New sex assault unit to end reliance on Cork

 

The Mid Western Health Board has given the go- ahead for a sexual assault unit for the region - the fourth to be established in the country. The establishment of the unit at the Mid-Western Regional Hospital in Limerick will remove the need for sexual assault victims to travel to Cork for a forensic examination.

Welcoming the move, health board member Mr Tim O'Malley, a Progressive Democrat TD, yesterday said: "It is absolutely crazy that a woman who has been sexually assaulted has to go to Cork to receive a forensic examination."

Last year there were 121 sexual assaults reported to gardaí in the mid-west region and the Limerick Rape Crisis Centre estimates that this may only be 15 per cent of the real total.

Ms Ingrid Wallace, counsellor with the Limerick Rape Crisis Centre, said: "Rape and sexual assault is a disastrously under-reported crime. There is a moral obligation on society to make it as easy as possible for sexual assault victims to report crimes. Every health board area should have such a unit."

In a report to the health board's June meeting yesterday, the board's director of public health medicine, Dr Kevin Kelleher, blamed the absence of an effective GP rota to carry out the examinations on "subsequent court attendance, disruption to clinics and low remuneration".

He revealed: "There are documented cases where GPs inexperienced in forensic examinations and court testimony have been a critical factor in unsuccessful prosecutions. However, these frustrations experienced by the gardaí and medical personnel pale in comparison to the additional trauma experienced by victims waiting for forensic examinations and undergoing such examinations in ad hoc circumstances."

Insp Gerry McNamara said the unit was very welcome and would greatly assist investigations.

The health board anticipates that the unit will be funded on a 50-50 basis by the Departments of Health and Justice and is to be located at Limerick Mid-Western Regional Hospital. Proposed to open next January, it will have a budget next year of €197,000.

Last year, 62 sexual assaults were reported in Co Clare and Ms Wallace cited the example of a woman sexually assaulted in the west Clare town of Kilkee having to travel 120 miles to the South Infirmary Victoria Hospital in Cork.

She said: "This is completely unacceptable. I wouldn't blame the GPs, the facilities aren't there. There is a lot of goodwill from the GPs. The onus has been rightly on the Departments of Health and Justice to provide the unit."

In an attempt to address the absence of a unit and the lack of trained forensic medical examiners, a sub-committee of the Mid-Western Regional Planning Committee on Violence Against Women was recently established.

The sub-committee included GPs, Garda inspectors, accident and emergency personnel and health board personnel. All agreed that the development of a sexual assault unit was essential to improve service provision for victims of sexual violence.

Dr Kelleher said the development of such a unit "will facilitate a holistic approach to victims' needs, both medical and emotional, and may also dispel some of the current reluctance of GPs to become more involved in the field".

Aware that fear of GPs to carry out forensic examinations without training deterred them from becoming involved, Dr Kelleher said training would be a central role of the unit and €10,000 had been allocated for medical training.

He said the existence of a dedicated sexual assault unit in the mid-west region might also result in increased demand for its services.

However, Limerick-based GP Dr Jim Molloy sounded a cautious note yesterday. While welcoming the establishment of the unit, he said more of a commitment should be given to the training of GPs.

A member of the sub-committee established to address the issue, Dr Molloy said: "Unless a doctor is forensically trained, he or she is useless to the victim. Some GPs will support the new unit, while others will not."