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Pilot service launch for sexually abused children

17 Sep 2019 / home affairs Print

Sexually abused children to get one-stop service

A multi-agency pilot service approach has being launched for children who have been sexually abused.

Based on the Nordic model, ‘Barnahus, Onehouse Galway’ will bring together three Government agencies – Tusla, the HSE and An Garda Síochána.

Forensic services

All forensic, child protection, medical, therapeutic and policing services will be combined under one roof to operate in a "child-centred way" where there is suspicion of sexual abuse.

The service will initially be offered in the Galway/Roscommon area on a pilot basis.

However, there are plans for the model to be rolled out nationally through additional centres.

An inter-departmental group established in 2018 is setting up the national Barnahus service.

The fully co-located services are expected to be set up in three centres nationwide.

Katherine Zappone (Minister for Children and Youth Affairs) said that she had visited  similar child-advocacy services in New York and Oxford with solicitor and family law expert Dr Geoffrey Shannon.

Catalyst

Speaking at the launch she pointed to family law expert and solicitor Dr Geoffrey Shannon’s recent audit report on the exercise of garda emergency powers as the “catalyst” for the initiative.

Dr Shannon described the new service as a “game-changer”.

“For the first time, services will follow the child and this initiative will facilitate a ‘one-door’ principle, so that professionals will follow the child, rather than the other way around,” he said at yesterday’s announcement.

Dr Shannon pointed to international research which demonstrates that, under this model, twice as many cases were investigated and prosecutions tripled for child sex abuse.

“The right service at the right time is crucial and we must get it right for every family and every child,” he said.

The Barnahus model will build on the existing work of sexual assault treatment units and the selected hospitals that currently provide these services to children.

Shannon Report on emergency powers

The examination and report by Dr Shannon on the exercise by gardaí of emergency child protection powers audited 500,000 fields of Pulse data in relation to section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991.

The report examined all cases where the emergency powers were exercised, and is a systemic review of an Garda Síochána child-protection powers.

It examined the legal mechanism through which the force performs its child protection function. Section 12 authorises a garda to remove a child from the care of his or her family where that garda believes there is an “immediate and serious risk to the health or welfare of a child”.

Exercise of this power is not dependent on prior authorisation of a court, a member of the judiciary or any other garda, but is exercisable on the judgment of the individual garda faced with what he or she believes is a “serious and urgent child protection risk”.

Children Ombudsman claims

Former Children Ombudsman Emily Logan had claimed in a July 2014 report that some racial profiling had played a major part in garda use of section 12 powers. She called for an annual audit of the use of these powers.

In his subsequent report, Dr Shannon found no evidence of racial profiling in sensitive cases, though he did find some inadequacies in the Garda Pulse system.

For instance, there are no specific fields on the data system for recording ethnicity, such as of Irish Travellers.

“In each instance examined that involved a minority ethnic child or family, there were very strong factual grounds for removing the child, under section 12,” Dr Shannon writes.

“The Pulse system was not able to provide a consistent and accurate picture of section 12 use … [and the] inquiry found numerous gaps, flaws and variation in the data captured and saved”, the report finds.

In particular, Dr Shannon says that “crucial demographic data” was not properly recorded. However, the report finds no evidence that gardaí were ‘over-zealous’ in their use of section 12 powers.

Inter-agency co-operation ‘poor’

The main finding is of ‘poor’ and ‘limited’ levels of inter-agency co-operation and co-ordination in emergency childcare cases.

Tusla does not routinely provide feedback to gardaí on cases referred onwards to them.

Dr Shannon found this was frustrating for the gardaí involved, and reinforced a “mystification” of Tusla practices and procedures.

This lack of co-operation reinforces the silos between agencies that have the same child-protection objectives, Dr Shannon says, with no evidence of routine follow-up after gardaí have handed over a child.

“There is no evidence of effective and robust systems for inter-agency information-sharing and co-operation,” Dr Shannon’s report finds.

It also notes the low provision of joint training initiatives in child-protection matters.

Critical theme

The critical theme of Dr Shannon’s report is his finding that “notification” of an emergency childcare situation is not the same as “communication” of the same.

He finds some evidence that services designed to ensure child welfare and protection actually cause further trauma.

The report’s main recommendation concerns the co-location of child-welfare services as offering a significant improvement in outcomes, as well as being more cost-effective.

Culture

Dr Shannon states that, ultimately, a change in culture is essential in the child-protection system, with everyone involved needing to take responsibility for his or her own role.

One of his recommendations is that every police vehicle be fitted with child safety belts and child car seats.

Dr Shannon also says that specialist child protection units should be established within the force on a national basis, and that social workers should be assigned to these units.

He also says that statistics should be published annually on the invocation of section 12 powers.

 

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