The apparently arbitrary power vested in the State’s child protection agency to take our children away from us is compounded by its power to review its own decisions, writes Margaret Hickey

It is almost like a throwback to a much discredited era where the prevailing ideology decided in its arrogance what was and was not a suitable milieu to raise a child. Time was when children were torn from their unmarried mothers — with family consent as often as not — because they were considered unfit to provide for their child.

The emotional violence visited on both mothers and children in our not-so-distant past is now rightly repudiated. But thinking has changed. Instead of breaking up families in difficulty, we support them. How ironic then that, in our more enlightened age, a whole new set of social arbiters can remove a child from the loving care of his natural family.

The decision of the State’s child protection agency, Tusla, to take a nine-year-old boy from the grandparents who had raised him from the age of four, is both bizarre and tragic, given the reasons for the decision.

Tusla saw fit to assess the grandparents as they would any applicants for foster parenting, completely factoring out their relationship to the child and the fact that they had provided him for more than half his life with the only stable home he had ever known.

That these were loving grandparents whose care and devotion were vouched for by the child’s school principal, the family GP, and a paediatric specialist did not weigh against the arbitrary box-ticking employed by Tusla.

It beggars belief that Tusla did not respond to such representations, and to the heartfelt appeals of the distraught grandparents, backed up with some two dozen court appearances. As a last resort, the grandparents have brought the issue into the public domain.

Independent deputy Mattie McGrath has made correspondence relevant to the case available to the press and has called on Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone to intervene in the matter.

Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone
Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone

The grandparents of the child were informed by Tusla that they would not be approved as foster parents because of age (they are in their mid-60s), safety concerns about the farm on which they lived, and their lack of engagement with the agency.

There was a further reference to concerns about the health of the grandmother even though her GP had stated she was well enough to look after her grandson.

All of these objections would carry weight if the child was unknown and unrelated to them, if they were strangers applying for approval to foster a child without the prior claims of blood and long-established loving relationship with the child.

One can only guess at the human trauma involved in this story. It is the kind of thing you hear about in totalitarian states. Our Irish version of totalitarianism is emerging from the inner folds of government, agencies, authorities and quangos, who have a semi-autonomy that allows government to plead inability to intervene when it suits them.

This case is the first widely known example of the arbitrary power over the lives of children that our Constitution and legislation now vests in the State’s child agency post the Children’s Referendum.

The fact that they have proved anything but trustworthy in the manner in which they care for genuinely vulnerable children does not dint their self-belief or their readiness to use to the full their powers under both Constitution and law.

These agencies can now decide, according to the prevailing prejudices, what constitutes a good nurturing environment for a child and the point at which a child may be removed from the family home.

This case suggests there is little or no regard for the ties of flesh and blood, or for the unique bond between children and grandparents. It is blind to the fact that the child was raised without misadventure through the far more demanding and dependent years between five and nine.

It is blind to the emotional trauma of sundering a child from the familiarity of not only his home and prime carers but his school, his friends and his neighbourhood.

While we can only guess at the dynamics involved, one suspects that the case was compounded by the officials involved rubbing the grandparents up the wrong way or vice versa.

Thwarted officialdom may have decided to flex its power to the full, with the young child becoming something of a pawn in a power struggle.

Independent deputy Mattie McGrath
Independent deputy Mattie McGrath

His interests were set aside because the protocols and procedures of bureaucracy were unable to follow their wonted course or because adults on both sides perhaps, were not prepared to put his best interest before pride and principle.

It will be interesting to see if Ms Zappone takes back Tusla’s power to review its own decisions as demanded by Deputy McGrath.

Because the really worrying thing in this case is not whether this particular decision was right or wrong, but that Tusla apparently has not exceeded its powers in the manner in which it acted. Numerous court applications taken by the grandparents appear to have established that.

Potentially, given the reasons for the decision taken in this case, no parent or loving custodian of a child can rest easy.

If the minister does not take the action called for, we are looking at a frightening scenario where state agencies are less answerable for the welfare of children than their own grandparents or even parents.

At the very least, Tusla’s power to review its own contested decisions must be taken from them.


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