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Archive for May, 2017

A state agency responsible for paying redress to survivors of institutional abuse has been accused of acting beyond its authority by incorrectly sending letters to thousands of people telling them that their case was closed.

The victims which Caranua was set up to help have accused it of substantial failings in submissions sent by their representatives to the Oireachtas education committee.

In the documents, seen by The Times, Caranua is accused of misleading survivors and warning them that they could be reported to the gardaí for fraud. It is also accused of causing them to miss medical appointments by failing to send cheques in time.

Catherine Connolly, the independent TD and member of the Dáil’s spending watchdog, told The Times that she had lost all confidence in the agency.

“I believe it is completely not fit for purpose. I am horrified at the way survivors are being treated and I think the management of Caranua have serious questions to answer,” Ms Connolly said.

The agency, which was set up to divide a €110 million redress fund between survivors of institutional abuse, accepted last September that it was wrong to send the letters to 2,500 victims but has since done nothing to rectify the error.

Board records show that Caranua had also considered stopping its outreach events — public meetings with survivors of abuse — if they continued to show what it claimed was “aggression” towards Mary Higgins, its chief executive. When the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee requested a copy of minutes from the same meeting, the reference to cancelling public meetings was not included.

In 2015 the agency noticed that it had already spent €25 million of its €110 million fund by allocating large amounts to a small number of survivors. It has now emerged that in July and

The victims which Caranua was set up to help have accused it of substantial failings in submissions sent by their representatives to the Oireachtas education committee.

In the documents, seen by The Times, Caranua is accused of misleading survivors and warning them that they could be reported to the gardaí for fraud. It is also accused of causing them to miss medical appointments by failing to send cheques in time.

Catherine Connolly, the independent TD and member of the Dáil’s spending watchdog, told The Times she had now lost all confidence in the agency.

“I believe it is completely not fit for purpose. I am horrified at the way survivors are being treated and I think the management of Caranua have serious questions to answer,” Ms Connolly said.

The agency, which was set up to divide a €110 million redress fund between survivors of institutional abuse, accepted in September 2016 that it was wrong to send the letters to 2,500 victims but has since done nothing to rectify the error.

Board records show Caranua had also considered stopping its outreach events — public meetings with survivors of abuse — if they continued to show what Caranua claimed was “aggression” towards Ms Higgins. When the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) requested a copy of minutes from the same meeting, the reference to cancelling public meetings was not included.

In 2015, the agency noticed that it had already spent €25 million of its €110 million fund by allocating large amounts to a small number of survivors. It has now emerged that in July and November of that year it wrote to survivors, many of whom were still waiting for payments, and told them that their case was closed. The letter stated that Caranua would be prioritising first-time applicants.

A submission to the committee by Fionna Fox, a solicitor representing 40 survivors who are experiencing difficulties with Caranua, claimed that it was acting beyond its authority in prioritising new cases and discarding older ones. “This is a serious matter affecting a huge number of applicants,” Ms Fox said.

She added that Caranua had not attempted to remedy the situation and that the Department of Education had been informed of the issue.

Caranua did not comment on the letters or its failure to write back to all the survivors. The agency’s appeals officer opened an investigation into the letters and sought a meeting with Ms Higgins over the matter. The Times has seen agency correspondence in which the appeals officer was told that the letters were an “oversight”. There was no promise to write to the applicants affected to put the matter straight.

Anne Marie Crean, an advocate for survivors and academic based in Cork, told the PAC that dealing with Caranua had been difficult for many survivors. “The Caranua experience has been mostly negative and at times detrimental to their overall health,” she said.

In June Caranua imposed a €15,000 limit on payouts to guarantee the fund’s “sustainability”. It said that the new limit would apply to applications from June 1 last year, but that applicants who had submitted before the deadline could choose to have their payouts limited. This newspaper has seen evidence that Caranua was attempting to impose the limit retrospectively on unresolved applications received well before the deadline.

“The changed amount allotment to €15,000 has created a sense of wrongdoing, injustice and disgust. It has had a profound negative impact on many survivors,” Ms Crean said.

In many cases, survivors were phoned by Caranua and told their application had been refused. As the refusal was never put in writing, it could not be appealed. Last year Caranua changed its criteria booklet. It removed references to “togetherness,” “respect” and “empower” and instead created a new section dedicated to “fraud or false information”. “This section discusses the reporting of suspected fraud to the gardaí as well as the disqualification from receipt of further supports. This, rightly so, has been taken as a direct threat by a number of survivors,” Ms Crean said.

Both submissions to the committee noted the impact of delays on survivors. Several survivors reported having to cancel medical consultations because they had not received their cheques in time. The revelations follow reports in The Times that Caranua had used €2 million of its redress fund to pay agency staff and almost €100,000 of an expected €800,000 to a counselling service run by the Catholic Church. It had also used the victims’ money to redecorate its office despite knowing that it was shortly going to move premises. At least €820,000 of the fund will be spent on the new offices, including parking spaces for its staff in Dublin city centre.

Caranua was set up to distribute money provided by religious orders to survivors of abuse at industrial schools. They can apply for financial help based on their health, housing or educational needs. It has been operating without a board of management since March. The public accounts committee has heavily criticised the agency over a lack of financial control and it only hired a financial adviser last summer despite operating since 2014.

The Times has spoken to several board members who raised concerns that the minutes for certain Caranua meetings did not accurately reflect what had been discussed. In some cases, two different sets of minutes are available for the same meeting. The minutes given to the Oireachtas public accounts committee for April 22 last year stated that “it was felt there was a higher level of aggression from survivors directed towards the CEO than at previous outreach events” and that this should be reviewed.

The original minutes, posted by Caranua online, stated that “the aggression at outreach events is not acceptable and that they should be discontinued if this is the general experience”.

Caranua did not comment on claims that its board meeting minutes were inaccurate. In its response, it said it welcomed feedback and defended its work for survivors. “Caranua is committed to putting the needs of applicants at the heart of everything we do and to taking a flexible approach to the interpretation of our guidelines in order to maximise our responsiveness,” a spokeswoman said.

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