The formation of the new Child and Family Agency brings, for the first time in the State’s history, a dedicated focus on child protection, family support, and other key children’s services. With it comes an emphasis on the prevention, early intervention, and the provision of assistance to children and their families in managing serious problems with the support of specialised interventions — if they do arise.
The key to prevention is knowing who is at risk, when and how: specialist knowledge and expertise can make the difference between success and failure in child protection.
Today sees the launch of a new report by Rape Crisis Network Ireland (RCNI), entitled Hearing Child Survivors of Sexual Violence: Towards a national response.
This report matters because it offers new and unique insight into how children of different ages and gender in particular are targeted and abused differently. With this knowledge we can tailor our responses and activity, ensuring we deliver interventions that make sense for girls and boys under 13 and those over 13.
This specialist report is the result of a dynamic collaboration between RCNI, 15 Rape Crisis Centres and Children at Risk Ireland (CARI), using hitherto unavailable data gathered via the RCNI national sexual violence frontline data collection system, and delivers an analysis of the perpetrators of sexual violence against children, including how and where children of different ages and genders are targeted. The information generated in this report gives Ireland the opportunity to be at the forefront of Europe in combating crimes of sexual violence.
The findings should usefully inform much of the work of the new Child and Family Agency in the area of sexual violence. It is acknowledged that central to the agency’s success will be engagement and relationships with external, independent agencies — such as rape crisis centres and the co-ordinating national body, RCNI, who play a vital role in generating data, conducting research and developing policies using their own specialist experience and expertise. The rape crisis community has made a full strategic and operational commitment to the new agency. While relationships between statutory agencies and non-government agencies can be challenging, the keys to an energetic, strategic relationship are mutual respect, the valuing of differing roles within a shared goal, and trust for those within the NGO sector to present an autonomous analysis and voice on critical issues. Invaluable opportunities exist for partnerships with the sector, and RCNI and the rape crisis community have ensured that the specialist data they produce — like today’s ground-breaking findings which will inform child protection in Ireland and beyond — can be utilised to provide an overview of trends, inform public policy and ultimately drive improvements.
Current government health policy and the HSE corporate plan recognise the priority of adequate data management systems and the need to strengthen data infrastructure capacity. Yet there is no government funding commitment to RCNI’s proven data collection system beyond Dec 2013.
The longevity of the rape crisis community’s experience and its specialisation in sexual violence is an asset. Through their capacity to engage and retain a highly trained volunteer contribution, the NGO sector can also sometimes deliver where statutory services are restricted, and the independent rape crisis community delivers a growing range of services, including essential out-of-hours services.
A 24-hour helpline operates 365 days per year, counselling appointments are available at evenings and weekends, and volunteers countrywide provide 24-hour support to sexual assault treatment unit (SATU) services, as well as specialist court accompaniment. As well as providing services, for decades they have been listening closely to child and adult survivors of child sexual abuse.
This history of collaboration, between 16 frontline service providers and RCNI, occurred as all 17 experienced the cumulative impact of austerity measures in Ireland. All 17 have been hit with year after year of resource cuts while demands on their services increased and diversified.
Yet, the commitment to listening to and advocating for survivors of sexual violence, demanding that others listen, and contributing to policy formation has only deepened. It is in the hands of the minister to ensure that data collection to contribute to long-term policy-building, and the funding of frontline services for survivors of sexual violence remains in place.
* Fiona Neary is director of Rape Crisis Network Ireland (RCMNI)