The children's ombudsman has described as “absolutely despicable” the length of time it took to set up the country's first multi-agency centre for sexually abused children.
Dr Niall Muldoon said child therapy organisation, CARI, had called for such a service in 2008, but that it took until last September for the centre to be eventually established as a pilot.
“Child sexual abuse is not an historical issue," Dr Muldoon said.
"It continues and is a clear and present danger and I urge governments continually that we provide the services to children. It breaks my heart.”
CARI is a national voluntary organisation and celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. It has a physical base in Dublin and Limerick. It provides a range of services, including support and therapy, to children and their families affected by sexual abuse or harmful sexual behaviour.
CARI executive director, Eve Farrelly, said that while they provided therapy to 58 children (and 258 family members) in 2018, they had 83 children on their waiting lists.
“We don't have resources that will allow them access to our services," she said. "Children can be waiting up to a year to get into therapy."
She said that without timely intervention, the children will struggle to deal with their emotions and their sense of safety, trust and self-confidence.
Dr Muldoon said the multi-agency centre launched in Galway last September, bringing together Tusla, the HSE and Gardai was welcome, but pointed out that CARI called for such a service back in 2008.
The Garda Inspectorate repeated this call in 2012 and said the planned centre in Galway should be replicated in three other regional centres.
Dr Muldoon said the Baranhaus centre in Galway, based on the Icelandic Barnahaus model, is only now getting to the pilot stage, which he said is “absolutely despicable”.
“We should have had that a long time ago.”
He said that therapy has to be part of the Barnahaus centre, adding: “It's like creating a cart with three wheels – you can get by, it will be helpful and is real progress, but we need the fourth wheel, therapy.”
Ms Farrelly said that as well as providing therapy, CARI operated a helpline and took 807 calls assisting 852 children last year and accompanied 56 children to forensic medical services. In addition in provided a court accompaniment service to 90 children.
Lynette Bradshaw, court accompaniment team leader, said 2018 “was their busiest year yet”.
Of the 36 cases where verdicts were recorded, two-thirds resulted in a guilty conviction. Of the 71 accused, 10 were aged under 18.
She said the court process often brought up “emotional trauma” for the children and some might display self-harm or suicidal ideation.
She cited examples of children waiting three and five years from reporting the incident to a trial outcome, saying these delays need to be resolved.
Jane [aged 12] reported to An Garda Siochána in 2016. Jane was referred into the CARI Court service in 2017. The trial start date was set for 2018.
There were a number of charges of rape and sexual assault. This abuse was ongoing for over two years. The accused was intrafamilial [within the family].
The trial began on the set date. After deliberation, the jury could not come to a decision. The verdict was a hung jury. A new trial date was set for the following year, 2019.
Jane travelled back to the courthouse with the knowledge of what was to come. It was noted by our team that she appeared very withdrawn and unhappy about the prospect of testifying again.
On this date, due to constraints in the courthouse, the possibility of the case being adjourned for another year came about.
This was extremely stressful for the child and family.
Thankfully a slot came up and the case was heard later that week. The jury came back with a not guilty verdict.
Jane allegedly experienced child abuse from the age of eight and reported it when she was 12. Jane was 17 when her case came to an end.
Five years in a young child’s life had been taken up with the prospect of going to court.
Jennifer [aged 11] reported to An Garda Siochána in 2013. Jennifer was referred into the CARI Court service in 2017.
There were three charges of physical assault. The accused was extrafamilial [outside the family].
Jennifer came to the courts four times in total. Her case was adjourned three times.
This is very difficult for families and especially for our young child clients.
Each time they are ready and prepared to testify. Each time when the case is adjourned, they are sent home to await a new trial date to start.
In this case the trial was adjourned for logistical reasons within the court’s operations. Either a courtroom was not available, or a judge was not available.
In 2018 when the trial was heard, it ran for its duration.
The jury was sent out to deliberate and they came back with a not guilty verdict.
Jennifer allegedly experienced this physical assault at the age of 11.
Jennifer was 16 when her case came to an end.