It’s not even twelve months since we passed the Children’s Rights referendum. Less than a year since we all bought into the idea that an X in a box would give children a voice. “A once in a generation opportunity to show how much Ireland values children” we were told. No doubt the people of Ireland do cherish children, and for many the referendum was a warm, fuzzy expression of that. But in the crucial parts of our systems of government where child protection is concerned it’s as if the 10th of November 2012 never happened.
For three years before the referendum vote I had been lobbing questions at the HSE about an 11 year old rape victim I am calling “Maggie”. For ten months since the referendum I have been throwing much the same questions at them on a regular enough basis. Both before and after the referendum the questions were shrugged off with the same feckless ease. If this referendum actually strengthened the protections in law for children either nobody told the agency primarily responsible for implementing them or this child wasn’t covered by those laws.
“Maggie” has been traumatised by this experience. Both by being raped many times, some times at knife point, and by being ignored, left untreated and not believed by the people she thought were supposed to be there to care for her. And yet almost seven years on from first reporting the rape to Gardaí she has a genuine sense of wanting the system to change for others. Many victims mouth these kind of platitudes because it is part of positive re-framing excercises taught by therapists. In her case it is genuine.
I believe she is sincere because all the time that as a pre-teen she was being mishandled and brutalised by petty little bureaucrats she intuited it shouldn’t be like this for anybody, not just her. With the pure, uncomplicated logic of a child as far as she was concerned it was this simple: she got raped, she should be helped.
She shouldn’t have to watch her mother despairing over the phone trying to secure a physical examination by a woman as opposed to a man. She shouldn’t have to feel that it was wrong to be emotionally drained by the Garda interviews and not wanting to do an more without her mum present. She shouldn’t be picked upon by officials who told her it would be in her interests to drop her complaints.
And that is why, long after it was likely that anything that would benefit her was to be gained, she told her mother to persist in complaining. You can hear Maggie, her mother Sarah and The Children’s Ombudsman, Emily Logan, in my report for Drivetime here.
In my experience state agencies don’t like people who know what they want or have an idea what they might be entitled to. Maggie’s mum knew the Gardai and HSE were dragging their feet. That is why she started kicking up a fuss. She was pegged as “difficult” and “challenging” right from the start. In fact nameless, and obviously shameless, HSE officials still persist in spreading that defamation to this day.
What parent wouldn’t be “difficult” if they felt their recently ravaged child was not getting every bit of treatment that they could to heal their wounds? Personally I’d be a physical danger to anyone who wasn’t doing everything possible for my child. But don’t lets fall into the trap of thinking that Maggie’s mother’s personality is of even the slightest relevance. She could be a screaming harridan, hurling the foulest of personal abuse every time she opens her mouth and it still shouldn’t make any difference to the treatment Maggie received.
But it did. In an understated but thoroughly comprehensive report published today The Children’s Ombudsman, Emily Logan, called it exactly like it is. The HSE focussed on its dispute with the mother and ignored it’s statutory obligations to the child. “It’s just not good enough”, said Logan
Just think about that for a minute. They focussed on a dispute with the mother. They ignored the child who had been raped. They ignored the child who they were later told had attempted suicide. They ignored the child they were told had been diagnosed with depression. They ignored the child they were told was raped again because in despair at the lack of action being taken on her behalf she had foolishly confronted her rapist. They ignored the child’s solicitor when he wrote on Maggie’s behalf, not even acknowledging receipt of a letter from this officer of the court. In all they ignored the child for seven long years.
Well strictly speaking they ignored her up until 2011. By then Emily Logan’s investigation had begun in earnest. The potential for embarrassment couldn’t be ignored inside the HSE so officials did what comes so naturally. They slipped seamlessly from burying their heads to covering their arses.
Maggie’s GP was contacted by a social worker who sought confidential information about her mother and then started talking out loud about whether or not Maggie might need to be taken into care. Maggie’s headmistress was contacted and told not to let Maggie return to school unless she attended a named psychiatrist. The headmistress and doctor thankfully had the backbone to tell the official what to go and do with herself. At a meeting with a Social Worker (their one and only) it became clear to Maggie and her mum that the tap on services for Maggie would be turned open if only the complaint to the Ombudsman was dropped.
These actions may have been misinterpreted by Maggie and Sarah. There may be an entirely innocent explanation for what these officials were trying to do. But if so the HSE haven’t taken the opportunity I have offered them to correct this sinister interpretation.
There can be no excuse whatsoever though for the supposed mental healthcare professional who told Maggie that her mother’s complaints were behind her depression and suicidal feelings. He may have had a point, but if he had recognised the distress the dispute was causing Maggie how callous of him to tell a teenager this. How astonishingly cruel not to work to remove the HSE imposed cause of the distress rather than undermine the child’s relationship with the only person caring for her properly.
I hope that Maggie’s case is isolated. It doesn’t bear thinking about that there may be hundreds others suffering in the same way. But logic and numbers suggest otherwise. The 2011 Review of Adequacy documents indicate that 3,326 children disclosed sexual abuse to the authorities that year. It is possible that more than 50% of them never got into or beyond the first assessment interview that Maggie fell at. (I’m looking for specifics on this but it takes time) There are myriad different reasons but the net effect is this; potentially hundreds of sex abuse victims unable to access therapeutic services every year.
Even if some of these kids haven’t been sexually assaulted doesn’t making a claim to the authorities that you have been not suggest you’re in need of professional help anyway?
I’m not going to deal in this blog with what should be happening inside the HSE in response to the Ombudsman’s criticisms. It’s a zero sum game looking for accountability within an almost entirely unaccountable institution. It has occurred to me though that there might be ways to avoid these kind of situations ever occurring. Maggie in common with many others I’ve met with similar real grievances would have been considerably compensated early on with a simple apology. Protracted stand offs could be avoided, many man hours saved and much human agony prevented if we developed a formula for a “no liability sorry”. Institutions like the HSE are guided by the “Teflon principle” of Never saying sorry means never having to admit in court that you’re liable. If released from the shackles of this professional constraint I wonder how much closer to the aspirations of the Children’s Rights referendum we might creep.
They are working in Canada on methods of how to allow officials to say sorry and find a way forward without it coming back and biting them in the backside. An official “sorry, we were wrong to treat you that way” would go a long, long way for Maggie.