DANIEL MCCONNELL: Grace scandal: Justice delayed but is the very least victims deserve

The foster care scandal in Waterford is one of rape, physical abuse and systemic neglect.

Commission of inquiry will be set up despite an orchestrated campaign to destroy the reputations of whistleblowers who exposed scandal, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell

IT MAKES you want to be sick.

Reading through the details of the abuse at the heart of the Grace scandal, suffered by defenceless intellectually disabled and often mute children and young adults, it is truly stomach turning.

This scandal concerns the rape, physical abuse, and neglect of up to 40 children and young adults at a foster home in Waterford over a 20-year period.

All of which was allowed to continue despite health authorities knowing about allegations.

In Grace’s case, she languished in the home for almost 14 years after a decision was taken to remove her because of concerns.

“One girl, non-verbal, had been raped anally with implements over a prolonged period of time. All of this had been medically attested and confirmed. The young woman cannot be operated on today because so much damage was done that to do so would threaten perforation of her bowel, which might kill her,” is how Waterford TD John Deasy described the scale of the abuse to the Dáil.

When I first reported on this scandal back in early 2015, similar stories emerged.

“This is the most appalling level of abuse including children being locked underneath the stairwell by the parents. One of the children, who is unable to speak, was removed from the home and was able to act out some of the sexual abuse she was subjected to,” is what I was told.

Worse still, she was told her allegations couldn’t be prosecuted because she would not make a good witness because she can’t speak.

The more we dug, the more scandalous and disturbing this case became.

What began as a digging exercise over two unpublished HSE reports into the scandal, quickly became a far more serious investigation into rape, physical abuse and systemic neglect.

Largely down to the tenacity of two whistleblowers, the Government is about to finally establish a formal Commission of Inquiry into the scandal.

This is despite an orchestrated campaign to destroy them, as attested to by John Deasy, one of two TDs who has been to the fore of exposing this scandal.

“The whistleblower then personally petitioned the High Court. The HSE tried to stop her. It referred to the funding it gave to her organisation. It contacted the chairman of the board she worked for and put as much pressure as it could on the whistleblower,” he told the Dáil.

“The HSE managers involved wrote letters, including several solicitor’s letters, to the whistle-blower’s manager, the board of directors, and the High Court. She claims these letters contained fabricated information alleging misconduct by her in the course of performing her duties.”

Deasy went on to make a most extraordinary statement: “This is important for every whistleblower now and in the future. What I am about to say is critical and must be dealt with in the interim before this inquiry happens.

“The letters to the High Court were drafted by HSE solicitors at the request of a HSE senior manager. They alleged serious misconduct and requested that, owing to this misconduct, the whistleblower be removed as a court-appointed representative for her client.

“The letters suggested that the whistleblower was not a fit person to represent her client and as a result, the HSE could not be expected to work with her,” Deasy told a virtually empty chamber.

Fed up with how she was being treated, the whistleblower decided to walk into a Garda station and make a new statement of complaint.

Realising that under existing statutes, it is an offence if a person is left at risk of sexual abuse, she made a complaint.

It is not just an offence if the person suffers sexual abuse. The Garda is now investigating whether the HSE recklessly endangered these people and left them at risk of sexual abuse, Deasy told the Dáil.

With the publication of the Conor Dignam report two weeks ago, Disabilities Minister Finian McGrath is now finalising the terms of reference for the commission of inquiry.

One of the more serious things Dignam’s report included is the circumstance as to how Grace was left in the foster home in 1996 despite an earlier decision to remove her from the home.

It is known that the foster father of Grace directly lobbied Michael Noonan when he was minister for health, claiming she was in a “happy and secure” home.

His letter, which was sent following a decision by health officials to remove her, amid concerns about alleged sexual abuse of minors at the home in 1996.

Documents seen by this newspaper show how the foster family, in a breach of the rules, sought Mr Noonan to intervene to keep Grace — an intellectually disabled minor — in the home.

Crucially, a letter from Mr Noonan’s private secretary confirms that, on foot of the foster father’s request, Grace’s removal from the foster home was delayed.

“The minister understands that the health board, at your request, agreed not to remove ‘Grace’ until the end of the summer period,” the letter from Mr Noonan’s secretary states.

The delay followed a request for an update report from Mr Noonan’s department to the health board.

However, in his letter to Mr Noonan, the foster father paints a picture of serenity in terms of Grace’s care.

“At present, she resides in a family home, enjoys a happy and secure life, goes to the seaside, shopping and out for a meal and gets individual treatment for her special needs,” he wrote.

Two months later, junior health minister Austin Currie made enquiries and found the case was “currently under consideration” — seven months after the initial decision to remove Grace was taken. Mr Currie was assured by an official that representations made in support of the foster family would be considered.

At the same time, a note of correspondence between department officials and the health board showed Grace’s removal had been stalled “since September 25”, the date a health board programme manager wrote to the department saying the previously decided case was now “currently under consideration”.

Mr Noonan, for his part, has strenuously denied any wrongdoing in the case, and there is no evidence of a direct intervention by him which resulted in Grace remaining in the home.

Ultimately, the inquiry must not shirk its duty of asking the tough questions as to how this scandal was firstly allowed to happen, but also see if the actions of officials, some of whom are still in situ, amounted to criminality.

Justice delayed is justice denied, we often hear.

But for Grace and the other 40 or so victims in the home, have had justice denied to them for far too long. They were failed abjectly by the State charged with their care.

Justice at this stage is the very least they deserve.

Timeline

1983-95

A total of 46 children and young adults, most with intellectual disabilities, are placed with foster family in Waterford.

1992

South East Health Board becomes aware of concerns about the standards of care in foster home, but continued to send children to home.

1995

Following concerns raised by the Brothers of Charity in the UK, who also used the home for foster care, placements by the then health board stop. The concerns centre around allegations of sexual abuse of the children. However, one child, ‘Grace’ who was placed there full-time, remained in the home.

1996

SEHB decides to move Grace from home.

1996

The foster father writes a letter to then health minister Micheal Noonan, who then referred the matter to his officials and junior minister Austin Currie.

1996

Following the intervention, Grace is ultimately left in the home and remains there until 2009.

2009

On foot of whistleblower concerns about Grace’s care, in which she displayed sexualised behaviour, she is removed from the foster home and moved to an “appropriate” care setting. Gardaí and HSE begin investigations.

2012

Conal Devine is commissioned to conduct an investigation into the foster home and Grace’s care and produce a report. His €100,000 report has not yet been published.

2013

Another child is only finally removed from the home in 2013, despite all of the concerns and investigations. It is later claimed that the child is a private patient.

2014

The PAC first hears of issues around the procurement of services relating to reports into foster home.

2015

Documents obtained by the PAC allege some of the most “savage rape and abuse” of those in the care of the home. Grace was found to be adopting sexual positions on the command of a phrase.

2015

Calls for a commission of investigation come as PAC hears a “clique of HSE managers” covered up allegations of abuse.

Jan 2016

Irish Examiner reveals the HSE finally admitted liability in relation to failures of care at foster home. However, claims of an apology given to Grace are contested.

Feb 2016

HSE is caught misleading Irish Examiner and PAC over apology claims, and eventually apologises for doing so.

Feb 2016

After 10 days of controversy, health ministers Leo Varadkar and Kathleen Lynch relent and announce commission of inquiry.

Jun 2016

Conor Dignam scoping report due to Government on foster home allegations.

Nov 2016

Dignam report is published by Disablities Minister Finian McGrath.

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