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Report calls for changes to handling of abuse cases

Updated: Jul 6, 2023

By Saoirse McGarrigle - RTE News - 19.04.2022

A woman who reported being sexually abused has said that she was told not to get pregnant before the trial or her "sexual activities would be put into question". Another survivor said that she was forced to make a statement to a detective in a dimly lit room while he "had a gun in his pocket". These are just two of the accounts given by participants in a new study published today by One in Four.

It is based on interviews carried out with 15 participants; nine women and six men. They ranged in age from 30 to 60. All of the participants had interacted with the criminal justice system at some point between 2000 and 2016.

'The Victim Experience in Focus' report details the experience of child sexual abuse survivors and recommends a series of changes in the way these cases are handled. Speaking to RTÉ News, One in Four Chief Executive Maeve Lewis said: "Despite all the good work that has been done, there are still many changes needed.

"This report shows that there are still many changes that need to be made in the criminal justice process to ensure that survivors are not retraumatised by engaging." The research found that the average time from when the participant made the initial complaint to An Garda Síochána to the return of a decision by the Director of Public Prosecution was 2.2 years. The Department of Justice has said its officials are examining the recommendations in the report.

In a statement to RTÉ News, the department said: "Officials are currently examining the publication and its recommendations, as part of our ongoing work to improve victims' interactions with the criminal justice system." The department stated that Minister Helen McEntee is "acutely conscious" that coming forward to report sexual violence can be a deeply traumatic experience for victims and that supporting victims is one of her "key priorities". It added that a significant amount of work has already been undertaken in this area, through the implementation of 'Supporting a Victim's Journey' - a plan to help victims and vulnerable witnesses in sexual violence cases.

Garda 'flirted' with survivor as she reported rape

Regarding the issue of sexual experience evidence being used in a trial, one participant said: "I do remember before the trial at some time, being told 'make sure I didn't get pregnant’. Because then my sexual activities would be put into question."

Meanwhile, another participant recalled the difficult process of making an initial statement. "The detective … had a gun in his pocket and we were sitting in this really small dimly lit room, it was really jarring, it was really strange."

A female participant said that a garda "flirted" with her during the interview process.

She told the researchers: "I was there reporting multiple rapes and this guy was like, 'Oh, are you fit? You look fit; you run? Oh cool, I'd say you've good craic on a night out' and all this kind of stuff."

The research was conducted by advocacy case manager Naomi Gould.

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, Ms Gould said: "The real focus of this research was to kind of give those victims and survivors a platform to speak about their experience of the system, to have their insight shared. It's quite a unique perspective that often isn't captured really with research."

Over 33% of participants reported experiencing incidents of sexual abuse from more than one perpetrator throughout their lifetime. The report found 46.15% of the abuse was perpetrated by a family member, 46.15% involved extra-familial abuse and 7.7% involved a member of the clergy or a religious order.

In this study, the defendants entered a guilty plea during the criminal process in six cases, a conviction was handed down following four jury trials and the DPP returned a decision not to prosecute in five cases. According to the most recent figures published by the DPP, in the year 2020 there were 5,598 decisions not to prosecute directed out of a total of 16,158 files.

One of the key findings was that participants found the prosecution process took too long. Ms Gould said: "They were kind of waiting to see what was going to happen, waiting to see if their case was going to be taken to court and they spoke about feeling powerless.

"Some participants say they didn't have a lot of communication, or a clear road map and information from An Garda Síochána about what might happen next." She added that "they felt quite triggered and retraumatised by this lack of information and communication during this process". "I guess for them it mirrored emotions that were taking place when the abuse was occurring," Ms Gould said.

The report includes an account from one participant who detailed the positive impact that regular communication had in the handling of their case. "He would check in and just be like, 'hey, I'm just ringing you to say there's no news, but I'm just checking in'. It was nice that he actually rang the odd time just to check in. He did that quite a lot and it was, it was very nice."

Dr Susan Leahy, a specialist in criminal law, highlighted the impact a lengthy prosecution process can have on sex abuse victims and said they are effectively "in limbo" during this time. She said the One in Four research highlights how the average waiting time between a victim making a statement and a decision to prosecute is two and a half years. "You are waiting to hear the outcome of a case and healing is put on hold."

She said many victims are not prepared for this waiting period and the study of survivors shows that quantity and quality of information is a "significant determining factor in well-being". "That period of being in limbo can be drastically affected by how much information you receive or not," said Dr Leahy.

She also highlighted the concern raised by some participants about having their counselling notes being used in trials. She said they described feeling "exposed" and stated it is important that only relevant information makes it to trial. Regarding the experience of going into a courtroom, Ms Gould said: "They really presented a picture of feeling quite intimidated in the courtroom, particularly with the layout. You know, they were quite the proximity of the victim to both the offender and his or her legal team."

In the report, one participant is cited as saying: "But I just remember sitting there and having him behind me, and you just have that kind of, 'oh my God, it’s not even done now, this is the man that's done all this to me'. He still is kind of nearly behind you, towering over you again still. And that was kind of quite hard."

Another participant described feeling exposed in a courtroom outside of Dublin.

They said: "I think because it was local and because the stuff in the court would have been driving offences and drunk and disorderly and minor little drug ones, but then it's like, this is serious. And especially being local and from that area. Because it was like this court where everyone was sitting, so if you are waiting to hear about something else, so you are listening to the other person."

The report summarises the possible recommendations, which include specialist trauma informed training inform interview approaches within An Garda Síochána, and specialist training is recommended for judges, barristers, solicitors and all legal professionals working on the frontline.

This training would be mandatory and would focus on "the neurobiology of trauma and sexual abuse, and the complexities of the victim/survivor responses," the report states.A code of conduct regarding the manner of questioning witnesses during cross-examination is recommended for all barristers practicing criminal law, particularly cases involving sexual and domestic crime is recommended. A reconfiguration of the courtroom layout is also proposed. This would include the standardisation of witness facilities in courthouses. If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you can contact Dignity4Patients, whose helpline is open Monday to Thursday 10am to 4pm.

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