Child sex assault unit faces closure over staffing
The country’s only dedicated 24-hour sexual assault treatment service for children and adolescents is in danger of closing after the two doctors who run it handed in their resignation in protest over staff shortages.
The unit, based in Galway, has been running for the past two years and has played a key role in providing immediate forensic examinations of children who have been sexually assaulted or raped.*
The service was set up on a voluntary basis in 2011 by consultant paediatrician Dr Joanne Nelson and consultant gynaecologist Dr Roger Derham, who work in other roles in the hospital. Both consultants say they have been unable to get additional staffing cover in order to ease pressure at the unit and ensure there are expertly trained personnel available 24 hours a day. They claim cover provided by an additional expert would not involve any extra cost.
The HSE did not respond to media queries.
Dr Derham said he handed in a letter of resignation recently and said health authorities were using “soft targets” to get health budgets under control.
Dr Nelson was unavailable for comment yesterday, but is also understood to have handed in a letter of resignation which will take effect unless additional staffing and support are provided.
About 100 children have been treated or assessed since it opened in April 2011, some as young as 18 months old.
The unit is considered by experts to be the State’s only acute sexual assault treatment service which can meet all a child’s needs in a single location. This includes assessment, treatment and interviews with gardaí or social services. There are other specialised paediatric centres in Dublin hospitals, but they do not have the capacity to provide a full range of services.
As a result, children are often required to travel between venues to see the full range of professionals. Children’s advocates say this increases the time and stress imposed on a child and family and can lead to poor communication between various agencies.
As a result, the Galway-based service has ended up receiving referrals from other parts of the country.
Labour Party TD Colm Keaveney said the unit’s closure would endanger the welfare of children and adolescents. “To allow a unit like this to close is bordering on recklessness. If this unit goes then there will be no acute service for children who have been raped or assaulted anywhere in Ireland. It provides cover for the entire western region,” Mr Keaveney said. He called on HSE management and the Minister to ensure the unit remained operational.
Dr Derham said both doctors had proposed to bring in an additional specialist which would ease the workload at the unit and ensure there were expertly trained personnel available 24 hours a day. “Elsewhere in the country there are no fully functioning – staffed and funded – child and adolescent sexual assault treatment units,” Dr Derham said. “In the central drive to get the health budget under control, soft targets are being sought. We are determined this absolutely necessary service will not be one of them.”
*Article edited on February 19th 2013 to correct a facutal error