Boy unable to take teddy into abuse trial due to bias fears
Group seeks clarification over what ‘support aids’ victims are allowed bring to court
Eve Farrelly of The Cari Foundation will highlight a case where a boy was unable to bring his teddy to court as the defence could claim the prosecution was trying to bias the jury, by highlighting his vulnerability. File photograph: iStock/Getty Images
A young boy who was sexually abused was unable to bring his teddy bear into a trial over fears defence lawyers would claim it was a stunt to sway the jury, the manager of a national sexual abuse support service will tell a conference today.
In a separate case, a young girl who pleaded for her dog to be allowed come with her for comfort while being cross-examined about her sexual abuse ordeal over a court video-link was told it was not possible.
Eve Farrelly, manager of The Cari Foundation’s Cass service, which helps child sexual abuse victims forced to testify in the criminal courts, said the absence of clear guidelines over “support aids” is adding to victims’ anxieties.
“Our role is to help reduce anxiety as much as possible for the children and their families through the criminal justice process,” she said.
“The tip of the anxiety is around the video-link, being separated from mum or dad for that process, the giving of evidence and the cross-examination – there are huge anxieties around that.
“It is not a comfortable space to be in. That is when it gets real and overwhelming for an awful lot of families.
“Sometimes children will ask can they bring this in or that in to help them cope.
“The issue is that there is such uncertainty about what is and is not okay. There is no policy in criminal proceedings to say this is what you can and can not bring in.”
At a victims’ rights conference in Dublin co-hosted by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, The Bar Council and the Law Society, Ms Farrelly will highlight examples including that of the girl and her dog and the boy and his teddy bear.
“There was a lot of anxiety around the boy wanting to bring his teddy bear in as a supportive aid,” she said.
“The defence could claim the prosecution was trying to bias the jury, by highlighting his vulnerability. It was decided in the end that he could bring his teddy bear in, but not to show it in front of the screen, he had to keep it hidden.
“We thought that was too much for him. He already had the pressure of giving his evidence, being cross-examined, and the pressure of having to keep his teddy bear hidden as well. The teddy ended up not going in.”
Ms Farrelly said other jurisdictions have clear guidelines on “support aids” for children in sexual abuse trials, and pleaded for everyone involved in the Irish criminal justice system to come together in a “round-table conversation” to agree rules.
“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel here. It has been done elsewhere, we just need to look at that,” she said.
“It is the next step forward. The court environment is alien to most people, an environment that has been built for an adult to negotiate. It is an intimidating environment that is not child-friendly and we are throwing a child into it.”
Ms Farrelly added that she would like to see therapy dogs being used in Irish courts to help reduce stress for victims giving testimony, similar to schemes already operating in the US, Canada, Chile and more recently introduced in the UK.
“I would love to see that happen, but my fear is if I can’t get a teddy bear into the video link room how am I going to get a dog in,” she said.