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Fine Words Do Not Keep Children Or Adults safe

Sunday Independent, 14 June 2009

The reality is that staff shortages mean there is still a risk of situations of abuse, says Florence Horsman-Hogan

MANY years ago in the paediatric hospital in which I worked, a young boy accused me of sexual abuse. I had been drying him after his bath, and out of the blue heard him say those dreaded words: "She was playing with my willy".

I froze in shock and confusion, my heart doing a jackhammer in my chest. He'd been laughing as he said it, and had directed the words just over my shoulder. Upon turning, I spotted the ward manager standing outside. Two things saved me. She had been working right outside the bathroom since we'd gone in, and the bathroom door lock was broken, necessitating an open door. If there had been no witness, or if the allegation had come up a few days, or even hours, later, I wouldn't have stood a chance.

I was furious -- not because of what the child said -- it turned out he had a history that mitigated his behaviour, and he was, after all, only a child. No, my fury was at a bloody system that even years after we'd been issued with the child protection guidelines and procedures of Children First (1999) by the Deparment of Health, our hospital still had staffing levels which necessitated a child (him) being exposed to a potential abuse situation with an adult, and an adult (me) being exposed to the potential of a false allegation of abuse.

In my 26 years of nursing I've come across a paediatric consultant, three nurses and two GPs against whom allegations of abuse were made. Unlike me, they had no witnesses and had their careers put on hold pending investigations. I don't know the outcome of the cases; they could have been innocent, which would have been very sad for them. They could also have been guilty, which would have been catastrophic for the children concerned

It's an unfortunate proven fact those who are most likely to abuse children are attracted to the area of child care. Our children must be protected, they must be listened to, and any allegations of abuse must be fully investigated. It is generally understood by everyone who works in child care that if an allegation of abuse is made, a full investigation, usually involving suspension, is made. This is as it should be.

Yes, the Children First guidelines are very strong in some areas. They provide education on the issues of child abuse, stringent investigative measures and a recognition that the needs of the child must come first. However, there is one major failing, in my view. There aren't enough staff to ensure that the guidelines are implemented. Our Duty to Care was published in 2002 by the Department of Health and Children, and is to be used in conjunction with Children First. It's aimed at voluntary and community organisations that provide services to children. It states "An organisation that provides services to children should adopt the safest possible practices to minimise the possibility of harm or accidents happening to children, and protect workers from the necessity to take risks and leave themselves open to accusations of abuse or neglect". It also repeats a number of times "adequate numbers of workers of both sexes are available to supervise activities".

Yet what are we finding in our hospitals and care homes, particularly for those with physical and mental disabilities? Barely enough staff to actually do the work, never mind ensuring there are "adequate numbers to supervise activities". In our hospitals, doctors, nurses and consultants -- for the most part -- provide their care with no back-up personnel. There are 10,000 people are cared for in the disability sector. How much state funding has been put into helping this vulnerable group?

I'm sick of the nauseating hypocrisy involved with the whole child abuse issue in recent weeks. On May 26, our Taoiseach Brian Cowen stated, after the Ryan Commission report, that the Government would "prevent future abuse by strengthening inspections and ensuring the provision of child-centred welfare services".

He needed the report to come out with this tripe? This is 20 years after voluntary groups like CARI (Children at Risk in Ireland), started up their sterling work in highlighting and working with child abuse.

Pursuing the religious orders will do nothing to help today's children. They need education as to where the real danger lies, not just behind the collar and rosary beads, but in their own communities: schools, swimming pools, hospitals, sports grounds -- in fact, anywhere you get children and adults together.

When the smoke from the Ryan Report has cleared away, one obvious fact will remain. Much of the posturing by our state representatives wasn't, and isn't, about getting restitution for the past victims of abuse. It's about covering up their own ineptitude that have surely caused far more suffering for our children in the present day. Just as significantly, it has paved the road to hell for many of us in abuse tribunals of the future.