The new director of One in Four, Maeve Lewis, aims to address the extent of abuse within families, writes Sylvia Thompson
'THE MOST dangerous place for children is in the extended family," says Maeve Lewis, the new director of One in Four, the non-governmental support agency for people who have experienced sexual abuse.
"The myth that children are in danger from strangers is perpetrated everywhere but I believe the next phase of work in the area of sexual violence will be the acknowledgement of the extent of abuse within families."
Psychotherapist and trauma counselling trainer, Maeve Lewis has just replaced the high-profile former director of One in Four, Colm O'Gorman, who left the agency in January and has since become the executive director of the Dublin office of Amnesty International.
Lewis says she was attracted to work for One in Four because the agency works with the whole cycle of abuse and not just in supporting victims. "The programme for perpetrators of sexual abuse which was set up 18 months ago [and currently has 20 people in therapy] is important because it helps us look at the root causes of abuse.
"Many sexual offenders have been sexually abused themselves and if we don't deal with offenders, the cycle of abuse will go on and on," she says.
One in Four's advocacy role has been the most public side of the organisation. "This work involves supporting clients practically in terms of reporting sexual abuse to the HSE and the Gardaí and attending interviews while the person makes statements and attends court," she explains. Less than 5 per cent of sexual offence cases perpetrated on a child results in prosecution.
"Putting the experience of clients in the public domain helps us campaign for change," says Lewis.
Some health professionals working with victims of sexual abuse have suggested that One in Four's emphasis on bringing sexual abuse cases to court has at times put undue pressure on victims. "The advocacy programme is separate from the psychotherapy programme in terms of personnel and while we encourage people to consider taking criminal charges, it's ultimately at the individual's discretion and we never put pressure on clients," says Lewis.
Although One in Four was set up specifically to respond to the needs of victims of clerical sexual abuse, the agency has also dealt with individuals who were sexually abused within their families.
"Twenty-five per cent of our clients have been abused by clerics and the other 75 per cent have been abused mainly by people within their extended family," she says.
Currently, there are 145 people in therapy with One in Four and 185 people awaiting therapy.
According to Lewis, about 60 per cent of One in Four's clients are male, compared with 20 per cent in most other services.
"Like many agencies, we are under-resourced and under-funded. [Some] 60 per cent [€680,000] of our funding comes from the HSE specifically for our advocacy programme. The Department of Justice [€60,000] and the Commission for Victims of Crime [€30,000] also fund our work but we have to fundraise €250,000 every year to support our psychotherapy service," she says.
"It's a desperate shame on our society that people have to wait 12-18 months for such a service," says Lewis.
Although there is no set fee for receiving psychotherapy, One in Four encourages clients to donate to the agency. In contrast, the National Counselling Service, run by the HSE, offers free counselling to victims of sexual abuse.
Olive Travers, clinical psychologist and current chairwoman of the National Organisation for the Treatment of Abusers, the umbrella organisation of professionals working in the area of sexual abuse, says: "One of the difficulties with private counselling services is that they cannot be accessed by most people. The HSE National Counselling Service, which receives 2,000 referrals and €10 million a year, has a network of local accessible counselling services for victims of sexual abuse.
"We hope that the HSE will establish similar services for children, adolescents and adults with sexually harmful behaviour."
Lewis acknowledges that among those who finally access therapy with One in Four, there is a drop-out rate of 20 per cent in the first 10 sessions. "It's a very painful journey and sometimes when people begin to explore the past, the emotions of anger, grief, despair, terror that they come in touch with are overwhelming," she says.
Lewis comes to the job with a lot of experience in responding to the victims of sexual violence. For the past four years, she was the director of Faoiseamh, another agency which provided a helpline and funded psychotherapy for victims of clerical sexual abuse.
Although funded by the Conference of Religious of Ireland (CORI), Lewis says the agency was staffed by lay people. "It was an independent agency and the church dioceses which funded it didn't have access to any information about who we worked with and who received therapy," she says. She also worked with the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and developed trauma counsellor training programmes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.
On a societal level, Lewis believes that public awareness about sexual abuse has improved hugely since the revelations of clerical sexual abuse in the 1990s. "The introduction of programmes such as the Stay Safe programme in primary schools, higher alertness on the part of adults and teaching children how to protect themselves has all helped," she says.
She also praises the Department of Health's Children First guidelines which introduced the mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse as good practice.
However, she says the follow-up on such reporting is a serious problem.
"Social work departments are so overworked and under-funded that often the disclosure of the problem is not handled as it should be," she says. "I really believe that if Irish society wants to seriously address the issue of sexual violence, we must resource the child protection services adequately."