HSE Dublin North East Region and complaints of child abuse
Yesterday’s Sunday Tribune reports that from 2006-2008, the HSE‘s Dublin North East Region received 33 complaints of physical or sexual abuse from children in foster care, none of which resulted in criminal prosecutions. The article states:
In two of the most serious instances, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) opted not to pursue a criminal case despite HSE and garda investigations into the complaints and the removal of one of the foster couples concerned from the HSE’s fostering register.
At least seven other allegations of physical or sexual abuse were also noted as “confirmed” following investigation by the HSE’s own childcare experts. But none led to a criminal prosecution or conviction.
While of course there is no way of knowing whether any of these allegations were well founded, the figures highlight the importance of a thorough and sensitive investigation in the prosecution of child abuse. Children in care (the vast majority of whom are in foster care) have already suffered through neglect, abandonment and/or physical or sexual abuse. The Gardai and HSE social workers play a critical role in interviewing the child and empowering him or her to provide a statement that can ground a prosecution. Due to the secretive nature of the offending, prosecutions for child abuse, particularly child sexual abuse, often pivot on the complainant’s account of events. The importance of gaining a detailed statement from the child cannot be underestimated; it will form the basis on which the DPP will decide whether or not to charge the suspect, it will form the notice of evidence to the accused on the Book of Evidence and, if the matter proceeds to trial, it is the statement around which the examination and cross-examination of the child will centre.
The crucial nature of the initial statement was recognised as far back as 1992, in section 16(1)(b) of the Criminal Evidence Act. That section provides for the videotaping of a child’s statement and the subsequent playing of that videotape at the trial. Inexplicably, however, given the probative advantages (from both a defence and a prosecutorial perspective) to be gained from having the child’s statement on record from day one, the section was not commenced until October 2008. While some members of the gardai and the HSE social workers have been trained to carry out videotaped interviews (see Úna Ní Raiftearaigh, S.C.’s excellent article in the Bar Review last November), the exact figures are far from clear. Furthermore, not every child in foster care has a social worker assigned to him or her directly – for example, only 40% of children who are fostered by their relatives are currently assigned a social worker (see the Health Information Quality Report into Children in Care , about which I blogged here), making the issue of reporting even more difficult for these children. If Irish society is serious about tackling the sexual abuse of children, it is essential that the authorities facilitate courageous children who seek to engage with the criminal justice system. A first step would be the development of a coherent policy on collaboration between the HSE and the Gardaí on investigating and interviewing children in care who report abuse. As well as addressing the psychological and communication difficulties facing child complainants in abuse cases, the policy might also deal with the gathering of independent material and other corroborative evidence.