Friday is World Autism Day. This marks a moment when we should be focused on raising awareness of the challenges facing those on the autistic spectrum and discussing how best to support them. Instead, we find ourselves discussing again how badly the State treats and fails children with additional needs.
Yesterday, we heard the harrowing story of a seven-year-old called Lexi Forde, whose parents have been told she will have to wait until 2026 for school-age support. They said they have been left crying and literally begging for services for their daughter. Lexi’s story is not unique and comes on the back of shocking revelations that the Department of Health was compiling dossiers on children with autism and their families involved in legal actions against the State. It is important to understand that the legal actions being taken were around the State’s failure to provide these children with vital supports and services. The State set out to gather information that could be used to exert pressure, damage reputations, stall and silence these families.
On the very day the "RTÉ Investigates" programme aired, families were in front of the High Court fighting for their children’s right to a school place. The truth is that the State makes families of a loved one with special needs feel like a nuisance when they look for support. They face a closed door. The truth is that the State only gives begrudgingly and withholds services and supports begrudgingly.
Those who take on the system and the State in the courts and refuse to be silenced find that the State goes on the attack and vilifies them. This is a story we know only too well. It was faced by brave people like Brigid McCole, Louise O’Keeffe and Sergeant Maurice McCabe. The fact that this malicious behaviour on the part of this State now extends to the collection of data on the families of children with autism is scandalous and shameful. Inclusion Ireland and the Disability Federation of Ireland have condemned this practice. The Ombudsman for Children has expressed deep anger at how the State treated those whom he described as some of our most vulnerable children. However, the Secretary General of the Department of Health has sought to defend these practices. He says it acted within the law and the HSE goes so far as to describe these practices as "normal" - its word, not mine.
It is alarming that they do not get that the real scandal is that these practices were happening at all. Lawful or not, this was deeply unethical. I do not believe this Government or the State has the consent or support of citizens and taxpayers to attack families and vulnerable young people in this way.
Were these practices under way when the Taoiseach was Minister for Health and Children? Will he indicate whether these practices continue today as we meet? What steps have been taken to make full disclosure to the families on whom these dossiers were compiled and kept? Can the Taoiseach answer those three very direct questions?