By Daniel McConnell, Political Editor
Monday, June 06, 2016
After the decades of appalling abuse Grace is alleged to have suffered in a foster home, comes yet another shocking thought: Was someone trying to cover it up? Political Editor Daniel McConnell shows how the HSE has already tried to stonewall and hoodwink an Oireachtas committee on some matters relevant to the case, and cautions that the new commission of inquiry offers no guarantee that justice will be served
IT WAS shocking, horrific. This mute, intellectually disabled woman arrived at her day care centre only to take off her underwear and adopt a sexual position on the utterance of a particular phrase.
She needed to have seven teeth removed because of the neglect she endured.
Deeply alarmed, her carers immediately sought to intervene.
This was in 2009. The young woman, who we now know as Grace had been left to languish in a foster home for 20 years, despite major concerns about the safety of that home being known by authorities since 1992. Allegations of the most profound rape, abuse, and neglect of some of the most vulnerable people in our society are now under criminal and civil investigations. The house involved is unremarkable from the outside. A modest country cottage which to the outside world looks like many others. But what is said to have gone on in that house has led some of the most experienced politicians to say it is the most harrowing case they have ever encountered.
The HSE has this year finally apologised to Grace and 46 other children and young adults who went through this home, but seven years later after whistle blowers involved sought to highlight the abject neglect of Grace, a commission of inquiry is about to commence into what happened in this Waterford foster House of Horrors.
Against all the odds and repeated attempts by the system to cover this up, brave individuals risked their careers in order to speak out in order to obtain justice.
Lifting the lid
A detailed dossier, compiled by one of Grace’s social workers, which was later sent to members of the Dail Public Accounts Committee (PAC), revealed the full extent of the horror experienced by Grace and others who were placed by the State in this home.
This dossier, seen by the Irish Examiner, detailed how the whistleblower was assigned to Grace in 2008 and how immediately she was concerned as to Grace’s state of neglect. She began examining her new client’s medical and care history.
What she found rocked her to her core.
According to the health board files, the foster home at the centre of the allegations was located in an isolated area in Waterford and was run by a couple who set up home there in the 1970s.
Children were placed there by the health board and the Brothers of Charity, while some families used it privately. It is now known that the Brothers of Charity ended its association with the foster home in the early 1990s after becoming aware the family had been dishonest about the number of children in their care.
The Irish Examiner has learned that the then South Eastern Health Board had known of allegations of sex abuse at the home since 1992, but nothing was done.
Concerns were expressed by a family about their daughter and an allegation of sexual abuse was made. The complaint was dropped due to a threat of legal action by the foster family and the health board did not investigate the issue further.
But then, in late 1995 or early in 1996, a further allegation of sexual abuse was made.
According to the social worker, documentation from that period showed the health board decided, on the basis of information known to it, to cease placing children in the care of the family.
But one child, who had been in the home since 1989 and was living there full time was allowed to remain. That child was Grace. Incredibly, she would be left to languish in the home for another 13 years. Thirteen years.
According to the whistleblower file, while on a visit to a day service for people with intellectual disabilities, a 17-year-old Grace was said to be “wolfing down” her dinner, stealing food, stripping off her clothes, banging her head against the wall, screaming, and laughing uncontrollably. She was also found to have bruising on her body, which could not be explained by her carers.
A report from the health board’s area medical officer stated she weighed five stone.
But this is the most incredible part.
It has since emerged that in 1996, the health board decided to end Grace’s foster care arrangement at the home. As revealed by the Irish Examiner earlier this year, the foster father wrote directly to the then minister for health, Michael Noonan, appealing to have the decision overturned.
Mr Noonan, according to other documents seen by this newspaper, queried the matter and handed it over to his junior minister Austin Currie. Whatever happened, the decision to remove Grace was overturned and she remained at risk until the whistleblower’s intervention in 2009.
According to the dossier, the social worker was concerned Grace may have suffered internal damage and that objects may have been inserted in her back passage.
She contacted Grace’s mother, who was living in the UK, seeking permission to have her removed, but did not tell her of the sex-abuse concerns.
It has also been suggested by the dossier that between 2001 and 2007, nothing happened to ensure Grace’s safety.
No-one from the health board or the HSE visited Grace, and her case file lay dormant in a cabinet until August 2007.
At that stage, her mother rang to inquire about her wellbeing.
At that point, the HSE requested that a local disability organisation hold a residential bed open for her, at a cost of €120,000 per annum. However, she still wasn’t moved.
Concerns were then raised by the author of the dossier after Grace turned up for a day-service appointment in August 2008 with a black eye.
The following March, she was found to have bruising on her breast and thigh. She was brought to a sexual assault treatment unit but became distressed and would not cooperate with an examination. The whistleblower in her dossier claimed gardaí did not fully investigate these incidents.
Finally, in July 2009, Grace was removed from the home after her mother was informed of the bruising and demanded action be taken.
The fight for justice
While the HSE commenced an investigation in 2009 into what was raised by the whistleblower, the nature and the strength of those inquiries has been severely criticised.
The whistleblower has alleged criminal negligence by the former health board and the HSE, with recommendations to remove the girl from the home not acted upon.
The former chairman of the PAC, John McGuinness, and his vice-chair John Deasy, accused a ‘clique of HSE managers’ of covering up what went on in the foster home.
Issues surrounding the care of Grace and other intellectually-disabled children have been subject to a number of Garda investigations and three HSE-commissioned reviews, which have seen external consultants and law firms paid in excess of €500,000.
But the chances of successful prosecutions were rated as low, as the key witnesses would not be able to give evidence, as they are non-verbal.
In 2012, consultant Conal Devine produced his report for the HSE into the allegations, but as yet his report has not yet been published. A second report, conducted by Resilience Ireland, into the foster home allegations was completed in 2015. It too has not yet been published.
Becoming increasingly frustrated at the lack of progress, the whistleblowers looked to the new protected disclosures legislation to bring the horrific abuse to light.
At the end of their tether, they directed their pleas to members of the PAC, using the issue of procurement irregularities relating to the €100,000 Devine report as a way in.
But quickly, Deasy and McGuinness realised the much wider issue and began to ask very uncomfortable questions of the HSE.
They demanded answers and McGuinness himself went to Pearse Street Garda Station to make his own protected disclosure on the matter in March 2015
But again they were stonewalled. The HSE said it could not comment in detail as the matter was under criminal investigation, to the frustration of those seeking answers.
But then in January, the HSE produced a 24-page report for the PAC about the case.
The Health Service Executive (HSE) for the first time admitted significant failings in cases of “savage” rape and physical abuse of disabled children in a foster home in the South-East, seven years after allegations were first raised.
Following an appeal to the Information Commissioner before Christmas, the HSE has sent a limited amount of the Devine Report’s findings and recommendations to the PAC.
In these documents, obtained by the Irish Examiner, the HSE apologised for the first time to the victim of the abuse for the failings in care standards.
“The HSE has made arrangements to meet with the service user who was the subject of the Devine report to apologise for the significant failings of the service in meeting the service user’s needs over such an extended period of time,” the report stated.
“The HSE also in public comment is apologising to all those who received poor care when placed with this foster family,” the report added.
However, one of the whistleblowers said no such apology has yet been given directly to the alleged victim of the abuse.
“After six years of raising concerns, I welcome at long last that the HSE have acknowledged the significant failings in what happened,” said the whistle blower. “What is the apology for, if they can’t tell us the findings, or who is responsible?”
A botched apology
Despite the whistleblower insistence that no apology was given, the HSE continued to claim otherwise, putting forward a detailed account of when and where it was given.
The denials of the Irish Examiner story were sent to the PAC.
But, Mr Deasy and Mr McGuinness having been in contact with the whistleblower, were outraged at what they saw as a blatant attempt to hoodwink the PAC.
They demanded answers. Sure enough, the HSE was forced to relent and admit the apology had not been given as claimed.
At the height of the Irish Examiner’s coverage, Fergus Finlay, CEO of the children’s charity Barnardos, wrote a powerful column and decided to give the woman at the heart of this crisis the name Grace. It stuck and she has been referred to as such ever since.
An emergency meeting of the PAC was convened with the HSE on February 3.
They got pasted.
“Mr O’Brien spoke of those who constructed the two-page rebuttal to the Irish Examiner. Frankly, if Daniel McConnell had not written that story in the Irish Examiner, we would not be sitting here talking about this today.
“Of Mr O’Brien’s two-page detailed rebuttal with regard to individuals, how they did it and what they said, is he comfortable that he was given the correct information? He stated that it was a misunderstanding, etc. I do not believe that,” said Mr Deasy.
Through the course of the maelstrom of the meeting, the HSE admitted that yet another woman was left in the foster home until 2013. They sought to deflect criticism because the person was there in a private capacity, but it cut little ice with PAC members.
For several days, as the country geared up for a general election, pressure mounted on Government ministers to act to address the expanding crisis.
Mr Noonan’s intervention as health minister in 1996 came back into sharp focus following publication of the letters by the Irish Examiner.
He said he handed the matter over to Austin Currie and denied any wrongdoing.
But on foot of the botched apology, junior health minister Kathleen Lynch and her senior Minister Leo Varadkar came under fire to announce a commission of investigation into Grace’s case and that of the other 46 children.
Commenting on the unfolding crisis, McGuinness said: “This is the worst case of incompetence and mismanagement within the HSE I have seen. We want full disclosure from them on Tuesday. As an organisation, it appears to be in disarray, and they simply failed to look after some of the most vulnerable children in the country.”
Firmly in the crosshairs, and not wanting to overshadow the beginning of the general election campaign, Ms Lynch and Mr Varadkar relented to the pressure and announced a commission of investigation would be launched into Grace’s case.
But even as he was announcing the commission, Varadkar cautioned that the allegations have not been proven and remain simply that — allegations.
Noonan, under fire during the election campaign, issued the same caution, that not one of the allegations had yet been proven.
Given the HSE had already apologised publicly for the failings in care, such a stance from the two ministers appeared strange.
Justice at last?
While the outgoing cabinet approved the commission, because of a technicality, it would not be formally established until after the general election.
This was because Ms Lynch had asked senior counsel Conor Dignam to undertake a scoping exercise into the allegations at the home.
The Dignam report is due back to Government imminently and will be handed to new Junior Minister Finian McGrath.
Since the election, all parties and independents have committed to ensure the commission is established, but there are still no guarantees justice will be served.
TIMELINE OF HORROR
1983-1995 – 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 are 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 decide 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 will remain 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. Gardai 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 hear 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 revealed that 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 caught misleading Irish Examiner and PAC over apology claims, and eventually apologise for doing so.
Feb 2016 – After 10 days of controversy, Health ministers Leo Varadkar and Kathleen Lynch relent and announce Commission of Inquiry.
June 2016 – Conor Dignam scoping report due to Government on foster home allegations.