Sex abuse children hurt by investigation delays - report
Some children who have been sexually abused are being further traumatised by having to undergo multiple interviews, a damning report has revealed.
The child should only face a joint interview by gardaí and Tusla social workers but this was in little evidence in an examination of 10 cases.
The criticisms are contained in a report from the Child Law Reporting Project, overseen by Carol Coulter, which was asked to look at a sample of cases in the District Court by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.
Some cases involving various forms of abuse or neglect are dragged out for nearly three years in the district courts.
The child protection cases can include allegations of very serious harm and the likelihood of a criminal investigation.
But they are bogged down by various difficulties, including a lack of coordination between State agencies such as the Garda and Tusla about allegations made.
Multiple expert witnesses appear and delays are caused by professional assessments of children and sometimes also of the parents.
It revealed that of the 10 cases examined "the longest ran for 52 days in court over a period of nearly three years".
"Adjournments were common; for example, there were 22 adjournments in one case. Multiple witnesses were called to give evidence, including expert witnesses from outside the jurisdiction; in one case there were 24 witnesses and in another there were 13 expert witnesses heard. The numbers of lawyers involved was high, with up to 10 lawyers in some cases," said the report.
Seven of the prolonged cases, and all except one of those that took over a year, were heard outside Dublin, with six of them heard by moveable judges.
The report acknowledged that "reducing the time spent on complex child protection cases can prove difficult, and there is no magic bullet, as has been the experience in other jurisdictions".
However, it said the district court is under-resourced for the responsibility involved in child protection cases: "There are not enough judges and they lack sufficient support services. Case management requires administrative support, and the district court is the poor relation of the courts system in this regard."
There is also no consistent co-operation between gardaí and child protection services in relation to collecting evidence on child sex abuse.
The existing protocol for joint interviewing between members of An Garda Síochána and social workers was in little evidence in the cases examined.
Children are also suffering due to delays in obtaining assistance from HSE-run child sexual abuse units.
It said the establishment of a family court has been discussed for at least two decades and the heads of a bill have been promised in the coming months.
"They are likely to contain proposals to have a division within the existing court system with judges who would acquire expertise in family law and hear family law cases, including child care law, for a specified period," it said.
However, this will take some years and, in the meantime, provision should be made to allow the district court to decline jurisdiction and send cases to the High Court, according to the report.