School & District Management

Critics: Ireland Slow to Protect Students

By Shawn Pogatchnik, The Associated Press — May 21, 2009 4 min read
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Child-abuse activists warned Thursday that Ireland failed to learn the lessons from decades of unchecked brutality inside Catholic Church-run schools and still offers poor protection to vulnerable boys and girls.

This week’s mammoth report into the abuse of thousands of children in Catholic-run schools blamed successive Irish governments for permitting rape and other sadistic practices inside the tax-funded facilities throughout most of the 20th century.

The authors of the nine-year investigation offered a long list of recommendations to toughen and modernize the way children – particularly those in state care – are supervised and protected. The proposals included 24-hour emergency social care, surprise inspections of children’s homes, and more rigorous enforcement of existing rules.

The government of Prime Minister Brian Cowen, which is battling one of Europe’s worst recessions and budget deficits, says it will enact the improvements as quickly as possible. Those on the front lines of child protection said they doubted that would happen.

“People would be wrong to think that the danger is behind us. Ireland’s child protection policies are still a generation behind the standards in the United Kingdom and the United States. Our leaders are far too complacent,” said Maeve Lewis, whose Dublin pressure group One in Four publicizes child sexual abuse in Ireland.

Lewis noted that a string of child-abuse scandals involving church and lay abusers inspired a string of official inquiries and nearly 200 recommendations since 1993.

“Most of those recommendations have never been implemented,” she said. “If we do not finally begin to put the needs of children first, all of us will be sitting here in 30 years’ time talking about some other scandal that somehow evaded our attention or care.”

Ireland’s minister for children, Barry Andrews, said the government was determined to keep strengthening child protection.

He said today’s system for placing children into protective care “bears no comparion” to Ireland’s church-run industrial schools, which were closed down gradually from the 1960s to the 1990s. In those days, courts that deemed a child a petty criminal, school truant or from a dysfunctional home could order him or her into the church’s custody – for an average of nine years.

These days Ireland’s Health Service Executive, responsible for running hospitals and enforcing public health policy, places more than 90 percent of children deemed at risk with foster families, not institutions. Of approximately 5,300 children in state care, only about 450 are in state residences or emergency shelters.

Andrews declined to comment on the Health Service Executive’s admission in February that 20 children in state care had died or been killed in the previous six years. The causes ranged from drug overdoses to assaults, but no inquest results have been made public in any case.

Child-abuse activists stressed that the greatest weakness in Ireland’s system is that it takes far too long to identify children in danger and rescue them. They noted that the government and Health Service Executive fund no child-protection workers for nights and weekends, leaving police to fill in the gap.

Two recent cases illustrate the shocking risks that children still face from slow official reaction to even the most obvious warnings.

In January, a 40-year-old single mother became the first woman in Irish history to be convicted of incest. The woman – whose identity was concealed to protect her children – was a notorious drunk in her village, and her six children the object of ridicule in school, because of their poor hygiene, lice, cuts and bruises, filthy clothes and other inescapable signs of neglect.

Social workers and police spent nearly a decade monitoring the woman’s inability to care for her children, which included garbage, clothes and even excrement piling up in the home. But the children weren’t placed in foster care until the eldest boy, aged 13, told police she had been forcing him to have sex with her.

Earlier this month, Andrews’ department published findings into the 2007 case of a couple who, descending into madness, had planned their own suicides and the murder of their two daughters aged 5 and 3.

The investigation found that the parents, Adrian and Ciara Dunne, took their children to a mortician and discussed plans for four coffins, a burial plot and the husband’s will. Once the Dunnes left, the funeral home warned police.

It was a Friday night with no social workers on duty, so police asked a Catholic priest to visit the family. He asked a second priest, who found the Dunne home silent and curtains drawn. Police and Health Services Executive spent the weekend arguing about which organization should take charge.

When officers and social workers jointly made it to the Dunne home that Monday afternoon, they found the man hanging from a rope, his wife strangled, and both girls smothered with pillows.

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