Shane Phelan: 'Three boys at centre of an alleged attack on a girl 5 too young to face charges but Tusla could act'
The three boys allegedly involved in an attempt to sexually assault a five-year-old girl cannot be prosecuted due to their age - but that does not mean the matter ends there.
While it cannot be considered as a criminal matter, the incident can be treated as a welfare issue.
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A key concern will be determining whether there are circumstances in each of the boy's lives that caused them to act as alleged. Should this be established, substantial action would be expected from Tusla, the child and family agency.
The alleged incident is said to have taken place in the north-east of the country a fortnight ago and the details that have emerged so far are quite shocking.
A young girl is said to have been lured to a derelict house and beaten with sticks.
It is alleged attempts were made to inappropriately touch her before she fought off her attackers, boys aged seven, eight and 10.
The age of criminal responsibility in Ireland is 12, although it can be reduced to 10 in very serious cases such as suspected murder or rape.
While reasonably serious, the incident does not fall into that category, so the eldest boy will not face prosecution.
After the incident was reported to gardaí, it was referred to a local specialist section, known as the divisional protective services unit.
Members of this unit are trained to investigate sexual crime, child abuse and domestic violence. Detectives are waiting to conduct specialist interviews with all of the children to establish the facts.
Such interviews can also be conducted jointly with specialists from Tusla under a joint working protocol, but the child's parent or guardian must also be present, as well as a legal representative.
However, there are limits to what gardaí can do because the alleged perpetrators are below the age of criminal responsibility. Their powers in such situations are set out in the Children Act 2001.
It states that where a garda has reasonable grounds for believing a child under 12 is responsible for actions which would, but for their age, constitute an offence, arrangements must be made for another garda to bring the child to their parent or guardian. Should the garda have reasonable grounds for believing the child is not receiving adequate care and protection, Tusla must be informed.
Although Tusla does not comment on individual cases, it is known the case has already been referred to it.
The agency says that where a child protection concern is received, screening and assessments take place in line with Children First, the guidelines for the protection and welfare of children.
Assessments involve engagement with the child, their family, and other professionals to decide on the most appropriate response.
Child welfare experts say that if there are justifiable concerns about the children, there are a range of actions Tusla can take, including seeking orders from the courts.
At the lower end, Tusla can seek a supervision order, which allows it to keep an eye on the children and the family by visiting them periodically.
At the higher end, a care order can be sought to remove the child from their family and place it in care.