Scandal of our child care Institutions 1954
As sound bites go, it was a good one - Taoiseach and Minister for Education Eamon DeValera was getting his retaliation in first by condemning himself out of his own mouth. His comparison of parts of the Letterfrack in Galway to the worst cell in Kilmainham Jail was guaranteed to garner headlines.
However, the Minister's timing in issuing this certainly justified criticism of the Letterfrack child care facility was interesting. It immediately preceded the publication of the annual report of the inspector of Reformatories & Industrial Schools, which contains probably the most damning picture yet of an entire system in crisis.
As a result of Mr DeValera's colourful analogy, much attention given to the report centred around Letterfrack, where conditions are so indefensible there isn't even any point in making the attempt. The Minister, of course, has an answer to that: extra money has been allocated to eliminate, and anyway, the entire facility is being replaced in the near future.
What the Taoiseach and Minister might find considerably more difficult to deal with is the extraordinary picture painted by the inspector of Reformatories & Industrial Schools of chronic mismanagement and glaring maladministration in the area of child care, for which, of course, the Minister has ultimate responsibility.
Indicating the low priority accorded to the care of children, DeValera didn't even bother to issue a statement on the inspector's annual report. He showed no such reticence, however, when he announced additional (and much needed) investment in the area of the care of children in the Institutions.
Dr Anna McCabe is the new Medical Inspector of Reformatories & Industrial Schools, taking over from another doctor, who for years repeatedly and forcefully criticised the system. What Dr McCabe has done in her 550-page report for 1954 is to hone those criticisms into a list of headings, of which the majority - somewhat startlingly - do not relate to the need for additional funding.
Of her eight main problem areas, six relate directly to bad management. These are: lack of information management capabilities within the Institutions; lack of clinical governance systems; management deficiencies within the service; lack of accountability for failure to deliver proper child care services efficiently; resource mismanagement.
This conclusion is in stark contrast to what we hear from those managing our Institutions, namely the Religious Orders - that the problems all come down to lack of money. While it is certainly true, as the inspector points out, that the entire area has for decades been starved of funds, it is far from the full story.
Describing management capabilities as "primitive", Dr McCabe outlines the phenomenon of warring factions within different areas refusing to co-operate with each other or the Education Department. What she identifies as an "unhealthy defensiveness" and "isolationist" operate to neglect fundamentally what is of central importance in any quality child care service - the needs and priorities of those who use the service.
JOANNA (not her real name) is one of those who has used the service for almost a decade. She has no doubts about who is to blame for the way she was treated. "It's a draconian system. There's a clear divide between them and us, nuns and children. It's about power and how they have it all and, in my case, they spent years making me feel worthless and defective," she told me. "What the Institutions do is degrade you as a person. No one ever bothered to find out anything about me personally, or any reason why I was in detention. They labelled me as a 'useless child'".
What is described for Institution after Institution in the inspector's report is a model of child care which is dominated by the Resident Manager, with little or no input from anywhere else . Psychologists, social workers etc., are clearly regarded as marginal within the system. The priest or head nuns rules like Stalin.
While it is certainly true that lack of funding plays a significant role here, it is long past time that we began asking fundamental questions of Resident Managers about their largely unchallenged domination of a system which causes so much misery to so many children trapped within it.