Demands for court records 'may scare off abuse victims'
THE rise in demands for the records of sexually abused children in court cases could deter victims from reporting their ordeal, a report warned yesterday.
Child law expert Geoffrey Shannon warned in a report on child protection that the trend could lead to a fall in victims seeking counselling and therapy and also discourage people from reporting sexual abuse.
Mr Shannon, who is the Government's rapporteur on child protection, said there is a strong need for legislation to cover the disclosure of this information.
The report, presented to Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald yesterday, said the units dealing with sexually abused children face a growing number of requests from legal representatives for this information where there is a prosecution.
Assessment documents on the assault victims are provided to the gardai for inclusion in the file that is issued to the DPP's office to decide whether a case will proceed to trial.
"The Irish Counselling Service has reported a marked increase in applications for access to the complainant's medical or therapy records in sexual assault cases," Mr Shannon said.
"Disclosure orders and witness summonses are becoming increasingly common in respect of counselling services, and in the absence of clear practice and legislative guidelines on this issue, concerns as to the relevance of such requests, and fears of a decline in those seeking counselling and therapy, or indeed reporting sexual abuse as a result, should be examined," he added.
He also expressed concern at the practice of abuse victims having to give separate interviews to gardai and social workers. The report said that "repeated interviewing by separate agencies can cause the type of trauma and upset for a child that could be avoided by joint interviewing".
The 120-page report, which has 100 recommendations, highlights major flaws in child protection. It is critical of the lack of a 24-hour social worker service and said vulnerable children are having to go to garda stations in the evening and night to get help from the Health Service Executive (HSE).
"Gardai are not social workers or counsellors and are not necessarily trained to deal with such a situation," Mr Shannon added.
Ms Fitzgerald said the report made "stark reading" and added that "child protection has been very sadly neglected by previous governments".
She added: "I have asked both the HSE and my department for a response to the concerns identified by Mr Shannon. I have also notified my colleagues in Cabinet on the issues that affect their portfolios. These include mental health and criminal law.
"It is a matter of particular concern to me that, despite a commitment by the previous minister in July 2009, no draft legislation had been prepared to put the Children First Guidelines on a statutory footing."