On a summer morning in 2017, the foster mother of a 10-year-old boy awoke to find his bed empty. She searched the house, then called her neighbour to see if she had seen him. He was nowhere to be found.
The boy had wet the bed and his pyjamas, which lay discarded in his room. His electronic tablet - a treasured birthday present from his new foster parents - was gone, along with his rucksack and charger. “It was strange, he would never leave the house,” the foster mother recalled. “So then I started to panic.”
Just over a year previously, the boy and his four younger siblings had been removed from their family home by Tusla following years of severe neglect. Just before he disappeared from his foster parents’ house, he had recently started to confide to them that he had been sexually abused by their parents and other family members.
Earlier that month, he and two of his siblings had sat down with specialist Garda interviewers to outline the abuse they had endured at the hands of those family members who were supposed to protect and care for him.
Immediately after she realised the boy was missing, his foster mother raised the alarm, involving gardaí. After a long, worrying day, the boy was eventually found at 8pm, in a wooded area some distance from his foster home.
Disoriented, the boy was wearing a strange jumper that was not his. His foster parents raced to the scene: “He was so hungry and so dirty,” his foster mother later told the court. “He felt really, really tired and I had to put him into his PJs. His body wasn’t able to do it.”
The boy “couldn’t give an account for his movements that day”, the garda inspector in charge of his case said. Local CCTV footage was sought, but there was little to be found. To this day, no one knows where the boy was.
Some of the children reported being in contact with family members online and after the oldest boy went missing, gardaí seized all of the children’s tablets. Nothing of evidential value was found.
After this incident, the oldest boy’s foster mother reported that he didn’t want to play outside any more and would ask every night if the house alarm was on.
“We always had to go out with him after that,” she said. “He wouldn’t go out by himself.”
In another foster home, this boy’s younger brother and sister were also too afraid to go out to play. Since leaving the family home, the children had had frequent nightmares, including one in which their parents were breaking into their new home to hurt them.
They constantly got their foster parents to check ditches to make sure no one was there
When outdoors, they constantly got their foster parents to check ditches to make sure no one was there. They would play in the garden if their foster parents were with them, but would follow their foster parents inside.
Following advice, new security measures were taken. As soon as the work was complete, the children went outside happily to play.
In a third foster home, the two youngest boys of this same family were living with their new carers. But the foster parents noticed cars with unknown occupants were stopping nearby their home. In the wake of the eldest boy going missing, they were fearful these unknown individuals were going to snatch the children. They, too, had security measures installed.
Following a 10-week trial last summer, the children’s mother, father, aunt and two uncles were found guilty of all but one of the 78 charges laid against them, including the sexual assault, rape and sexual exploitation of the three eldest children in Munster between August 2014 and April 2016.
The parents were also found guilty of wilfully neglecting their five children, who were then aged between one and nine, while the father was found guilty of medicating three of them. A sixth child born after the children were removed from the family home was also taken into care.
The younger brother and sister 'finally feel safe now'
After the guilty verdicts were handed down, the three older children - described by the prosecution as the fulcrum of the case - expressed their enormous relief. The younger brother and sister “finally feel safe now”, their foster mother told the court.
The oldest boy told his foster parents he was “so happy” the jury believed him and that his parents would never be able to contact him or his brothers and sisters again. He hoped his parents would go to jail for a long time, he said.
Today, Mr Justice Paul McDermott jailed the 57-year-old father for 15 years after he was found guilty of all 31 offences against him. These included raping his three older children, sexual assault, sexual exploitation, wilful neglect and child cruelty.
The 34-year-old mother was jailed for nine years. She was found guilty of all 25 offences against her, including sexual assault, sexual exploitation and wilful neglect of her children.
The children’s 49-year-old uncle - the husband of their maternal aunt - was jailed for 15 years. He was found guilty of all 10 counts against him including rape, sexual assault and sexual exploitation of the three eldest children.
His wife, the children’s 35-year-old maternal aunt, was jailed for three years for her part in the abuse, which involved three counts of sexually assaulting two of the children.
The children’s maternal uncle (27) was jailed for 15 years. He was found guilty of eight of the nine charges against him in relation to two of the children, including rape, sexual assault and sexual exploitation.
The five continue to maintain their innocence and some, if not all, are expected to appeal their convictions.
But victim impact statements penned by the older children themselves and their foster parents paint a picture of an early childhood that is hard to fathom in its bleakness.
The five children were split up and removed from their family home in 2016 - five years after their parents first came to Tusla’s attention. Though the parents were asked to have bags packed for the children, then aged between three and nine, with some clothes and their favourite toys, they arrived at their new homes with almost nothing.
Knife and fork
In her statement, the oldest boy’s foster mother said she could not believe that a child of nine had been taught so little about personal hygiene. He, like the rest of his siblings, was small and thin for his age. He was covered in scrapes and dirty, with faeces caked into his skin. He had chronic tooth decay.
“He had no idea how to brush his teeth or shower. He had obviously never been shown how,” his foster mother said. “He couldn’t believe that his bedroom was clean and tidy and his bed sheets were changed weekly.”
He was so small and thin 'you could nearly see through his skin'
On his first night, the boy was extremely quiet, but was excited at the prospect of stew for dinner, though he did not know how to use a knife and fork. He was so small and thin “you could nearly see through his skin”, his foster mother told the court.
Quickly, she brought him to a GP and a barber, though he had never been to the latter before.
The next day she brought him shopping for shoes and clothes. “He got a lot that day,” she said and he was “all excited”. There, they met his little brothers who were also out shopping. He was so pleased to see them, the foster mother remembers.
After he and his brothers had gone their separate ways, he told her: “I hope they got new clothes as well.”
Food was a “massive thing” for the boy. He could not understand that the kitchen presses were so full and would proudly show off the contents of the fridge when any visitors came to the house to show them all the food inside it.
He said little about his life before for quite some time: “As time went by, he began to trust us more. He opened up more.” He also started weekly therapy sessions.
“Some of what he said was very hard to take in,” his foster mother said, in a short but loving statement to the court, adding that the suffering that he and his siblings had endured had been “unthinkable” and “inexcusable”.
“No one can defend what can only be described as horrendous behaviour that the people who should have been caring, loving and protecting him inflicted on him and his siblings. He is a beautiful handsome boy that we are proud to have in our home and part of our family,” she said.
“We as a family hope that the strongest possible sentence that can be handed down to who inflicted those horrible acts to him and his siblings. We feel it would be a great help for his future going forward.”
The girl and the second oldest boy
When they were taken from their family home nearly six years ago and placed in foster care together, it was immediately apparent that the little boy and girl, then aged six and seven, would need significant intervention.
“We as parents were determined that they would get to experience some degree of a normal life,” the foster parents told the court. So they set about putting supports in place: the speech and language therapist, the physiotherapist, the occupational therapist, the dietician, an eye specialist, a dentist and orthodontist, a psychotherapist, even someone that would help the children to learn to play and another specialist to help the children to learn how to build attachments with others.
A burns specialist plastic surgeon consultant was brought in to help too, and the trial later heard that the two children had suffered third degree burns back in 2011 because their parents failed to put sun cream on them.
They took food and hid it around the house in case it was taken from them
“It was like they were never toilet trained when they were toddlers,” their foster parents said - the pair had huge issues with food, since they could not identify when they were hungry, or control how much they ate.
Vomiting was an issue. They took food and hid it around the house in case it was taken from them. They could not chew properly so their food had to be chopped up. They stole from other children’s lunchboxes in school.
“We think that hunger was so normal in their lives they were unable to identify or address their own hunger need,” the foster parents said. So they came up with what they called a “meal play” solution, in which they made three meals and three snacks at specific times each day to try and anticipate the children’s hunger.
The children spent their first weeks in their new home in hiding, under the stairs, under the hall table, in a hot press, with the couple trying to do everything possible to help them, but the early days were hard.
“We don’t think they knew what their needs were and they certainly didn’t know what feelings were.”
The idea of clean clothes every day was completely foreign to the children. So, too, were things like fluffy blankets, soft toys, or a night light in their bedroom. When they first encountered them, said the foster parents, “You could see signs of a spark in their eyes”.
Bedtime stories were read from a distance
But bedtime was a time of terror, since the boy and girl were afraid to fall asleep. For the first two years, they were not comfortable with hugs, tucking in or any kind of physical contact, so bedtime stories were read from a distance. Every light in the house had to be kept on and the children had to be repeatedly reassured that there were no rats or spiders under the beds or in the wardrobes and that they were safe.
When they did eventually fall asleep, the nightmares came. Often they woke up screaming. In one nightmare, the house was dark and their parents were coming to hurt them. Consequently, they “slept with one eye open” and were often exhausted going to school.
The children found it hard to make and keep friends. “Their social skills were non-existent,” the foster parents said. “They didn’t know how to play properly with peers and everything seemed to terrify them, so they often lashed out at children around them.”
The foster parents shadowed the children on play dates, staying on the sidelines during sports training sessions. The children enjoyed sport but would “clam up” if one of their coaches talked to them.
For reasons that may never be clear, Christmas in particular was a time of terror and anxiety for the children. The first three Christmases with their new family were “heartbreaking and exhausting”.
“The children would be extremely withdrawn and not want to participate in any events leading up to Christmas,” they said. “Their behaviour would alter from anger to crying to sadness and silence, not sleeping and also behavioural difficulties in school.”
They had to slowly learn that Christmas “was a safe time and a happy time for children,” said the foster parents.
After about two years of therapy and treatment, the boy and girl slowly began to make progress, beginning to make friendships. They were able to take showers daily, dress themselves and brush their teeth without difficulty. However, they were still terrified that their parents, or other extended family members, would come and kidnap them.
The two youngest boys
The two younger boys were initially placed in separate foster homes in 2016 before being reunited later that year. The foster mother who has had them both since then wrote a victim impact statement for the court.
Like their older siblings, the little boys were small and thin for their age and extremely dirty. They did not know how to hug or kiss.
When the youngest boy, then aged three, arrived in her house that night, he had no clothes bar the ones he was wearing. Though it was April and still cold outside, he had no coat. He was whimpering and clutching a little blue teddy given to him by his social worker. He loves that teddy to this day, his foster mother said.
The toddler devoured two bowls of dinner - cabbage and ham - and played for a long time with a set of car keys. He had just been removed from his family home and his little world had been turned upside down, but he went to bed in the strange house that night without complaint. He was “unusually quiet and compliant”, his foster mother said.
He lay on his back in his new cot, watched his foster mother quietly and eventually went to sleep. He did not make a sound that first night, nor did he cry or call out. When his foster mother went in to check on him the next morning, she found him awake, still lying on his back and playing silently with his fingers.
“The sense I had when I went in is that I could have left him there all day and he wouldn’t have complained,” the foster mother said. She scooped him up, brought him downstairs and gave him a big bowl of Ready Brek.
When he had been in his family’s home, the child, then 18 months, was discovered by the family social worker, tightly strapped into a buggy and hidden under a thick blanket. Back then, his pallor was grey, he was extremely thin and hardly able to talk.
Despite his tender years, the now three-year-old was wary, even with his foster parents as they tried to help. He would sit extremely still when placed down without moving an inch. He was tense and seemed to be scanning the adults’ facial expressions. Like his older siblings, he never asked for food or drinks. He crept around the house “on tippy toes” and would look around corners before proceeding. His speech was extremely limited.
He did not understand that if he needed help, he could ask for it
He would not call for help at night, even when he got sick or wet the bed. He did not understand that if he needed help, he could ask for it, his foster mother said.
“We have been very worried about (him) and have worked hard at all times to help him feel safe and loved in our home,” the foster mother said. “We have needed a lot of professional help to ensure that the way we responded to (him) would be the best kind of response that we needed.”
When asked to take the second youngest boy, the foster parents were “delighted” to have the two boys together. The court heard that this little boy, then five, would cry silently, tears streaming down his cheeks. His first foster mother reported that he fell asleep on her lap on his first night, though he did not speak at all for days.
In his new home, he was always on high alert and unable to relax. His speech was delayed. When put to bed, he would pretend to be asleep. When his foster mother checked on them during the night, he would jolt upright in fear. It would take about 20 minutes to settle him again.
He was focused on giving others what they wanted, or what he thought they wanted. “I would always be conscious that he seemed to be searching my face to see what to say,” his foster mother said. “We have spent a huge amount of time reassuring him that he can say what he wants. This is gradually improving.”
The charges in relation to the younger boys were confined to neglect by their parents and their father medicating the second youngest one. They were not witnesses at trial as they were too young and there were no charges laid in relation to sexual abuse against them. But the foster parents reported seeing highly sexualised behaviour in both boys, despite their young age.
Like the other carers of the children, the foster parents sought and were given extensive professional help for the boys - doctors, therapists, play therapists, paediatricians and dieticians. Significantly underweight, the boys needed constant monitoring to track their weight and nutritional intake.
The boys had access visits to their parents and extended family members for a period, but these were stopped by the court after all of the foster parents reported increased distress in all five children both before and afterwards.
The two little boys never asked to see their parents again
During these visits, their mother was overheard several times whispering to the older children and asking them questions about where they were living and if there were any noticeable landmarks nearby.
After the visits stopped, the two little boys never asked to see their parents again.
“(The boys) have added so much to our lives (in terms of) what they bring to the family,” the foster mother said. “But there has also been extraordinary levels of worry and fear for their safety.”
How they are doing now
The three older children found the trial process both difficult and traumatising, their foster parents reported. Since the guilty verdicts, the oldest boy is “a lot happier in himself”, his foster mother said. “He has more confidence and a spring in his step.” She said he is doing “super well” in school and his teachers have nothing but praise for him.
“He tries so hard and is always polite and is making great ground for a boy who has had the most horrendous start in life.”
The foster mother to the girl and second oldest boy said their sleeping problems and even eating issues re-emerged during the trial.
“They needed so much support from their therapists and their family GP to help them cope during the trial period,” she said. “They were very brave during the long trial and (did) everything that was asked of them. They still turned up to all their trainings for sport and participated well at school, because that is their nature that we now see.”
These two children are “kind, caring children despite all the trauma experienced”, she said. They have spent hours working at the kitchen table on speech and language programmes as well as extra work from resource teachers at school.
“They believe that they lost their early childhood years with their brothers and sister and there is no doubt about the pain and suffering that (they) endured. Their first years spent here were mainly on rehabilitation and we could not enjoy them because they were so hurt, scared and traumatised. They trusted no-one for a long time.”
'They are often very sad'
Since the verdict they feel “safer”, the court heard. They are older - now entering their teenage years - and they understand more about the abuse they suffered, but they still have difficulty in understanding why it happened. “They are often very sad.”
The pair still have a lot of social anxiety and will probably be in therapy for many years to come. They feel safest when they are at home and they don’t like change. “We still continue with good routines and structure and continue to help them with homework along with their other therapeutic work,” the foster mother said. “They still need a lot of support and assistance with everyday coping skills.”
The younger boys, who were not involved in the trial, have made major progress over the last six years. But they will need regular support in the years ahead, both for the children and themselves - “To help us be the best foster parents we can to the boys”.
“We want to say that these children have a lot of potential but because of their early life experiences we worry as to what the future holds for them.”
She says they would have been “lost” without the social worker who worked with the family from 2014 onwards, who had them removed from the family home and who continued to work with the children and their foster parents afterwards.
“I consider her to be the children’s saviour, which is something they will understand better when they are older.”
In their own words
The three older children also submitted victim impact statements to the court.
The oldest boy’s statement read as follows:
‘What happened at home changed my whole life. My family was split into different homes. My day to day...changed a lot. I had to go to (counselling) and go to court. This was not normal for a 14 year old to go to court and stand up for what was the truth.
‘What happened to me and my brothers and sisters should have never happened to no child. I’m trying to get over what happened for years, And hopefully with the new family I have and soon I will be able to put it all behind me. I never knew until I came to my new family what a normal life is like. I’m clean and I’m happy and I’m never hungry and not afraid to go to sleep.
'I think my old family should go to jail for a long time'
‘I think my old family should go to jail for a long time for what they put my brothers and sisters through. They should not be near children again.’
His sister and brother each wrote two lines.
She said: “They ruined my childhood and didn’t even care about me. I wasn’t loved when I was younger.”
He simply said: “I don’t feel safe about them not being in prison. I had no happy childhood.”