Ireland's Child Care Institutions during the 20th. Century. Fo'T: The most vivid and passionate stories - banished babies, cruel orphanages, old abuses of power - have concerned things that went unnoticed, or at least unarticulated, at the time. News has often had to be redefined, not as the latest sensation but as that which everybody knew all along yet could not say.

Saturday, January 11, 2003

Abuse victims deserve far better treatment than this

IN HIS second stage speech to the Dail, introducing the Residential Institutions Redress Act at the beginning of last year, Michael Woods gave a bland and generalised picture of the climate in which abuse developed in the institutions of residential care. He suggested official neglect, with the churches and charities stepping in to help. It was, he said, "difficult and largely unrewarded work", improved a bit by the Children's Act of 1908. As late as 1970, however, "the Kennedy Committee found that the industrial and reformatory schools were housed in old and often unsuitable buildings, the institutions were under staffed by under trained or untrained personnel, the emotional needs of the children were not catered for even though they came from backgrounds of deprivation, an institutional approach prevailed, and financial provision made by public bodies was inadequate as was the system of inspection."

He claimed that this litany of deficiencies was as much the fault of contemporary Irish society and its leaders, as it was the fault of managers of the schools who, in many cases, were making do with the few resources they got. "Should it surprise us then that many children suffered emotional neglect, were hungry and poorly clothed, that corporal punishment was frequent and that the regime in most of the institutions could best be described as harsh?" That was his version, and it was designed to spread the blame over us all, embracing the Church, but identifying no real culprits. Now let me give the true picture. It was not the fault of Irish society, it was the fault of Government, more specifically successive Ministers for Education and the Department of Education.

The managers were not "making do". They were perverting the law and misusing the funding. The financial provisions were adequate, and the feeding and clothing of inmates could have been properly organised, as could their education and training. The system of inspection was a good one, and had previously worked well. The suffering that Michael Woods refers to should surprise us, since it was neither necessary nor ordained. It was imposed deliberately, perversely, wickedly. It did untold damage. No one within the system tried to stop it. Most turned a blind eye or ignored what they knew. The Kennedy Report, praised vastly beyond what it merits, was also wrong in its analysis. The State on its foundation in 1922 inherited an effective piece of legislation, the Children's Act of 1908, controlling institutional care and covering the administration of all institutions for children including industrial schools, orphanages, homes for disabled children and ordinary children's homes. The new Redress Act of 2002 lists 128 institutions, most of which were in existence or came into existence during the early life of the State.

The administration was the responsibility of the Department of Education. The Children's Act of 1908 was a dedicated legislative instrument, laying down standards for clothing, food, education, training and discipline. There was a countrywide inspectorate. This group of public servants was required to carry out annual inspections and file reports. The institutions had to have a manager who was answerable to the State. Those reports are still in the department. They are a record of the total collapse of the system that was required by law under the 1908 Act, many provisions of which are still in force. The inspectors, and the State, intimidated by the Church, failed totally to carry out their assignment designed to ensure the proper upbringing of the inmates, boys and girls.

Instead, they allowed the almost complete abrogation of control and protection. This led to a climate of cruelty, neglect, indifference, brutality, sexual exploitation, and the maiming and deaths of children. For years the majority of these children were underfed, and suffered disablement as a result. There was adequate money to feed them, provided by the State, sequestered and used for other things by the managers. The disciplinary regimes were appalling. The institutions were far worse than the most brutal of prisons, and lacked any of the restrictive controls that the State exercises within its prison system.

When the issue of child abuse became a major shame faced by the country, it was realised by many people, that there was some benefit to the State - and in a sense to the Church - if the burden of blame were somehow to be shared, blurred and diluted. It was always seen that the Church had compensating factors in its favour. It could claim good works, and it could rely on the faith of many of its supporters. But whatever may have been the problems facing the Church, it was recognised from an early stage that the Department of Education had no such sympathy in its favour. As a consequence, the appalling neglect and indifference of the Department, and of generations of its inspectors, have been kept in the background.

So, too, have the reports. These whitewash documents, a disgrace to the civil service men and women, including doctors and trained personnel, who wrote them, are virtually impossible to obtain, and have not been made the subject of the supposedly redemptive Residential Institutions Redress Act. The Department, as a culpable institution, does not figure at all. Nor does the Act provide for the inspectorate and its reports to be part of the process. It is essential to recognise that, while the widespread abuse was taking place in Artane and the legion of other notorious institutions, year after year reports went to the Department which gave no expression at all of unease over what was happening. It was known that things were seriously wrong. And it was known, not just occasionally, but year on year and decade on decade. And nothing was done. The law, represented by a sound administrative weapon, the Children's Act, was ignored.

It had worked in the early years of the last century. It worked tolerably well in the 1920s, for which I have seen early assessments and reports, and then it broke down. Far from the State wishing to deal openly and fairly with the enormous problem of abuse throughout the Irish institutional world for children from 1930 until the 1970s, the opposite is happening. The institutional reports, which still exist, as they should in law, are the key to the monstrous offence that was done to so many children over so many years. What actually happened is covered in a vast unwritten catalogue of every known abuse. This was spread across the whole State. What the State itself chose to see of this was nothing at all. No action was taken on foot of any report. No prosecutions were pursued. No managers were rebuked, removed or imprisoned.

The numbers of abused are estimated modestly at 2,500 or thereabouts. And the global figure for compensation is frequently expressed as €50,000. The real figure for abused men and women, if they felt more trusting of the climate in which to present themselves, would be around 20,000, and the range of payments, by any standard, should rise from a minimum figure of €50,000 to an average, for the destruction of a life, of €300,000. We have short-changed the abused. We have solved their problem with a totally inadequate scheme, badly cobbled together, unfair, containing seriously threatening elements, and backed by a secret deal parts of which were published yesterday, further parts of which are published by this paper today.

Michael Woods was in charge during much of the work of setting up this falsely persuasive answer to abuse. He joined the Cabinet sub-committee on Abuse when he was Minister - of all things - of the Marine. He took overall charge of legislation and negotiations from 2000 until the passage of the Act in 2002. After the election he went to the back benches where he is now. Noel Dempsey is unlikely to be happy with many of the provisions of the Act, some of which are extreme and inexplicable. Nor will he be happy with the secret deal. Whether he will act or not remains to be seen.

Whatever he does, abuse victims throughout the country and in the United Kingdom, where many of them went in flight from their experiences here, will be looking at the present situation with new perceptions now, emphatically more critical and more suspicious than they were.

Bruce Arnold Saturday January 11th 2003