Abuse of children by other children is an issue increasingly being reported, writes Greg Daly
Government failures to support counselling services for child victims of sexual abuse are weakening support systems and discouraging victims from coming forward, according to the head of a leading child-support charity.
Mary Flaherty, chief executive of Children at Risk in Ireland (CARI), which provides therapeutic services to sexually abused children, told The Irish Catholic that the HSE and Tusla, the State’s Child and Family agency, receive upwards of 3,000 reports of abuse a year, but that lack of support outside the capital is detrimental to child victims.
Pointing out that “in most counties there’s a voluntary rape crisis service” and that “if you’re an adult there is a real choice of services in most parts of the country”, with community counselling having been set up in recent years to help the situation further, Ms Flaherty said “there is nothing comparable for children”.
In Dublin, even with two children’s hospitals, Ms Flaherty said “there are waiting lists” but the situation is even worse elsewhere without such hospitals or access to services like those provided by CARI, which operates in Dublin and Limerick.
“What’s happening to children in the rest of the country?” she asked, citing how “one very brave lady went anonymously on the radio to talk about her two little boys waiting for counselling, who hasn’t been offered anything because she’s in the southeast”.
“Making people wait victimises them further and adds to their trauma”, she said, pointing out that “the aim of therapeutic intervention with children is to return them to the path of normal development and give them back their childhood.
“If you get help close to the trauma at the time you can ameliorate many of the typical later consequences”, she added, explaining that national and international studies have shown that if the abusive experiences are not processed adequately at the time they can have long-term traumatic effects.
The contrast between how child and adult survivors of abuse are treated by the State couldn’t be more stark, she explained, pointing out that following the 1999 broadcast of the RTÉ documentary series States of Fear, “Bertie Ahern funded counselling for adults who’d been abused in institutions”.
Nothing, however, was done for child victims of contemporary abuse, and despite 16 years of successive governments the situation failed to improve. Things have worsened of late, she said, explaining that “in the last couple of weeks, Tusla has cut funding for many of us, including ourselves and Barnardos and others trying to keep families going in these times of crisis”.
Adding that “it’s hard to find words for the levels of frustration and anger” she feels about this, she pointed out that a new coordinating committee will serve merely to coordinate “existing inadequate services”.
Recognising as “justifiable” the compensation received by adult survivors of institutional abuse, she contrasted how “so much attention has focused on historic abuse,” with how “small additional resources to look after today’s victims can’t be found”.
The parents of today’s abuse victims are silent, she said, “because nobody wants to jump up and down and say they’re waiting for their abused child to get therapy”.
Her dismay echoes concerns voiced in The Irish Catholic last week by Portlaoise’s Msgr John Byrne. Speaking about children in direct provision, whose plight has gone largely ignored despite 14% of them having been referred to Tusla, he said “we are better at looking back at institutions in our past, than what’s on our doorstep in the 21st Century”, and the 2011 observation by Trinity College Dublin’s Dr Helen Buckley that the government was “cutting back on child protection” while claiming to be doing the opposite, because it didn’t understand what child protection involved.
Asked whether the 3,000 cases the State learns of each year might be the tip of an iceberg of national abuse, given how NSPCC figures from the UK suggest that 24.1% of today’s young adults say they were abused in their childhood or adolescence, Ms Flaherty agreed, pointing to the 2002 Sexual Abuse and Ireland (SAVI) figures.
“One in four is the last Irish figure” she explained, adding that “when we’re talking about people who’ve been abused by older children or adults, one in eight have had serious contact abuse”.
CARI’s helpline suggests that a growing issue is that of abuse of children by other children. Explaining that the helpline is accessed by up to 1,500 people annually, increasingly by “parents concerned about children being victims of sexual assaults and rapes by other children”, Ms Flaherty said that there has been an increase of over 40% in such calls over the last three years, with parents describing abuse by teenagers and by gangs of teenagers.
Parents regularly think to warn children of “stranger danger”, she said, “but rarely of their friends”, pointing out that contrary to popular myths, at least a quarter of abuse is committed by young people under the age of 25, and that the situation is exacerbated by victimisation through social media, where scenes of abuse can be photographed and shared.
She repeated, however, that “everyone knows nothing is done” to help children when abuse is reported, adding “when there isn’t even a service this conspires towards lower disclosures”.
The priority, she insisted, is to “start with the 3,000 who’ve come forward, and make sure they have an appropriate service”. Explaining that “the ones who get to us are the lucky ones”, Ms Flaherty said that “if even half of the disclosures [Tusla receives] are confirmed, what’s being offered to those children?”