Seanad debates

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

7:00 pm

Photo of Deirdre CluneDeirdre Clune (Fine Gael)
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I am glad to raise this issue, which came to light last week following the publication of the Garda Inspectorate report on the investigation of sexual offences against children. There was criticism of the handling of these cases by the Garda Síochána. The report was produced in 2010 and published last week by the Minister for Justice and Equality. I hope for assurances that certain changes have been made to ensure such events do not recur.

The lack of coherence became apparent after the Garda Síochána was unable to supply the Garda Inspectorate with annual figures for sexual offences against children. A number of issues have been highlighted. In one third of cases, details of the investigation had been entered into the Garda PULSE database but had not been classified as criminal offences. Guidelines for inputting crimes were not being followed and three cases involving nine injured parties had been entered as a single offence. One fifth of cases of a sample entered into PULSE were done one month after the complaint had been made. There is fear among gardaí that they will be subject to civil action if they input the complaint before an investigation and the Garda Inspectorate recommended that these fears be allayed. It is most important that cases of sexual abuse of children should be acted upon immediately.

The inspectors referred to turf wars between HSE and the Garda Síochána and the reluctance of the HSE to call in the Garda Síochána to investigate allegations until after children had undergone therapy. This undermined subsequent prosecutions because the accused could question the integrity of evidence that emerged in therapy. The lack of meaningful co-operation between HSE and the Garda Síochána was disappointing, particularly in light of the excellent relations between the Garda Síochána and other agencies. The Minister of State is well aware of this issue and I raise it because I am concerned about it. It is very important that it is raised in this House and that fears are allayed with regard to the steps taken to ensure such discrepancies, leading to several cases of sexual abuse against children not being investigated, are addressed.

It is estimated that one in five children in Europe is a victim of some form of sexual violence within the family circle, whether child pornography, prostitution, corruption, solicitation via the Internet or sexual assault by their peers. Only 10% of cases come to the notice of the child protection services and of the 254 cases analysed in the report Responding to Sexual Abuse, only eight resulted in convictions. These figures underline the importance of immediate movement and co-ordination between the Garda Síochána and the HSE. In subsequent media reports, the Rape Crisis Network Ireland welcomed the report and suggested it would protect children from further risk and that they could be identified and protected. I would like the Minister of State to respond regarding the situation following the publication of the report.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. I apologise on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, who is unable to be in the House.

In her contribution the Senator highlighted the importance of the Garda Inspectorate. When the Garda Síochána Bill was taken in his House - I was here from 2002-07 - one of the points made on the sections concerning the independence of the inspectorate was the necessity to report, on a regular basis, on issues of public concern. The inspectorate is not only independent but also carries with it the weight of international expertise, which was badly needed in terms of the formation of policy in this area. It is important that the report is in the public domain, but more importantly that the Department of Justice and Equality and the Garda are following its recommendations.

The Minister is grateful to the Garda Inspectorate for its analysis and recommendations, which are focused on improving the investigation of child sexual abuse and better protecting children. While the inspectorate identified deficiencies at the time of its inspection in 2010, it also acknowledges the Garda Síochána is addressing the issue of child sexual abuse as a top priority and that progress has been made in recent years.

On behalf of the Minister, I can assure the House, and Senator Clune in particular, that the development of an effective response to the serious issues detailed in the report is well under way and reflected in the measures set out in the comprehensive response document which the Minister published along with the inspectorate report last week. The Minister acknowledges the inspectorate report is balanced and comprehensive in terms of the situation under review at the time.

That said, it is important to note that while the inspection was under way, An Garda Síochána issued a comprehensive policy on the investigation of sexual crime, crimes against children and child welfare arising from its review of Garda work practices and methodologies for the investigation of such cases. This had the effect that many of the inspectorate's recommendations had already been incorporated into Garda practice as it had changed in the intervening period.

The inspectorate report identified a number of deficiencies. In particular, it identified a problem with under-recording of this type of offence. However, the report also points out that when this issue was brought to the attention of the Garda authorities during the inspection, swift action was taken to comprehensively deal with the issue of under-recording. The Garda Commissioner has recently reiterated that a new system has now been put in place to ensure proper recording of such cases.

The Minister also notes that the inspectorate report placed a considerable emphasis on effective interagency working in the area of child protection. In this regard, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, has published revised Children First guidelines, the implementation of which is being overseen by an interdepartmental group including representatives of relevant Government Departments, the HSE and An Garda Síochána.

In addition, the Garda Commissioner has established a strategic committee within An Garda Síochána, chaired by the assistant commissioner in charge of national support services, to liaise with the HSE's national director of children and family services. Furthermore, a sexual crime management unit has been established within An Garda Síochána and a countrywide network of interview suites has been put in place for use when interviewing children under 14 years of age against whom a sexual and-or violent offence is alleged to have been committed. The interview process is a joint Garda-HSE exercise. Gardaí and social workers have undergone joint training, organised by the Garda authorities, in the specialised interviewing skills necessary for interviewing such victims.

Work is already under way on a number of key legislative measures within the Department of Justice and Equality to support child protection. For example, work is proceeding on key legislative measures such as the criminal justice (withholding information on crimes against children and vulnerable adults) Bill and the national vetting bureau Bill. Furthermore, the Government has given approval to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to put the Children First guidance on a statutory basis.

The Minister and the Government want to acknowledge the good progress that is being made in strengthening co-operation between An Garda Síochána and the HSE as the principal bodies for child protection matters in Ireland. The Government is determined, as a priority, that an effective collaborative response to child sexual abuse is in place, as part of an overall transformation and strengthening of the State's child welfare and protection systems.

Photo of Deirdre CluneDeirdre Clune (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for the comprehensive statement. For clarification, have the interviewing process and liaison between the HSE and the national director of child and family services happened since the report was published or are they in addition to what is in place since the investigation by the inspectorate?

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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I do not know. I will find it out for the Senator. I understand some services were being put in place anyway because the Garda, in collaboration with the HSE, had accepted the necessity for the services before the recommendations were published. I cannot tell the Senator definitively if all services were put in place in advance. I will make sure the Minister drafts a note and sends it to her.