Explore the Ryan Report

Chapter 14 — St. Joseph’s Kilkenny

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The period 1978–1990


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.


In conclusion, Mr Granville recommended that Sr Astrid should be instructed to cease all admissions until the numbers were down to 70. He also recommended that no money should be paid for the work on the aftercare hostel until numbers were reduced. He noted that Kilkenny had an excessive number of trainees and not enough trained staff.


Mr Granville carried out a General Inspection on 25th May 1980; the previous inspection was dated 27th January 1977. He inspected all the group homes and, in general, his comments were favourable. In January 1981, Mr Granville, in an addendum to his General Inspection report, noted that Summerhill had been redecorated and refurbished to an excellent standard. The five other group homes, however, still needed attention, and only two were in satisfactory condition. He noted that there were too few staff and some were untrained in the nursery, where babies were in residence for far too long. He was very concerned about the emotional damage being inadvertently caused by being handled by so many different staff, and discussed this with the Resident Manager. There were 41 staff in total in the School, two male and 39 female. There had been 32 changes of staff since 1977. His concluded his report with the following: Conclusions: 1. The overall total number of children in residential care has not decreased over the past few years, which is a disappointing factor. Page 211 records 113 children in residence, two more than at the latest inspection. There is a marked increase in the numbers in the nursery and in the short term unit St Teresa’s ... In my opinion there are far too many children in residential care in a city the size of Kilkenny.


He concluded this report by stating: I would state that the Manager has a very serious communication problem with the staff in the group homes. There would seemingly be a lack of information at all levels being exchanged and I would have to raise questions about this matter. I did discuss it with the Manager and I came to the conclusion that it has been a perennial problem, as far as I am concerned. It has always been extremely difficult to obtain the facts about Kilkenny, due to the defensive protective air around the centre. Nevertheless, one has to consistently maintain a working relationship with the manager and centre even at times that may be extremely difficult.


The following year, he inspected the School again, in February 1982, and continued to be concerned about the quality of care in the nursery and discussed this with the Resident Manager.


He carried out another General Inspection a year later, in February 1983, and noted that there were no longer any male staff in the group homes and felt this was a serious omission in the care teams. He was concerned about the increase in staff turnover (seven in the year) and the shortage of religious Sisters due to illness and training. Twelve of the care staff, which represented nearly 50%, were on childcare courses, which presented a serious management issue and were being replaced by substitute staff on a part-time basis, which he was not happy or satisfied with, as the children had no continuity with staff.


Summerhill was now known as Sancta Maria, and provided additional short-term accommodation. The nursery had been closed, which was a major achievement. The quality of care within the nursery had not been satisfactory, and the Manager was aware of his views backed by evidence. He was still concerned about the high number of children in care in Kilkenny, too high for the city to absorb in socialisation and academic terms.


St Joseph’s asked the Department in late 1983 to sanction a remedial teacher to be attached to the School. The difficulty for the School centred around the fact that local schools were unwilling to cater for children on ‘short term’ stay in St Joseph’s. On 16th February, officials from the Department of Education, Department of Health and South Eastern Health Board met to discuss the special educational needs of short-term referrals, where it was agreed that the Department of Education would consider approving the services of an extra teacher, on a trial basis, to cater for the needs of these children.


Sr Ronja,33 who was in charge of Avondale was the subject of complaints by two childcare workers, in 1986 and 1990 respectively.


A woman in Avondale from 1985 to 1986 made complaints including institutionalisation of the home, lack of consideration given to professional opinions of staff, authoritarian-style leadership, failure to cater for the emotional needs of the children and corporal punishment.


The complaint was investigated by a Health Board official, but he dismissed it. Sr Ronja said she had no recollection of this investigation, and did not recall speaking with him, despite being shown contemporary documentation of such meetings.


In April 1990, childcare practices in Avondale came under scrutiny once again. Another childcare worker met with Sr Alicia34 and the Health Board official and outlined the difficulties in Avondale in regard to the manner in which the childcare services were being conducted there under Sr Ronja.

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