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It shames us all to live in a society that targets its most vulnerable


Eamonn McCann

Eamonn McCann

Eamonn McCann

It is hard to imagine a more vital frontline service than respite for carers of children with disabilities. Yet, even as politicians of all parties insist that their top priority is to protect frontline services and look out for the interests of the most vulnerable, respite care is being slashed.

Respite is the system whereby children with disabilities are looked after in facilities provided by Health and Social Care Trusts, usually for a few days a month, giving their carers a break from what in many cases is a 24/7 commitment that defines and delimits their lives.

Being able to go out for the night or just to put your feet up in front of the television knowing that your child will come to no harm can be an interlude of ease to relish and look forward to. You couldn't put a price on it - except that the cost has now been calculated by trust managers implementing cuts.

The Western Health and Social Care Trust (WHSCT), for example, covering Derry, Limavady, Strabane, Omagh and Fermanagh council areas, last month announced cuts ("savings") of just under £7m. The Children's Respite Cottage in the Waterside in Derry was included in the hit-list. This is a six-bed unit offering short-term care for children with learning difficulties aged between five and 18. How much will be "saved" by this cut is far from clear. No separate funding allocation for respite care for children is included in the trust's accounts.

In other words, children's respite care doesn't have a dedicated budget. Funding is drawn from other "pots". This in itself could be seen as suggesting the service is already regarded as marginal.

Consider a parent on her own bringing up more than one disabled child who, out of the blue a few weeks ago, was told that her respite for the rest of this year had been cancelled and that there were no guarantees for next year or the years ahead. The devastating effect on her life, the solar-plexus blow to her morale, is unlikely to be understood fully by anyone other than herself.

Certainly, it is difficult to believe that whatever managerial group sat around a table with pencils poised and decided that closing the Cottage would be an appropriate way to help meet the "savings" target had the vaguest inkling of the impact the decision would have on the people most intimately affected.

Trusts have a statutory duty to provide children with the care assessed as appropriate for their condition. Shutting down or drastically curtailing the operation of facilities like the Cottage might appear to breach this legal requirement. But officialdom has an answer - that families should avail of direct payments and hire in the help they need at home. This, it's argued, would meet statutory obligations. And maybe so. It's the sort of conundrum likely eventually to be referred to the courts - a prospect which an official body might contemplate with equanimity but which would daunt and inflict intense anxiety on even the most resolute of parents and carers.

Meantime, at the last count, at least five children with disabilities from the WHSCT area are lodged in facilities in Britain because there is nowhere for them here. In typical cases, parents or carers have become unable to cope, mainly for reasons of age or infirmity.

Being unable to cope doesn't mean you don't need to be close to and able to hold your child, or that your child doesn't need you in touching distance. The cross-channel arrangement is hugely expensive - but since the spending is "off-the-books" it doesn't damage the budget presentation.

Everywhere we look services are being cut. In every instance, there's a case to be made for restoring the cut and saving the service. To achieve this across the board would require radical measures to make the best-off pay most - a consummation devoutly to be wished but unlikely to happen soon. In the meantime, even those in favour of the most rigorous fiscal rectitude will acknowledge that there are still priorities involved, choices to be made.

The Cottage was a handy target. Agency and temporary staff were crucial to its operation. It was possible to pull the plug without need for crude redundancies. As well, families with disabled children tend not to shout their problems from the rooftops.

An easy enough choice in some respects, then, if hard to reconcile with decency.

If it is true that you can judge a society by the way it treats its most vulnerable citizens, the closure of the Cottage delivers a harsh verdict on us all.

The decision should be reversed.

Belfast Telegraph