Solicitor Catherine Ghent
Some 47 children, many who had physical and mental disabilities, were placed in foster care with an abusive family in the southeast of Ireland, between 1983 and 1995.
One woman who couldn’t speak and had intellectual disabilities was left behind after others were removed – after concerns were raised – and remained there until 2009.
The unidentified woman – referred to as Grace – suffered serious sexual abuse until her eventual removal.
In 1992, the then South Eastern Health Board became aware of concerns surrounding the family.
Further to this, RTÉ journalist Keelin Shanley spoke to solicitor Catherine Ghent on the Today with Seán O’Rourke show this morning.
Ms Ghent specialises in child protection.
Catherine Ghent: “I have to say I’m absolutely horrified, I’m horrified in relation to, and I agree with Fergus [Finlay], I’m going to call her ‘Grace’ as well. I think we need to realise these are people but there’s 47 other children and young adults as well. That is a huge amount of people to have gone through this family over what must have been a very substantial period of time for no-one, no-one to have noticed there are very clear failures. To me, the two things which really stand out are who was speaking up for these children? If they had and advocate or a representative you would expect that this would have come to light. And what I suspect is they didn’t have anyone. And, secondly, there seems to have been no oversight. So the State authorities going in, how could the placement of 47 children be sanctioned for years with no-one watching what was going on? Or no-one stopping it? And, however it came to light, and the people brave enough to go in and say ‘this has to stop’, they have to be given credit for that but it’s really remarkable as to how that was allowed to go on for so long and with so many people. And I would say a lot of lives ruined.”
Keelin Shanley: “And Catherine, from what we know, between 1983 and 1995 these 47 children were placed in the home at various times. In 1995, it came to the attention of the authorities that there was a problem with the home. Do you understand how this one particular woman, Grace, as you were calling her here, how she could have been left behind?”
Ghent: “I am absolutely flabbergasted. The only reason she must have been left behind is there must have been either a horrendous failure to pass on information, which would indicate that perhaps she didn’t have a social worker allocated at the time, I don’t know. If she did, what access were, did she have records? What was in the records? Was there adequate information sharing in relation to the social workers for the other children? If that didn’t happen, why did it not happen? Were the guards involved? There should have been a strategy meeting commissioned by the gardaí, by the social work department and, within that strategy meeting, if information previously was not passed, it should have been shared at that meeting. So everyone should have known. But I think the most important, it goes back to why we felt it was so important to change the constitution, these children need a voice. And if you are in the care of the State, what is most striking about this is, I suspect, a lot of these people were placed on voluntary arrangements and there was no court oversight. We now have a system…”
Shanley: “Explain that Catherine – if you’re placed on a voluntary basis you don’t have to have other people involved or looking into your case?”
Ghent: “No and I think that this really has to be looked at. If a parent feels overwhelmed or under pressure and they say, ‘we just cannot care for our children’ they can sign their child into the care of the State. And if they do that, the matter does not go to court. And I think that’s unacceptable. Because then what you have is no independent monitoring. You have social workers who are there, in the grind, who perhaps have to go to court in other cases and the reality is if you have to answer and go to a different body and you have to make the case as to why the child should be in care – you get the information, you visit the child, you understand the harm that would occur if the child was not in the placement and you bring that to the court. If they’re in voluntary care, and I’ve seen children in voluntary care for up to 15 and 16 years...”
Shanley: “Without investigation..”
Ghent: “No oversight.”
Shanley: “Obviously, we don’t know the details of this case, we don’t know if this particular woman was in voluntary care or not but is this still happening? That people are being placed in voluntary care with no oversight?”
Ghent: “Yes, yes.”
Shanley: “At all?”
Ghent: “Yes. It absolutely is. My view is that no child should be in voluntary care for no more than six, at a maximum, eight weeks because it’s such a serious interference with the child’s rights. It’s a statement that there’s clearly something wrong in relation to care and that is not to blame parents, that’s to say this child has needs which primarily seem to be protection needs. But voluntary care is alive and well at this stage, and sometimes there’s a benign view taken that it’s better to cooperate with parents and if you go into the court arena, it can all get adversarial so therefore this is a means of avoiding that. And that’s a well-intentioned motive but the practical effect of that is without oversight no-one is checking it and, without oversight, the practical reality is that those cases, in my experience, slip as priorities and that’s when you get children left in situations where they shouldn’t be.”
Shanley: “It would seem from what Fergus Finlay was saying earlier, on Morning Ireland, that when the bulk of the children being cared for in this home were removed, that concerns had been raised, that some kind of appeal went through whereby Grace was allowed to stay with this family. Does that tally with the notion of voluntary care? That if it’s voluntary, you wouldn’t be subject to the same oversight as the other cases?”
Ghent: “It is, I mean, if they were subject to a care order, the child should have a voice, so the child should have a guardian ad liteum and the guardian ad liteum would be able to analyse and do an independent, not a full assessment of the foster care system, but analyse the assessments done by the social work department. The child, or young person, would have a voice within that appeals process and that’s what’s absolutely striking. These children have no voice…”
Ghent: And I’d really like people to actually say to politicians on the doorstep what are you going to do to protect our children so that our Grace doesn’t happen again?… If it’s the case that the State is avoiding the word ‘apology’ for the purposes of a defence perhaps in civil litigation then that really needs to be looked at because we cannot be any defence to a child or young person left in the circumstances that this girl was. There just cannot be.”
Ms Shanley reported that no representative from the HSE was available to speak on the show. She also reported that the show invited Health Minister Leo Varadkar, Children’s Minister Dr James Reilly and Junior Health Minister Kathleen Lynch to speak but all of them were unavailable.
Listen back in full here
Listen to Fergus Finlay’s interview on Morning Ireland here