Sex abuse allegations in child care cases pose difficult challenges to court system

Opinion: ‘Assessing the sexual abuse of children is a notoriously difficult area’

Wed, Jun 11, 2014, 00:01

The nature of this case changed in the course of the hearings, which began as a case involving neglect, as evidence of sexualised behaviour on the part of one of the children emerged while he was in care. In this case the mother was pregnant and gave birth while the case was going on and the baby was also immediately taken into care.


Most of the other cases took a very long time (typically about 20 days, which outside of Dublin extended over a number of months) because of the complexity of the issues and, sometimes, the lack of, or delay, in producing necessary assessments or documents.

Assessing the sexual abuse of children is a notoriously difficult area. According to the child sex abuse charity Cari sometimes sexual abuse may never be independently proved and it warns against jumping to conclusions.

In two of the cases the sexualised behaviour of some of the children was at the centre of the cases. In one of them the CFA, guardian ad litem and judge all expressed the view that this behaviour strongly suggested the children had been sexually abused and interim care orders were granted, pending further assessments by St Clare’s specialist child sex abuse unit. In the other case a witness who was a social worker and psychotherapist said the behaviour is not necessarily a result of sexual abuse. She said it could also be self-soothing and a response to unmet emotional needs.

In two cases it was suggested the behaviour on the part of very young children could have been caused by exposure to pornography. These contrasting approaches could lead to different outcomes in cases arising from similar circumstances.

It is hoped the publication of the details of these long and difficult cases will allow greater public debate on the very complex issues, to which there are no easy solutions. Carol Coulter is director of the Child Care Law Reporting Project. Volume 2 of the 2014 reports of childcare proceedings is on

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