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When child protection goes wrong

County View

County View
John Healy

The spike in reported domestic violence arising from Covid-19 is reflected in wide concern for the safety of children living in stressful, dysfunctional family situations. But it should also raise concern over the danger of well-intentioned but misguided interference in complex circumstances, often resulting in a distortion of the principles of justice.
A case in point was that in the Dublin Family Courts last week where a businesswoman, whose children were removed by social workers on foot of allegations that were later retracted, received an apology from Tusla.
There was, the agency admitted, inconsistencies and general discrepancies in how the case was conducted. The two youngest children had been returned to their mother’s custody two years later, by which time, the woman said, Tusla’s intervention had had a devastating effect on family life and on the children’s education and wellbeing.
It is almost 20 years since one of the country’s prominent campaigners for women’s rights and social justice was found guilty by the Medical Council of professional misconduct in the handling of alleged child-abuse cases.
Dr Moira Woods had been appointed head of the country’s first Sexual Assault Unit at the Rotunda Hospital in 1985. Although her initial brief was the care of assault victims, it soon became apparent that the area of child sexual abuse – up to then a taboo subject – was more widespread than ever acknowledged. And once the floodgates opened, the reporting of child abuse cases became a torrent.
Dr Woods, as the expert in the field, sat in judgement both in offering medical diagnoses but, more importantly, in identifying and giving court evidence against the perpetrators.
But then, in 1993, the first complaint was made to the Medical Council by a father who claimed he had been wrongly accused and convicted of the sexual abuse of his daughter, ten years earlier.
Little credence was given at first to his complaint, but, bit by bit, word began to spread that certain parents had been dragged through the courts on charges that, they claimed, were without foundation. Finally, five families involving eleven children, some of whom had been placed in care for up to ten years, succeeded in having an enquiry held by the Medical Council.
Dr Woods was found guilty on 13 charges. But the damage had been done; families had been torn apart, loving relationships had been destroyed. And the accepted assurance that there had been no intentional malice in Dr Woods’s conduct was cold comfort for those whose family life had been destroyed.
In between, there had been the Maurice McCabe travesty, when Tusla’s botched handling of its internal records meant that a false child-abuse allegation was left on a Tusla file for two years. It was a ‘clerical error’ that left the country aghast, stretching a nation’s credulity to the limit.
The agency’s new chairman, former government minister Pat Rabbitte, has pleaded that Tusla is understaffed, undertrained and underfunded. He may well be right, but it is a situation unlikely to improve if, as current soundings suggest, the Department of Children is due for the axe under the next government.
In the meantime, the beleaguered agency has more than enough to worry about. This week, Tusla became the first organisation in the State to be fined for a breach of GDPR, a €75,000 fine arising from an investigation into three cases where information about children was wrongly disclosed to third parties.
The following day, Tusla was accused of sending five children to Carlingford Adventure Centre in Co Louth, two weeks after Covid travel restrictions had come into force.