Requests for child therapy records, from the legal teams of those accused of sexual abuse, could lead to a breach of children’s privacy and alleged abusers reading victims’ files, the head of the child sexual abuse unit at Temple Street hospital has said.
Keith O'Reilly, interim director of St Clare's Unit, said that over the last couple of years, there has been an increase in requests for children's therapy records, ahead of criminal trials for child sexual abuse.
“A legal team will seek, through the DPP, access to all information, including therapy records,” he said.
“It could go to the accused’s legal team, but also the accused does have a right, as far as I understand it, to read the therapy records.”
He said there was a difference between therapy records and assessment records; assessments look at the factual issues of the sexual abuse allegation.
“Therapy is around exploring feelings, around talking to a child about their fears and their hopes, and not about obtaining more information about the sexual abuse,” he said.
“We don’t have an issue with people having relevant information, but our view is, most therapy records aren’t relevant for that purpose.”
He said that requests for such files had raised dilemmas and “difficult and upsetting issues” for parents, young people and children.
“Parents might be in a very invidious situation where they are advised that if they [therapy records] are not released, it might potentially mean the trial doesn’t proceed,” he said.
Mr O’Reilly said people also need to be aware that therapy is offered within a confidential space. “The concern is that when people begin to hear about this [access to records] it might deter them from accessing therapy,” he said.
Mr O'Reilly said the unit had engaged with the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and with the Department of Justice and legislators about concerns around children's privacy. They also had some input into the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill, which is awaiting progression in the Dáil.
He said the proposed legislation, if passed, would help regulate the issue and it would be up to the trial judge to examine, more closely, what records should be released, rather than everything being released.
The primary role of St Clare’s Unit is to form an opinion on the credibility of allegations of child sexual abuse made by children referred to them by Tusla, the Child and Family Agency. The unit also provides therapeutic services to those children and their families.
On the issue of children being interviewed by multiple State organisations, including Tusla and gardaí, Mr O’Reilly said if gardaí interview a child and it is DVD-recorded, there is a protocol for providing the information to Tusla.
“There have been cases where we received a referral and also received a Garda DVD for us to review, and what that means is, it leaves open the possibility that the child doesn’t have to be interviewed by ourselves and we can provide an opinion based on what the child said to gardaí,” he said.
But results can be “mixed” and “not always consistent”.
“Part of the difficulty is that the Garda interview is very much with the criminal prosecution in mind and may not look at the therapeutic aspects of it,” he said.
“What’s very important is, if a child is interviewed more than once, whether it’s by one person, or by different professionals – but hopefully not – it’s important appropriate guidelines are followed in terms of interviewing, to try to minimise the fact that children are interviewed more than once.”
Asked if all three organisations could work together, he said that wasn’t possible currently, but he understood Tusla was giving some social workers additional interview training so that they could work alongside gardaí.
“I’d see that as a positive step,” he said.
Mr O'Reilly also said he, and the head of St Louisa's Unit at Crumlin Children's Hospital, are to meet Minister for Children Katherine Zappone to address resource issues in Dublin, including waiting times to access sexual abuse assessment, currently running at four weeks.
He said it was important that children who made allegations were seen as promptly as possible.