“Grace cut a sad figure in a wretched state who was voiceless, dirty and whose only possession was a child’s toy which she held on to for dear life.
“Her treatment was not just shocking, but a scandal”
The president of the High Court, Mr Justice Peter Kelly, was scathing in his language as he awarded a Health Service Executive-funded settlement package of €6.3 million for a woman with serious intellectual disabilities in respect of the grotesque mistreatment and abuse she suffered while in State care.
It is telling that Justice Kelly insisted that the HSE formally swear in court to abide by the terms of the settlement. Clearly, the judge did not trust the HSE to do its duty by Grace. Given what we now know about Grace’s treatment while in State care, the judge is absolutely right.
It’s worth remembering that as the Grace story unfolded before the Dáil Public Accounts Committee last year, the HSE’s director general Tony O’Brien, had to return repeatedly to the committee to correct false information given by his officials.
Grace’s story has been in the public domain since journalist Sarah Bardon first reported in the Irish Mirror in February of 2015 that “allegations of sexual and physical abuse of up to 40 children at a foster home” had not been investigated properly by the HSE.
Grace herself became a person to most of us when Barnardos chief and Irish Examiner columnist Fergus Finlay decided she deserved a better name than “Service User 1”. Finlay says he did this in the hope that you and I would identify more readily with her, and anyway, as he put it, “she could well be a Grace”.
With that simple act of humanity, Finlay did a great and very decent thing for poor Grace.
It is only by remembering that Grace is a very real person that we can even begin to comprehend the abuse she suffered. We owe her that and much, much more, more than can ever be repaid.
The baby we would come to know as “Grace” was born in the late 1970s to a single mother in the South East. It had been intended that Grace would be put up for adoption but this fell through when she was born with microcephaly. Grace has been mute since birth.
Grace has been in State care since shortly after birth. The State decided to place Grace in foster care.
It needs to be stressed that Ireland is blessed to have thousands of foster families, decent, selfless people who offer kindness, stability and love to vulnerable children. They are good people, the very best of us, and it needs to be emphasised that Grace’s story is an absolute aberration.
From 1989 to 2009, Grace lived with one foster family.
In 1996, the foster father – who was later in 1999 diagnosed with Parkinson’s and who would die the following year – was accused of sexually abusing another child in the family’s care. At this point, the State decided that these allegations were serious enough to ensure that no other children would ever be placed with this family.
Looking at the HSE-commissioned and partially-redacted 2012 Conal Devine Report, published earlier this year, a few things jump out.
Grace was placed in this foster home on the basis that she was on a waiting list for a residential facility for people with intellectual disabilities and would stay in the foster home until a place was found for her.
There is no evidence that the foster parents were vetted in accordance with the requirements of the law. There is no evidence that the home itself was assessed for its suitability to be a home for someone with Grace’s needs.
In September of 1989, health professionals visited the foster home and raised concerns about the age of the foster father, and about the fact that Grace was not attending school, and that the home lacked other kids with whom she could interact.
In November 1990, it was noted that Grace was still not attending school.
For at least four years, there were no inspection visits to the home, despite these being mandatory.
In August 1995, the foster father suggests that there is no point in Grace receiving further education as there was “nothing could be done with her”.
Despite the foster father’s objections, Grace begins attending a day care facility.
On October 17th, 1995, a home visit notes that Grace removes her clothes when she gets home from the day care facility.
On October 19th, 1995, an incident report from the day care facility states: “While toileting [Grace] … large bruise noticed on left hip, appears tender to the touch. Bruises noticed also on the left elbow and right elbow just visible and not tender to touch.
Six days later, another incident report from the facility, states: “[Grace] completely stripped herself for no apparent reason, notified previously of these stripping incidents at home by [redacted]”.
In March, 1996, the mother of another child in care in the same foster home as Grace makes allegations of serious sexual abuse. It should be noted that the Devine report states there was no substantive investigation of these allegations.
On April 2nd, a meeting of the relevant health board officials decides that Grace – now 17 – needs to be removed from the foster home. This is as a direct result of the allegations of sexual abuse. The age and health of one of the foster parents is also a factor. Within a week, arrangements are made to secure a bed for Grace in a residential facility for people with intellectual disabilities.
The foster father is notified of the complaint against him, and the family is informed of their right to appeal the decision to remove Grace.
Here’s where things get really murky. Case conferences are held where no minutes are taken, and it is agreed that, while the health board will no longer use the foster family for other children, Grace will remain with them pending the outcome of their appeal. On April 24th, the foster father separately requests that Grace be allowed to stay with them until autumn so that his grandchild can get used to the prospect of Grace’s leaving.
In April, a bed is secured for Grace in a residential care facility, but it is then allocated to someone else on the understanding that a place will be made available for her in the autumn.
In May, the foster parents make their case to two health professionals, Dr Marie Kennedy and Dr Marie Ryan, but there is no record of their making a decision or recommendation on the case.
On August 9th, the foster family writes to the then Minister for Health and tells him they have “lost” their appeal and are asking him to “decide in (their) favour”.
The foster father writes:
“We have looked forward to having Grace for a few more years in fact until my wife reached retirement age. How anyone can say the type of move envisaged for Grace is in her best interest beats all.”
“Our grandson is 8 years of age who lives with us has always regarded Grace as his sister and to suddenly part them would be very upsetting for him particularly as his mother died last year.”
“…I can see no valid reason for this move…”
The Devine Report notes that, six days later, the Department of Health requests from the health board a report on the case.
Five days later, the Department of Health is told the matter is being dealt with under Section 43 of the Child Care Act. The health board tells the Department of Health it has “grounds for believing that it is in the best interests of the child to be removed from its current child care placement.”
The same letter to the Department of Health notes “an agreement to leave her with the family for the summer”. But no record exists of any such agreement.
On August 26th, the principal of a school attended by the grandson of the foster parents writes in support of Grace’s remaining with the foster family. In September, the Department of Health gives this school principal’s letter to the health board with a request for a report.
The health board replies that the matter is “currently under consideration by the professional staff on the board” and that the school principal’s view would be taken into account in “reaching their recommendations in relation to the future care of Grace.”
The Devine report notes:
“There is some dispute in recollection between the professionals as to whether a decision was taken not to remove [Grace] prior to the case conference held on 24th October 1996. There is also a dispute as to why the decision to remove confirmed at the case conference in April 1996 was effectively overturned in October 1996.
“The [redacted] is of the view that the decision was taken at the case conference while the [redacted] was of the view that the decision not to remove was because ‘the appeal’ by the [redacted] was successful.”
Which is interesting, as, in his August 9th letter to the Health Minister, the foster father had said they had lost the appeal.
The October 24th case conference notes “there is no evidence that anything happened to Grace or that her well-being or welfare are not being met…”
However, the conference is also told that neither the health board nor any intellectual disability service provider would be placing any further children in that home.
On November 14th 1996, the foster parents are informed that Grace will be staying with them.
Four years later, in 2000, the foster father dies. A year later, the foster mother says she’s relying on the income that she receives for looking after Grace and says she’d like Grace to stay with her and her grandson until he turns 18 (in 2006).
On March 27th 2009, suspicious bruising is noticed on Grace’s thigh and breast and she is taken to A&E and then to a Sexual Assault Treatment Unit. A statement is also taken by Gardaí. Grace is later returned to the foster home as it is deemed “the least worst option”.
Grace remains at the home until July 17, 2009, at which time she is placed in residential care.
Protected disclosures by whistleblowers in relation to the treatment of Grace are made in late 2009 and early 2010.
There are serious questions to be answered here.
How did the health board come to the conclusion that the foster family had been successful in its appeal?
Why did the foster family’s grandson’s school principal feel the need to intervene? Why was this intervention entertained by the health board?
Why did Grace stay in the foster home for a further thirteen years after the first allegations of sexual abuse were made?
What effect did the foster family’s communication with the then Minister for Health – asking him to intervene and reverse the decision to remove Grace from the foster home – have in the reversal of that decision?
Mr Justice Peter Kelly said last week that, had a commission of inquiry not been set up, he would have insisted on many questions being answered, not least of them exactly what “extraordinary” hold the foster family had over the health board.
We owe Grace the truth.
We also owe Grace honesty.
When Fergus Finlay wrote so movingly of the abuse Grace suffered, he decided he could not speak of the details of that abuse as he had been unable to sleep when he learned those details. I sympathise but disagree.
I think that as the ultimate owners of the Irish State, you and I have a duty to know Grace’s story.
So, in the interest of honesty, let us speak honestly and say this: Grace was – over two decades – subjected to physical and sexual abuse of the most depraved and horrific nature. Grace was raped – on an ongoing basis over all of that time – with implements.
Grace has been left with injuries so irreparable, so grievous, that she will probably die from them.
Imagine that. Please, imagine that. As Irish citizens, as the owners of the HSE, you and I owe Grace that much.
And – by the way – Grace is not alone. Between 1985 and 2013, a total of 47 children with profound intellectual disabilities were placed in that foster home. How many more children who passed through that house of horrors were similarly abused?
The Fianna Fáil TD and former chair of the Dáil Public Accounts Committee John McGuinness, played an important part in uncovering the foster home abuse scandal. He told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland last week that, while the settlement to Grace is welcome, it is overdue and “does not compensate in any way for the loss of a life that was destroyed at the hands of the HSE”.
In this, McGuinness was echoing Mr Justice Kelly, who had said that money can never compensate for what Grace has suffered, but it is “the best the law can do”.
Calling for those responsible to be named, McGuinness said he hopes the State commission of inquiry “gets to the very bottom of both this foster home and who went through it. We want to know who these people were.”
McGuinness said HSE and Tusla officials must “now ensure the type of abuse, physical and sexual abuse, that Grace endured all these years does not happen again” and said the “cover-up” of the case can never be repeated.
John McGuinness told Morning Ireland “the day you blame a system and walk away from it is over in Ireland.”
So far, there is precious little evidence that he is right.
This is Ireland.
The only person in responsibility who is ever named is our national scapegoat, Systems Failure.
This is Ireland. Nobody in authority is ever held to account for their mistakes. Nobody in authority ever pays for the damage they cause. They never have and they never will.
This is Ireland.
By the way, and accepting the spirit of McGuinness’ insistence that names be named, the then Minister for Health who was lobbied by the foster father to stop Grace being removed from the foster home in which such evil was done on a routine basis?
The minister who insists to this day he did no wrong?
That minister was Michael Noonan.