
  • Why did they not tell Sgt McCabe about the error?
  • Why didn’t they destroy the file?
  • When did Tusla tell the gardaí about the error and who did they tell? A month after the error was found in June 2014, a Tusla memo says “the superintendent in the jurisdiction referred to in the report was not yet aware of the clerical error and has been asked to a meeting with the commissioner in relation to the case”;
  • Why was the data commissioner not informed of the error?

READ MORE: McCabe scandal leaves them bruised and battered

Children’s right activist and senator Gillian Van Turnhout teaches child protection policy to the Girl Guides. She is astonished that the counsellor, who made the initial complaint to HSE Child Protection Services, appeared to be in direct contact with the gardaí.

“Everything about this, to date, rings alarm bells for me,” said Ms Van Turnhout. “Under Children First, they would not be directly in contact with the gardaí, beyond possibly giving a witness statement, as it can be seen to aggravate the situation. Under data protection legislation, Tusla can’t even provide specific information on the status of the complaint to the counsellor, unless it is relevant to their professional care of the child.

“Who made the sexual abuse allegation to the gardaí? Was it a duty social worker, who had been previously contacted by the counsellor, as it should have been, or was it the counsellor?”

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