WITH the award of almost $2 million in damages to a child who suffered abuse while at the St Michael’s Home for Boys and, later, at the St Ann’s Psychiatric Hospital, High Court Justice Avason Quinlan-Williams has sent a clear message that child abuse will not be condoned in this society, particularly abuse done under the nose of state officials and directed at those who are less able to defend themselves.
Though the ruling is largely symbolic, given that St Michael’s has closed, the damages awarded by the judge serve to underscore the nature of the violations that happened to the young claimant who was under the care and supervision of the State for extended periods.
Quinlan-Williams awarded $1 million in vindicatory damages for breaches of constitutional rights, said to be the highest such award in a case of this nature, as well as compensation of about $1 million. Yet, no amount of money will ever atone for what the child must have gone through, details of which are laid bare in this case.
The court heard how the victim, who suffered from a genetic disorder, was subject to years of physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Not only did he suffer in this way, but his status as someone suffering from a rare genetic disorder was not catered for. In fact, it may well have made him an easier target.
“We should all feel ashamed,” the judge ruled.
The sickening details of the case bring home the long and problematic history of institutions such as St Michael’s. The home was supposed to be a shelter and a refuge for homeless boys. Instead, as the years went by, it became dogged with a litany of complaints covered by this newspaper, including staffing problems, poor maintenance, and filthy conditions. At one stage, a 13-year-old child died.
While it is possible the ruling will be appealed, the prospect of the State having to pay for all of this should serve as an impetus to all to get their act together.
But the ruling should not be the end of the matter.
The details of the case should trigger a criminal probe to determine criminal liability, if not statute-barred.
Beyond the question of charges, internal reviews of conditions at the St Ann’s Psychiatric Hospital should be carried out to ascertain and isolate failings of procedure and staffing with a view towards improvement.
Compliance with the court’s ruling should be more than just a matter of setting up a trust fund for the victim and endowing it. It should extend to the state organs that had a role to play in defending the interests of children and in providing facilities that could identify and cater to those with special needs.