Garda’s dysfunction is harming child sexual abuse victims
State bodies’ slow progress in implementing child protection reforms is deeply disturbing
‘State institutions have been slow to put in place the necessary policies and structures to protect victims of child abuse.’ File photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto
After almost 20 years of commissions of inquiry and of extensive media coverage, it cannot be said by now that there is little awareness among the public and among policymakers of child sexual abuse. Yet State institutions have been slow to put in place the necessary policies and structures to ensure that victims of child sexual abuse have access to timely support and protection and that perpetrators are brought to justice.
The Report of the Garda Síochána Inspectorate, Responding to Child Sexual Abuse, published late last month, provides a depressing litany of delays, lack of professionalism and lack of co-ordination with other State agencies that cause additional trauma to victims and contribute to a low conviction rate of 4 per cent for child sexual abuse.
The report points out that 69 per cent of allegations of child sexual abuse are made against a family member or a person otherwise known to the victim, such as a neighbour or family acquaintance. Nine per cent are made against a person in authority, and only 5 per cent against a stranger.
The fact that a child victim generally knows the perpetrator of abuse, who may be closely related to him or her, immediately raises the issue of the current safety (or future protection) of that child, and this involves the Child and Family Agency, known as Tusla.
It is obvious, therefore, that there should be close co-operation between Tusla and An Garda Síochána in the investigation of the allegation and in securing the safety of the child.
The inspectorate revealed, however, that such co-operation is incoherent and patchy at best, despite the fact that joint working was recommended by the inspectorate in 2012.
The report also highlighted major shortcomings in the approach of the Garda Síochána to investigating child sex abuse, including the use of untrained gardaí to interview child victims and serious variations between different areas in the urgency with which cases were dealt.
Where there is a serious allegation of sexual abuse against a family member living with the child, or where there is a suspicion that the child’s parents have been aware of the abuse or otherwise unwilling or unable to protect him or her, Tusla will usually seek an interim care order in the District Court, normally a precursor to a full care order until the child is 18. As child sexual abuse is a criminal offence, there should be a simultaneous investigation by gardaí in preparation for a criminal prosecution.
In most jurisdictions these investigations take place in a co-ordinated way, usually with joint interviewing of the children by police and social workers.
That is not the case in Ireland, and the Child Care Law Reporting Project, which reports on child protection proceedings, has seen a number of cases where delays in the Garda investigation, or a Garda refusal to share information, have held up the care order proceedings.
In other cases, delays in Tusla obtaining assessments of children for child sexual abuse contributed greatly to delays in the cases coming to a conclusion.
According to the inspectorate report, there are only 16 social workers in Tusla trained as specialist interviewers of child victims of sexual abuse, though it recommended in 2012 that only specialist interviewers should be involved in interviewing child victims.
Such training of social workers did take place for a time in the Garda College, but was discontinued and not replaced by anything else, though further courses are planned.
This means that there are few social workers available to interview children jointly with gardaí, a measure recommended back in 2012.
It also means that in whole swathes of the country a child who reveals they were sexually abused has no access to a trained interviewer, who can assess their therapeutic needs and what they need for future protection.
In addition, the few specialist child sex abuse units that exist, usually run by the HSE, have a specific catchment area and do not cover the whole country.
All this can cause significant delays in care proceedings. For example, in one case the Child Care Law Reporting Project reported on in a rural town outside the catchment areas for child sex abuse units, two children alleged extremely serious sexual abuse against their parents and other family members.
The children were interviewed by social workers who had not received specialist training. One of the children later retracted his allegations. They had yet to be interviewed by gardaí.
A forensic psychologist from another jurisdiction was then called to give evidence on the credibility of the disclosures, and he told the court that children of this age could not possibly have given the accounts they did unless they had experienced the abuse.
In another such case, also in a rural town, there was a delay of almost a year in getting the children interviewed by a specialist child sex abuse unit as they were outside its catchment area. These children were also not interviewed by gardaí at this stage. As the inspectorate report points out, best practice requires that children be interviewed as soon as possible after a disclosure, normally within days, if reliable evidence is to be obtained.
In a case in Dublin, where two children alleged abuse by a relative and where there are specialist services and Garda specialist interviewers, it was 10 months before the children were seen by a specialist unit, 18 months before one of them was interviewed by gardaí and 22 months before the second child was interviewed. This case was also marked by a succession of legal disputes about the admissibility of evidence obtained by gardaí.
It is only fair to acknowledge that the Garda Síochána and Tusla are now discussing a new protocol to enable joint working, though it is still at draft stage, and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs has recently been examining best practice internationally in dealing with child sexual abuse.
However, it is disturbing that so little has been done since such measures were first recommended by the Garda Inspectorate five years ago, and that organisational structures and institutional habits have been allowed to hamper change.
Carol Coulter is director of the Child Care Law Reporting Project and former Legal Affairs Editor with The Irish Times