The letter regrets the distress recent media reports may have caused and says the department will publish a review of the matter by an external senior counsel.
“The Department is committed to publishing the independent expert review by an external senior counsel, that was commissioned after allegations were brought to the attention of the Department last year,” the secretary general writes.
“Due to legal implications, including protocols around publishing a protected disclosure and the Department’s desire to protect the rights of the discloser, the department is continuing to engage with legal counsel and aims to publish the report next week.
“I can confirm that the review found that there was no basis to suggest wrongdoing arising from the allegations made by the discloser,” it states.
What did Prime Time allege?
In an online article, the RTÉ Investigates unit (which produces the Prime Time programme) states that the Department of Health was secretly using information from private doctor consultations to build and maintain dossiers on children with autism who were involved in legal actions against the State.
“The dossiers, which include the sensitive medical and educational information of children involved in long-dormant court cases, were built and maintained over a number of years by the Department of Health without the knowledge or consent of parents,” RTÉ Investigates says.
It claims that the work was done with the cooperation of the Health Service Executive and the Department of Education, and involved detailed information sourced directly from confidential consultations that the children and their families had with doctors and other professionals.
It adds that the reports include details of specialist service provision, and document the well-being and mindset of parents coping with the needs of their children.
It also claims that “families were unaware that what they disclosed to medical staff in order to get treatment and support for their child was being passed on to the department”.
RTÉ Investigates cites evidence that suggests that a detailed report was sent to the department following a psychiatric consultation with a child.
“Another case involved the sharing of a video of a child in a distressed state. There were also updates from local care, community mental-health and support services.
"These updates record issues related to children named in the court proceedings, as well as their parents and siblings. They also record details such as marital breakdowns among parents and addictions in the home.”
Rather pointedly, RTÉ Investigates states: “The information was shared and gathered with the goal of aiding the Department of Health with a background legal strategy, such as in determining when it would be a good time to approach parents to settle or withdraw their case.”
There has been no active litigation in these cases, nor any indication that proceedings were likely to be reactivated, RTÉ Investigates says.
“Template letters circulated to health and education services, and seen by RTÉ Investigates, describe the cases as ‘historic’ and ‘dormant’.
“The letters also detail the emphasis the department placed on keeping the families ignorant of its information gathering.”
One template letter stated: "This is not a request to contact any of the plaintiffs involved in the litigation or their families or legal advisors. Indeed we would request you not do so in connection with this request."
The files include medical and social care reports and involve original documents, images and video files.
RTÉ Investigates says that, in instances where the Department of Education was listed as a co-defendant, annual school reports from class teachers were supplied in their original form to the Department of Health.
“All the information has been collated and stored in a dedicated database that is accessible and searchable within a division of the Department of Health.
“The dossiers were amassed on the explicit condition that the children, their families or their solicitors were not told. The dossiers include the sensitive medical and educational information of children.”
“The cases are known to involve a cohort of legal actions, initiated more than a decade ago, seeking the provision of education for children with autism,” RTÉ Investigates concludes.
The letter from Secretary General Robert Watt says that the Department of Health welcomes an inquiry by the Data Protection Commission (DPC) into its data-collection practices.
The Secretary General says that the department has also appointed Donie O’Shea as an independent support liaison officer to engage directly with the families involved in recent allegations on the RTÉ Prime Time programme regarding the collection of data for litigation purposes.
The department has confirmed that no more than 35 families are involved in these allegations.
The 35 families will be contacted, through their personal solicitors, offering the opportunity to engage directly with the liaison officer