Sex abuse allegations in child care cases pose difficult challenges to court system
Opinion: ‘Assessing the sexual abuse of children is a notoriously difficult area’
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The current volume of reports from the Child Care Law Reporting Project, published on its website today, contains seven lengthy and complex cases which all featured allegations of child sexual abuse. These cases, three heard in Dublin and four in rural towns, were heard over many days spread over up to eight months, and together illustrate some very difficult issues that arise in care proceedings involving sex abuse allegations.
Among the evidence heard was of a father offering online to abuse his very young child and of a boy who, so disturbed as a result of abuse by an older child, stated: “I know I will hurt a child.”
It must be stressed that such cases, and generally cases involving allegations of child sex abuse, make up a small minority of childcare cases. The most common reason for care orders being sought by the Health Service Executive (now the Child and Family Agency) is neglect, often due to parental drug or alcohol abuse or mental illness, and such orders are sometimes of a temporary nature. We also publish reports of 16 such cases in this volume.
We are publishing these lengthy cases, all heard over the past months, together because they allow an insight into this very challenging area and the difficulties facing the parents, the professionals dealing with the cases and the courts. The allegations made are very grave, the impact of sex abuse on children can be serious and life-long and the impact of the decision made by the courts will be life-changing for all involved. The importance of ensuring the decisions are the right ones cannot be over-emphasised.
UnevennessHowever, there is considerable unevenness around the country in how these cases are dealt with and the services available to those dealing with them. Among the problems revealed by the reports of these seven cases are the difficulty in accessing a professional diagnosis of child sex abuse in some parts of the country; the complexities surrounding such a diagnosis and the differences in approach among professionals; difficulties in accessing appropriate risk assessments of parents and also in assessing them for cognitive impairment; tension between the needs of the child protection proceedings and possible criminal prosecutions; and problems in bringing evidence of the children’s disclosures to court.
The cases also demonstrate some of the difficulties encountered by the courts in hearing such cases, especially outside of Dublin, where they must jostle for court time with other court business. For example, one application in a rural town for an interim care order was listed for hearing on more than 20 separate days spread over about six months, and for some of those days was not heard at all; for others only a fragment of it was heard, as it was frequently listed for days when there were a lot of other cases before the court.
The nature of this case changed in the course of the hearings, which began as a case involving neglect, as evidence of sexualised behaviour on the part of one of the children emerged while he was in care. In this case the mother was pregnant and gave birth while the case was going on and the baby was also immediately taken into care.
ComplexityMost of the other cases took a very long time (typically about 20 days, which outside of Dublin extended over a number of months) because of the complexity of the issues and, sometimes, the lack of, or delay, in producing necessary assessments or documents.
Assessing the sexual abuse of children is a notoriously difficult area. According to the child sex abuse charity Cari sometimes sexual abuse may never be independently proved and it warns against jumping to conclusions.
In two of the cases the sexualised behaviour of some of the children was at the centre of the cases. In one of them the CFA, guardian ad litem and judge all expressed the view that this behaviour strongly suggested the children had been sexually abused and interim care orders were granted, pending further assessments by St Clare’s specialist child sex abuse unit. In the other case a witness who was a social worker and psychotherapist said the behaviour is not necessarily a result of sexual abuse. She said it could also be self-soothing and a response to unmet emotional needs.
In two cases it was suggested the behaviour on the part of very young children could have been caused by exposure to pornography. These contrasting approaches could lead to different outcomes in cases arising from similar circumstances.
It is hoped the publication of the details of these long and difficult cases will allow greater public debate on the very complex issues, to which there are no easy solutions. Carol Coulter is director of the Child Care Law Reporting Project. Volume 2 of the 2014 reports of childcare proceedings is on childlawproject.ie