Justice system ‘unsuited’ to dealing with child abuse, conference told

Consultant psychologist says garda interview techniques not suited to younger children

The adversarial nature of the criminal justice process is unsuited to dealing with sensitive issues like child sexual abuse, a conference on childcare was told today.

In a paper presented at the Voice of the Child conference in Dublin, consultant psychologist Dr Rosaleen McElvaney said responses to children who report sexual abuse need to take account of sexual abuse as a crime but they also need to take a broader perspective than a forensic one.

They should take account of children’s needs for therapeutic intervention and protection when required, she said.

The conference, organised by La Touche Training and chaired by Mrs Justice Catherine McGuinness, examined aspects of the law in relation to children and how the legal system deals with child sexual abuse cases.

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Dr McElvaney said despite some attempts at co-operation between the child protection system and the police services in Ireland, joint interviewing continued to be an aspiration rather than a reality.

The interview protocol used by gardaí, based on structured interview protocols, was “not well suited to younger children and children who are reluctant to disclose”, she said.

Dr McElvaney also said studies had considered whether engagement with the legal system lead to further psychological trauma for children who had been abused.

Authors of one longitudinal study found outcomes varied with age and while younger children may be at increased risk for some adverse outcomes such as mental health problems, older children may be at increased risk for other undesirable results such as the negative attitudes of others towards them.

A separate study found older children were more at risk of developing poor mental outcomes, she said.

The numbers of child sexual abuse cases reported to the Health Service Executive had shown a progressive increase between 2007 and 2011 with 3,326 children referred in 2011, Dr McElvaney said, while figures from the US and Australia showed reports were declining.

Also speaking at the conference, Úna Ní Raifeartaigh SC outlined changes that could improve the handling of criminal child sexual abuse cases including quicker trial dates and faster decisions on prosecutions.

Fiona Gartland

Fiona Gartland

Fiona Gartland is a crime writer and former Irish Times journalist