Protocol for single, timely interview needed for children who allege sexual abuse

Sibling who disclosed abuse on six-week waiting list for sexual abuse assessment

Fiona Gartland

The young sibling who made abuse disclosures, revealed in the case at the Dublin District Family Court, had not yet been assessed at a sexual abuse unit three weeks after speaking out for the first time. File photograph: Stephen Collins/Collins 

The young sibling who made abuse disclosures, revealed in the case at the Dublin District Family Court, had not yet been assessed at a sexual abuse unit three weeks after speaking out for the first time. File photograph: Stephen Collins/Collins
 
 

International best practice states that a child who makes disclosures about having been sexually abused should be interviewed by an expert trained in the area, ideally within 24 hours after disclosures are made.
And there should be one interview only, recorded, filmed and transcribed, which can then be used for multiple purposes, including by social workers, gardaí and those helping the child with counselling and therapy.
Using one interview reduces the trauma to a child, who may not understand why he or she has to keep repeating the same things over and over again, and could become frustrated and stressed by the process.
It also avoids the risk of contamination of the child’s account of the story. Contamination can occur when questions are asked by multiple persons, all with their own interviewing styles. This, in turn, can create inconsistencies in a child’s story and undermine its credibility.

Sexual abuse assessment units that deal with children know this. Social workers know it, and so do gardaí. Everyone appreciates the need for a timely and appropriate response.
But the young sibling who made disclosures, revealed in the case at the Dublin District Family Court last week, had not yet been assessed at a sexual abuse unit three weeks after speaking out for the first time. And social workers have been told there is a six-week waiting list.

When the young sibling was taken into care, having demonstrated very concerning sexualised behaviour, the sexual abuse assessment unit would not take a referral, because the sibling had not made any disclosures involving adults.
The referral could be made only once the sibling told of the alleged abuse by a male relative carer, his friend and other adult relatives.
So there has already been a delay in identifying the sibling’s problems, in getting the help needed and in prosecuting any perpetrators.
The court-appointed guardian to the sibling has also raised concerns as part of an application to extend the interim care order for her charge.
She fears there will be difficulties in getting gardaí to agree to a single interview. She fears, based on previous experience, they will be “adamant they will go first”. Apart from the trauma and complications this involves, it will add to the delays in the sibling’s case.
And it will have the knock- on effect of delaying a decision on the future of the older child who was the centre of last week’s application.

The court has decided the older child does not need to be removed from the family home at present, based on the evidence presented. But if the younger sibling’s allegations are shown by the sexual abuse unit to be well founded, particularly the allegations that the female relative carer knew of the abuse, it is likely the Child and Family Agency will return to court to have the older child removed.

The lives of these two children are being put on hold, their treatment is being delayed because of waiting lists, and they may be put through unnecessary additional trauma because of the inability of relevant authorities to agree on joint interviewing.
There have already been numerous cases in which children have had to go through this trauma of double and sometimes triple interviews.
It is past time for all of the authorities involved to work out a protocol that will allow for a single, timely interview to meet all of their needs.
The case has also raised questions about communication within the Child and Family Agency.

In early 2016, after the younger sibling was taken into care, but before the disclosures, a safety plan was put in place for the older child. This said visitors to the family home should be kept to a minimum.

The plan was agreed with the relative carers by social workers dealing with the case because they still had concerns about the younger sibling’s then unexplained sexualised behaviour.

But social workers from a different area contacted the relative carers and asked them to take the children of another relative to live with them because their mother had left them. The carers agreed, and though the first set of social workers told the second set about their concerns the children were left with the couple for more than seven weeks.

It seems incredible that the agency could have removed one child but allowed a group of children into that home in circumstances where vital questions about a young child’s sexualised behaviour had not yet been answered.