Removing barriers to assist disclosure of child sexual abuse

We need to develop societies and structures that encourage victims to come forward, facilitate them doing so, and support them throughout, writes Joseph Mooney
Removing barriers to assist disclosure of child sexual abuse

In 2015, adults interviewed as part of a study called How Adults Tell recounted their experiences of disclosure to child protections services. Ultimately, that study argued that the system itself acts as a barrier to adults coming forward. One interviewee summed this up, saying, “you finally get the courage up to tell somebody… and you become a victim again… you become a victim of the system”.

Covid-19 has affected almost one in eight members of Irish society. Since its onset in early 2020 we have had national and international responses, inter-departmental expert groups established, and the coming together of scientific, economic, and political minds. All important, all necessary.

Now imagine an issue that effects one in four people before they reach the age of 18, has potentially lifelong effects, and which puts future generations at risk of victimisation. Wouldn’t we as a society come together to eliminate such a problem? 

Dr James Mercy of the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention made this argument about child sexual abuse in 1999.

What we know about child sexual abuse is largely based on those who come forward to disclose at some point in their life. However, international research tells us that disclosures tend to be delayed, commonly into adulthood and that people face many hurdles and barriers prior to disclosure. Many never come forward.

These barriers come in many forms. They can be barriers from within the person themselves, shame, stigma, guilt. They can come from others, such as family members, people in positions of power and authority, even institutions. They can also come from wider society, societal taboos, and a culture of knowing but not knowing.

In 2019, the European Union Special Rapporteur on the Sale and Sexual Exploitation of Children highlighted a culture of silence around issues of child sexual abuse in Ireland, a lack of knowledge about the fact that abuse occurs, and a lack of systems to prevent or quickly respond to violations when they happen.

In Ireland, when someone does disclose in adulthood, we direct them towards our child protection services and we have a checkered record of responding to those who do come forward. 

Reports by the Health Information and Quality Authority, the Office of the Ombudsman, the recent report of the Rapporteur on Child Protection, and the fallout of the Disclosures Tribunal, covered extensively in The Irish Examiner, have all pointed towards numerous failings. 

Issues have included experiences of significant delay, mismanagement, non-assessment of disclosures, and a lack of expertise when services are responding to ‘so-called’ historic abuse.

In 2015, adults interviewed as part of a study called How Adults Tell recounted their experiences of disclosure to child protections services.  They spoke about not understanding what would happen to their stories once they handed them over, comparing it to ‘entering a void’. 

They spoke of their confusion about the child protection processes. They experienced delays and a lack of clarity about when family members, or even an identified perpetrator, might be told about their allegation.

Ultimately, that study argued that the system itself acts as a barrier to adults coming forward. One interviewee summed this up, saying, “you finally get the courage up to tell somebody… and you become a victim again… you become a victim of the system”.

Today, a public webinar, funded by the Irish Research Council and University College Dublin, presents the results of a study which has examined adults’ current experiences of engaging with the child protection system to make retrospective disclosures. 

The Barriers or Pathways report was developed in collaboration with One in Four, the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, and the Rape Crisis Network Ireland.

The study surveyed 29 adults during May to December 2020 and the data show that similar negative experiences are persisting. Most participants did not understand what happened their disclosure once they had shared it, did not feel they were kept up to date about what was happening, and were not told if their information would be shared with a third party. 

Most stated they would not engage in the process if starting over.

Supporting adult victim and survivors of childhood sexual abuse is not the job of one agency. The Child and Family Agency has a distinct set of important skills that perfectly position it to add to the fight in this area, but more resources, training, and supports are required. 

Appropriate and secured funding is also required for therapy and advocacy services so that waitlists can be adequately managed and reduced.

The findings of the report launched today support calls for a firm legal underpinning for social workers to do their jobs in this area, with the EU Victim’s Directive acting as a potential starting point. The report also calls for a robust process of data management and data sharing.

Adult disclosures are an important part of breaking the cycle of abuse and coming forward is an important part of healing. Just like our response to Covid-19, we need to come together, nationally and internationally, to develop societies and structures that encourage people to come forward, facilitate them in doing so, and support them throughout. 

Listening to those impacted is the first, and critical step on this path to recovery.

  • Dr Joseph Mooney is Assistant Professor of Social Work School of Social Policy, Social Justice, and Social Work, UCD

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