By Jennifer O'Connell
The HSE once lost a file on my child.
There’s nothing unusual in this - almost everyone has a story of HSE incompetence.
The incident, though not serious, gave me a brief insight - a mere shadow of the kind of insight the whole country has been getting over the past seven days - into how irredeemably dysfunctional the system is.
My daughter, then a baby, had been referred by her public health nurse to a HSE doctor for a potentially serious concern, which could have had a lifelong effect on her mobility. From there, she was sent for an X-ray and - or so I understood - put on the waiting list for a consultant’s appointment.
That was the last we ever heard about it.
Perhaps nine months passed before I finally got around to making enquiries. The issue for which she’d been seen in the first place had cleared up by itself, but I wanted to know why it had never been followed up. I spent half a day on the phone, chasing up staff in my public health clinic and trying to speak to someone in the hospital, but it seemed the file had simply disappeared.
I was mildly annoyed, but now I realise I was lucky. In our case, they only lost a file.
The HSE, as we now know - as the families of Daniel McAnaspie, Tracey Fay, Danny Talbot, and countless others, have known for some time - routinely loses children.
Several hundred children - perhaps as many as 750 - have disappeared or died while in the ‘care’ of the state.
This newspaper revealed last week that the number of children who died under the watch of the state over the past decade may be as high as 200.
It now seems that even this figure, shocking though it is, could be conservative.
Despite the HSE’s ‘data collation flaws’ - as they choose to euphemistically describe the total dearth of information on the whereabouts of hundreds of children, some of whom are missing, and some of whom are dead - this newspaper reports this weekend that in two counties alone, the numbers of children who died while in HSE care could be as high as 20.
The Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) also revealed last week that, since March, the deaths of six children have been reported to it. That’s an average of two a month across the nation, 24 every year, or 240 since the turn of the century.
‘In state care’ doesn’t mean that these children were all in foster homes or state-run institutions; according to the definition under the Children Act, many of them may simply have been known to social workers.
But let’s not be hysterical here.
Let’s say the nationwide average is lower than it was in those two counties; let’s say that the months of March, April and May were a particularly brutal blip.
Let’s say that nine children in HSE care in every county have died over the past ten years. Let’s imagine that, even in Dublin, just nine children have died in that time while in state care. That still adds up to 257 children.
The latest estimate, meanwhile, on the number of non national children who have gone missing or died while in state care is between 400 and 500, according to Fergus Finlay of children’s charity Barnardos.
Leaving aside the fact that this is a not inconsiderable margin of error - these are, after all, children - just think about it for a moment. At least 400 children: vanished, evaporated, gone.
At the most conservative estimate, then, 650 children may have been lost - metaphorically or literally - while in the care of this state.
The real number is probably much higher.
Of course, the ‘data collation issue’ - or, as the HSE seems to prefer to call it, this ‘deficit’ or ‘inconsistency’ - means that it is likely to be some weeks more before we know whether this is an accurate picture.
In fact, the system is so utterly dysfunctional that, by last week, a single file on any of these children had yet to be handed over by the HSE to the independent team set up to review this issue.
Minister for Children Barry Andrews said last week he was ‘‘extremely frustrated’’ at the length of time it was taking the HSE to compile this information, and according to some reports, had even sought legal advice on what to do about it.
The HSE Assistant Director of Children and Family Services Phil Garland says he, too, is ‘‘frustrated’’.
It all raises the question of whether, among all these frustrated people being paid to run the HSE, anyone is actually in charge.
The title of the Minister for Health and Children, Mary Harney, might lead you to believe it’s her - as might the budget she manages of almost €16 billion. But if it is indeed Harney who’s in charge of all this, her contribution to the controversy when it first broke last week was notable only for its non-existence.
We’ve been here before, of course.
In 2003, Justice Mary Laffoy resigned from the Commission to Inquire Into Child Abuse, over claims that the Department of Education was refusing to hand over files relevant to her inquiry.
In the wake of the eventual publication of what would become the Ryan Report, all kinds of promises were made about children’s lives never again being so devalued.
Yet, here we are one year on, arguing over the definition of 'care'.
Were those empty promises? Or is it the case that when state bodies such as the HSE and minister such as Harney talk about protecting children, they’re only talking about children of a certain social background, colour or ethnic origin?
When they say children do they just mean ‘Irish children’? Or do they mean ‘children from functioning households’? Or do they mean ‘children who go to school’; ‘children with a mother and a father’; ‘children with someone other than us to fight their corner’?
Do they include the two children who have died, on average, every month, while they were what the HSE now likes to call ‘‘clients’’ of the state?
Perhaps Harney might come out and clarify this. If she won’t, then maybe it’s time Taoiseach Brian Cowen replaced her with someone who gives a damn about the children they have been appointed to protect.
This column first appeared in The Sunday Business Post on May 30, 2010