A cold criminal or the victim?

This woman needs help and rehabilitation, says Jennifer Hough.

Is it right that a 34-year-old woman, who at 14 was abducted by a violent man 10 years her elder, is today in a prison cell for the neglect of the five children she bore him?

Another horrific case of child abuse came before our courts this week and saw a mother plead guilty to 10 counts of neglecting her own flesh and blood in the most extreme of ways.

So is she a cold, calculating criminal deserving of jail, or is she herself a victim who needs help, understanding and rehabilitation?

The court heard of a catalogue of horrors of starving, dirty children, and there is no disputing this woman utterly failed them. A seemingly lenient sentence of four years, with two and half suspended, was immediately questioned by the ISPCC.

The organisation nailed its colours firmly to the mast, calling for a tougher sentence. Understandable, given they are in the business of child protection and five young lives were devastated.

But could the ISPCC not see the damaged child in this woman? Taken from home at 14 by a 24-year-old paedophile, a man she married — perhaps forced to marry — at 18. A man convicted of raping one of his own daughters, and of the sexual assault of another girl. He is the ultimate abuser in this sick and sorry case, not a young woman who has been at his mercy since she was a young teenager.

It can be argued that personal responsibility must kick in at some stage and, as the judge pointed out, she was an adult who should have known better. But how should she have known better? How could she? The judge said she had “disregarded her sacred duty did not protect or keepsake these children”. But who protected her from this animal of a man when she was a child?

Tellingly, the judge also said “anyone with a modicum of common sense and insight” who encountered the children would have known what was going on.

So there you have it — again, like in the Roscommon and the more recent Galway abuse case, it was a case of society turning its head away.

That’s why it’s easier to throw this woman in jail and sweep the case away, rather than to ask harder societal questions and offer help.

Questions such as: why was this man, a known child abuser, allowed access to children? When he abducted the woman when she was just 14, how did they end up marrying four years later? Did no-one in authority care enough to stop and question this?

Did no-one bother to check if he had children of his own, and think maybe they, too, could be in danger, never mind his young wife. Why did it take 11 years — the age of the eldest child when all five were finally taken into care — for someone to act?

But these are questions that are easier left unanswered, as they reflect badly on society and the organs of the state. And so three boys and two girls have been left with severe and long-term psychological difficulties.

But let’s be clear. If their mother deserves to go to jail, then a host of others do too.

These children were failed even before they were born, as no-one stepped in to prevent an intergenerational cycle of abuse.

Everyone who works with children talks about early intervention. In this case there was simply no intervention until it was far too late.

Would any mother in her right mind allow her children to urinate and defecate where ever they wished? You’d have to agree no.

The ISPCC also pointed to the importance of placing child protection guidelines on a statutory footing, as this will ensure anyone with information concerning the abuse of a child must report it.

Perhaps only when it becomes a criminal offence to turn your head away will society stand up and speak out.

She was not ‘forced’ to starve the children, says Claire O'Sullivan

A number of years ago I read — well, more skimmed — a book written by a clinical psychologist on, of all things, time management.

Hidden in that haze of self-help truisms lay a sentence that has remained with me since. The most important thing you can ever do in your life is to take control of it.

Stop blaming your past. Stop blaming those around you. Stop blaming bad luck. Wrench control of the wheel and steer your own course.

By no means do I mean to underplay the horrific and debilitating effects of neglect, of physical, emotional and sexual violence. Such horrors need to be acknowledged, addressed and their effects understood. But after a certain period, if a person doesn’t want their life to be forever dominated by those events, they need to take responsibility for their own future.

It was with that in mind that I nearly exploded when I saw the sentence given to a woman who routinely starved her children and left them fester in their soiled underwear, having never bothered to toilet-train them.

The woman’s defence counsel said the mother herself was a victim. Yes, she was a victim of abuse at the hands of her husband, but in no way should that give her carte blanche to inflict psychological trauma on the next generation. No matter what, she had choices. She was not imprisoned and tortured. She could have sought to have the children put into care.

She chose to remain with that man. She left her children in that situation, falling back on that victim status her counsel tried to exploit. She was not forced to starve the children. Her abuse did not render her incapable of toilet-training her children. She chose to give up on her children, to let them run feral.

Particularly telling said officials, was how, on the night the HSE sought an emergency care order for the children, she made the decision to wrap herself up warmly while her children looked like starved urchins.

Since when does being a victim absolve you of future responsibility? Abuse is abuse and just because your abuser was herself abused does not make the abuse you suffer any less painful.

The sentence was rendered even more deplorable by the fact that nothing in the woman’s psychological report found that she wasn’t aware of her responsibilities to her children.

This was a woman who displayed such a lack of humanity and respect for her own flesh and blood that her eldest son had to be housed in an isolation unit at a special care unit for four years, as he could not function in a family situation or in a regular children’s home.

This woman treated her children like unwanted animals. She heaped degradation after degradation upon them. She reared a child to believe that “I am the worst child in the world”, as one said in the victim impact statement.

Look at two of the most famous abductees of the past decade. Neither Jaycee Dugard or Elisabeth Fritzl abused or neglected their children. Instead, they did everything in their power to give their children as normal a life as they could.

And yet we live in a State that confers absolute power on that woman, because she can cite the constitutional defence of family — that “sacred” unit that lies in the bosom of our constitutions.

Why should that woman be treated any differently to any other human being who routinely emotionally and physically abuses a child?

As the ISPCC said, not until there is constitutional change will children’s rights be given paramount consideration in the courts. As for the term “victim”, judges cannot sit back and allow the concept to become so exploited that people can divorce themselves from their responsibilities.


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