A report by UCD academics Dr Mary Canning, Dr Marie Keenan and Ruth Breslin on the sexual exploitation of children in care states that authorities have become desensitised to predatory behaviour, with groupthink leading to acceptance of a dysfunctional system.
The young person is “manipulated, coerced or deceived into sexual activity in return for something they want or need and to the advantage of the perpetrator” the report states.
The Sexual Exploitation Research Programme (SERP) scoping study finds that sexual exploitation is associated with cohorts of children whose life experiences make them more vulnerable.
These experiences include being in care, going ‘missing’ or running away from home or a care placement, intellectual disability, prior sexual abuse or neglect, alcohol and drug misuse, disengagement in education, low self-esteem, or peer introduction to exploitative older men.
The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 states that a child below the age of sexual consent (17) cannot consent to sexual activity.
The researchers spoke to 21 key stakeholders from 14 agencies working with children across a variety of sectors – including residential care, homelessness, education, social care, advocacy services and policing.
The study finds that reclassification by the Department of Justice has led to children all but disappearing from Irish sex-trafficking statistics in recent years, with “enduring confusion surrounding how child trafficking is conceptualised in Ireland”.
IHREC notes that the reclassification of data by the Department of Justice in 2017 led to a significant reduction in offences recognised as trafficking of children for sexual exploitation, although the reasons offered for reclassification were deemed “vague and difficult to substantiate in any meaningful way”.
GRETA (2022) urged Irish authorities to put in place a robust child-protection system capable of enabling the identification of trafficking indicators among Irish and EU children.
In 2009, research revealed that 11% of females trafficked into sexual exploitation in Ireland were minors.
The Council of Europe (2022) stressed that Ireland continued to be a destination country, and was increasingly becoming a source country, for child victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation.
The Special Rapporteur on Child Protection (2020) noted that child homelessness has been identified internationally as creating a heightened risk.
The researchers write that children and adolescents with intellectual disabilities do not know that it is illegal for an adult to have sex with a child, and that reports made by children of sexual exploitation are not taken seriously by adults because of their disability.
Unmet emotional needs
For children in care, unmet emotional needs and lack of secure attachment, driven by unstable and traumatic childhoods or poor role models, means they are frequently at risk of being sexually exploited to make that connection.
Most of the cases of sexual exploitation of children discussed in the research were perpetrated on minors who were either already in the State-care system – including one 13-year-old who went missing and was raped at an apartment.
Respondents described one young girl who was sexually exploited by her mother from the age of 16.
Many children who have been sexually exploited have also experienced sexual abuse, domestic violence and neglect, and have low self-esteem. Children with a history of familial sexual abuse are more likely to be sexually exploited subsequently, the report states.
The targeting of girls in residential care by men in their 20s and 30s is subject to an ongoing investigation by an Garda Síochána.
Predatory men targeting homes
On other occasions men were hanging around hotel lobbies to sexually exploit children that they knew were being accommodated there as a temporary State-care solution.
Gangs of men are exploiting children under the care of Tusla in these hotels, the report states.
Predatory men target residential homes once they become aware of their location, which is a constant cause of worry to staff.
However, constant staff turnover in private-provider residential care units and poor systems of oversight, create conditions of additional vulnerability.
“The turnover, particularly in child protection, is just dizzying,” said one respondent, “… holding onto staff is a problem and the continuity of trust isn’t there.”