The decision to shut down the only collective national independent body that advocates for rape and sexual abuse victims is an indictment of the State's callous and uncaring attitude to survivors.
Last week, during the launch of its annual report, Rape Crisis Network Ireland (RCNI) revealed the Child and Family Agency, Tusla, had stripped it of all of its funding - €184,000. After valiantly managing to stay afloat despite funding cuts of 30pc in recent years, RCNI will not be able to withstand this devastating decision. Why should you care? Let's start with the money. In 2014, the entire health budget was €13.1bn. Out of this, Tusla was given a budget of €609m. Of that, 16 rape crisis centres and RCNI, cumulatively, received €4.2m - or 0.7pc. As a proportion of the entire health budget, it comprises just 0.03pc. Apparently, this derisory allocation has been deemed too generous.
Now, consider the prevalence of sexual crime in Ireland today. According to the Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland (SAVI) report, one in five girls and one in six boys experience sexual abuse as children. For adults, the figures are even worse; 42pc of women experience some form of sexual abuse and 10pc are raped, while 28pc of men endure some form of sexual abuse and 3pc are raped.
Behind those sterile numbers, are hundreds and thousands of real people suffering real pain, real trauma and real grief. Yet, the Government has determined that the organisations who help them; who support them when they attend hospitals for invasive rape examinations; who assist them during Garda interviews; who mentor them through the adversarial criminal justice system; who provide education programmes in schools and training to prosecutors and who collate reliable, independently verified statistics to try to highlight gaps in services and improve the efficacy of existing supports; deserve just €4.2m a year. That's how much victims are worth.
These figures are important, because the cut to RCNI, according to Tusla, was due to "funding pressures" in its 2015 budget, which necessitated "efficiency requirements" in all areas. These efficiency requirements already resulted in RCNI's budget being slashed from €292,770 in 2010 to €183,878 in 2014. As of April 1, that meagre allowance has been "discontinued" in its entirety. Tusla has tried to put a positive gloss on this announcement, saying that front-line services to rape crisis centres have not been impacted and that "an additional investment of €500,000 in dedicated resources" will be made as part of its response to issues of sexual violence. However, CEO of Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (DRCC) Ellen O'Malley Dunlop said she doesn't know where this €500,000 will be spent and her organisation has not been told of any increase in its allowance this year.
Set up in 1985 as a means for rape crisis centres to pool expertise and share information, RCNI has myriad functions but perhaps its most important is its role in data collection and research. It has spent a decade building and perfecting the most comprehensive database in the country in which to detail the experiences of those who visit rape crisis centres. These statistics have been used to inform policy, to create legislation and to highlight gaps and inadequacies in existing support services. They tell counsellors in rape crisis centres what kind of treatment and intervention works best and, by tracking the people who use services over time, provide valuable longitudinal information that informs research. None of this statistical work is very glamorous, but it is just as important as front-line services in the long term because it paints an accurate picture of sexual violence in Ireland and tells policymakers how they can best tackle and prevent it. In fact, as recently as January, Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald described RCNI's work as "invaluable".
Tusla's decision to cut RCNI's funding has, however, highlighted some genuine problems in the sector. Currently, the biggest rape crisis centres, in Cork and Dublin, do not use the database. This is nonsensical. In a small country like Ireland, where there are only 16 centres, it is vital that each one is collecting identical data and inputting it into a centralised system. According to Dr Maureen Lyons, Research Manager with the School of Social Justice in UCD, who has worked with RCNI for a decade, unless this is done it makes it impossible for researchers like her to meaningfully compare and use the data. The failure of some rape crisis centres to engage with RCNI has given Tusla an excuse to scrap it. DRCC had been using RCNI's database, but according to Ms O'Malley Dunlop, stopped using it as it believed RCNI was about to lose its funding and, consequently, felt it needed to concentrate on its own database. She also stated that, in an ideal world, she would like to see RCNI retained, but if funding cuts threatened services it was better for the axe to fall on RCNI than on front-line services like counselling. Ms O'Malley Dunlop's concerns are understandable, given DRCC has lost €300,000 and had to reduce its therapy staff by 20pc in recent years, but why should those working in the sector have to choose between front-line services and an independent national body that advocates for victims - especially when the amounts of money involved are so puny?
People should also ask themselves why Tusla is so determined to destroy RCNI instead of working to ensure all of the rape crisis centres use its internationally acclaimed database. Once RCNI closes, an independent voice, which advocates for the victims of sexual violence and holds the Government to account, will be silenced and its functions transferred to a state agency. Does anyone seriously believe that Tusla will be issuing critical reports about the Government's provision of services for victims of rape and abuse? Is it credible that Tusla will release condemnatory statements detailing the failures in its own service?
According to RCNI acting director, Dr Cliona Saidlear, Tusla wanted it to sign a document specifying that it owned the data it collected. Is this because Tusla wanted to ensure that critical information, which embarrassed it and the Government, was not released to the public? It should also be remembered that Tusla's primary function is child protection. Services for adult rape victims are not high on its agenda.
This Government professes to care about gender-based violence, but the National Steering Committee on Violence against Women, which used to hold four meetings a year, hasn't met in over a year. Meanwhile, Dr Saidlear has stated that Minister for Children James Reilly, whose department has responsibility for Tusla, has refused to meet with her to discuss RCNI's fate. It's not too late to save RCNI. All that is needed is some political will, but that has been sadly lacking from this Government to date.
The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre can be contacted on its 24-hour helpline: 1800 77 88 88