Plan to ‘stress test’ child abuse allegations is alarming

Allowing cross-examination of a complainant by the accused could deter complaints

While complainants can refuse to go along with this, you have to wonder whether a refusal would affect their credibility. Photograph: iStock

While complainants can refuse to go along with this, you have to wonder whether a refusal would affect their credibility. Photograph: iStock

 

If you were accused, rightly or wrongly, of having abused a child in the past, would you want an opportunity to question that child – who we will assume is now an adult – in a Tusla office?

Procedures to be adopted by Tusla this year, and revealed in The Irish Times, allow for such a questioning.

The prospect has startled people working with victims of historic child abuse who, they believe, are more likely to be deterred from making a complaint.

The possibility of a cross-examination by the accused person is part of what Tusla calls “stress-testing” of allegations.

It’s important to note that Tusla says it “fully recognises the right of the person making a disclosure to refuse this request”. Still, its guide for social workers outlines “different ways in which Tusla might explore the request for cross-examination”, though the guide will not be available generally until some time in the next few weeks.

It cannot be assumed that every case is genuine. But confrontations like those mentioned here could only cause permanent damage in families

According to the details revealed in The Irish Times by Conor Gallagher and Jack Power, and which Tusla hasn’t denied, this could include “allowing the suspect to write out questions to be put to the complainant, allowing their solicitor to question the complainant or allowing the suspect to ask questions via video. In some cases a suspect may be allowed to be in the room while questions are put by a social worker, or a screen might be used to separate both parties.

While complainants can refuse to go along with this, you have to wonder whether a refusal would affect their credibility. And the temptation to refuse would be strong: allowing the suspect’s solicitor to question the complainant could only result in an ordeal for the complainant as the solicitor took aim with both barrels.

Garda investigation

And what would be the effect of all this on any separate Garda investigation? The Garda, I might add, questions the various parties separately – it does not introduce Jeremy Kyle-style confrontations to the procedure.

What of the alleged abuser? If you were innocent, would you want to risk everything on the outcome of a performance by yourself and the accuser, especially if you are not good at that sort of thing?

If you were guilty the same question applies.

In both cases you would expect your lawyer to go for the jugular – and this, remember, is in a Tusla office or health centre and not in a courtroom where judicial checks and balances, such as they are, apply.

Tusla’s aim is to ensure that the accused person is dealt with under fair procedures, and that is a good thing. It cannot be assumed that every case is genuine.

But confrontations like those mentioned here could only cause permanent damage in families, it seems to me.

Moreover, I don’t believe social workers are cut out for this sort of managed confrontation and I expect many are appalled at the prospect.

A further issue here is that some counsellors bring allegations of historic child abuse to Tusla regardless of whether the person making the allegation wants them to or not.

Deterrent danger

This already runs the danger of deterring people who were abused from seeking a counsellor’s help in dealing with its effects. A child abuse allegation can leave the accuser isolated from his or her wider family, who may not believe or back up the allegation. The possibility of being asked to take part in a personal confrontation, even on a voluntary basis, can only deter people more.

The changes proposed by Tusla should be postponed. The proposed procedures are half-baked

If this all sounds like a mess, that’s because it is.

What should happen next?

The Irish Association of Play Therapy and Psychotherapy, in a letter to The Irish Times, made what would seem to me to be two sensible suggestions.

One is that these procedures should be re-examined by Tusla along with an external committee. The other is that the relevant Minister should review the situation, taking international best practice into account.

This implies that, in the meantime, the changes proposed by Tusla should be postponed. I very much agree. The proposed procedures are half-baked.

Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Daily Calm. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (pomorain@yahoo.com)

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