Explore the Ryan Report

Chapter 14 — St. Joseph’s Kilkenny

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The Kilkenny childcare course


The Sisters of Charity were the first Congregation to establish a training course for people involved in childcare. The course was first held in 1971 and was attended mainly by religious.


Sr Wilma said the idea came from Bishop Birch, and she drew up an outline for the course which was presented to the Department of Education. They agreed to fund it, and it was eventually recognised as an official qualification in residential childcare, and was also recognised by the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work in London. Both she and Mr Pat Brennan31 had considerable experience in social work and working with children, but neither of them had actually worked in residential childcare.


Mr Brennan, who was the Director of the Kilkenny Diploma Course in Residential Childcare, described the course and the training it offered. The course, which ran for 10 years from 1971 to 1981, came about as a result of the recommendations in the Kennedy Report. Bishop Birch offered the Department of Education a house in Kilkenny, and the Bishop sponsored and designed the course. Mr Brennan was acquainted with Bishop Birch and was offered the job of running the course. Sr Wilma was one of the lecturers on the course on a part-time basis. Students who attended the course were sent on placements for in-house training, and St Joseph’s was one of the placement centres. He believed that Sr Wilma was the supervisor of the placements in St Joseph’s; it was considered to be her domain and, as a result, he had very little to do with St Joseph’s.


Prospective students on the course were interviewed by a panel of five, including Mr Brennan and Sr Wilma. There were normally around 50 applicants for 20 places. The requirements were: two years’ experience in residential childcare, the Leaving Certificate, three references, and two essays. He said that the issues of child sexual abuse or incest were never discussed on the course and were not on the agenda. From 1973, there was a huge preoccupation with physical abuse, mainly because of the controversial Maria Colwell case in England, where a child died in 1973 as a result of failure to protect the child in a violent family situation.


The course contents included training on how to deal appropriately with bed-wetting. The course attempted to try and make the participants think for themselves and make decisions on their own, without allowing their religious training to shape all their decisions. The participants were almost entirely made up of religious personnel, and this caused some tensions. He said that some participants left the course, and he was met with some opposition about the content of the course.


Students were followed up after the course. Once a year, there was a residential weekend and they met socially. He personally called on some of the students to assess progress. The course did not require formal feedback from Resident Managers of the institutions to which the students were sent. The course ceased in 1981 because it could not get the professional recognition from the National Council for Educational Awards.


The Pleece case and the Tade cases indicate a high level of immaturity and naivety in dealing with issues of sexual abuse, particularly on the part of Sr Astrid. Allowing these men to leave St Joseph’s and continue with careers in childcare was dangerous and irresponsible. It was not enough to remove them from St Joseph’s. These men posed a risk to children and, with her experience in childcare, Sr Astrid should have been aware of that. The inability to face up to the problem of men abusing young boys was not confined to the Sisters. Experienced Gardaí and professionals were also inadequate in their response to this issue. The period 1978–1990

The period 1978–1990


Sr Astrid continued as Resident Manager of St Joseph’s until 1986, when she was replaced by Sr Livia.32 This was a turbulent period for the Institution, when established methods were questioned, particularly by qualified lay staff who were employed there. The documentation revealed a degree of tension between the Department of Education and the Resident Manager about keeping numbers down. The School was perceived as having too many children to care for any of them properly, although this was not a view shared by the Sisters.


This was a period of transition between the Department of Education and the Department of Health. Responsibility for St Joseph’s was transferred to the Department of Health in January 1984.


On 14th October 1977, Mr Granville attended St Joseph’s to give the staff a formal lecture on leadership in the group homes, and to discuss the future of St Joseph’s with the Provincial and Sr Astrid. It was agreed that the aim would be to try and reduce the numbers in the homes to 60 by 1980. Mr Granville believed that the large numbers in residence were partly responsible for difficulties with the local day schools. They also discussed plans to employ a social worker for the children. Health Board social workers at that time were not geared specifically towards children.


From November 1977, the Department began to focus their attention on the size of St Joseph’s, Kilkenny. This followed a report by Graham Granville on the future needs in residential homes. In an internal memorandum dated 16th January 1978, senior Department officials were in agreement that over 100 children was too large in Kilkenny, and around 60 maximum was a more desirable figure. The Department was perplexed by the fact that Kilkenny was so full, when the homes in other areas were faced with decreasing numbers and many were considering closing in the near future.


The reason for the Department of Education’s dissatisfaction with the large numbers in Kilkenny is evidenced by a four-page letter dated 8th May 1978. In this letter, Thomas O’Gilin of the Department of Education invited Mr T O’Dwyer, Principal Officer in the Department of Health, to meet and discuss the question of the future development of residential homes. He set out the changes that had taken place over the years since the Kennedy Report in the area of building programmes and in the declining number of children committed through the courts and the ISPCC. This had led to a situation where, in most cases, the homes’ finance for current costs came from the Health Boards who had the largest number of placements, yet responsibility for capital financing still remained entirely with the Department of Education. This created the anomaly because provision of capital money entailed a planning function, but the information needed for planning for future needs had to come from the Health Boards who were placing the majority of the children. The Task Force currently studying the situation were most likely to recommend the transfer of responsibility for residential homes to the Department of Health but, in the meantime, many urgent problems existed that required the co-operation of the two Departments.


In a report on a visit to St Joseph’s, Kilkenny dated 25th April 1979, the author met with Sr Astrid and was made aware of a number of her concerns with regard to the difficulties still being experienced by short-term children fitting into the outside schools, where they underwent the double trauma of change from their own homes to residential care and out of the residential home into a strange school. She also drew his attention to the fact that, after prolonged negotiation, the social worker who had been released from the South Eastern Health Board (SEHB) to work in St Joseph’s for a two-year period had now been recalled to normal duty, due to staff shortages in the SEHB. Finally, she requested grant assistance for the aftercare residence under construction.


On 23rd January 1980, the Department noted that, despite the plans to reduce numbers, the Kilkenny returns of September 1979 showed 124 children still in residence. Following an investigation into this, it was discovered that, while there had been no children committed to Kilkenny since 1977, the Health Boards were making full use of the resulting vacancies, obviously with the co-operation of the Resident Manager.


In his report dated 2nd February 1980, Mr Granville submitted what he considered were the direct relevant factors to the population figures of St Joseph’s, Kilkenny. First were the changes brought about by the Kennedy Report, which meant that residential homes moved away generally from large institutional centres to group homes, and this dramatically dropped the number of residential places on a national basis. Secondly, the lack of social work support services to the any of the children in residential care in the SEHB area. Thirdly, there was a lack of preventative work being carried out under the School Attendance Act. Finally, the growth in population had not been taken into consideration by the SEHB when planning for provision of their services.

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