Child Protection - We Still Have a Very Long Way to Go

Irish Examiner
February 3, 2012

Nothing is more important than protecting our children.

So begins Kathleen O’Toole, head of the Garda Inspectorate, in her review of the force’s response to child sexual abuse.

Yet the Ferns, Dublin, Cloyne and Ryan reports revealed occasions when gardai were more concerned with protecting the reputation of the Catholic Church or shielding themselves from the hassle of a potentially difficult investigation.

Chief Inspector O’Toole frankly acknowledges those failings, not only historic but, more importantly, current. On communication between the agencies tasked with child protection, she states: "Effective collaboration still appears to be the exception and not the rule." One example is the failure to complete joint action sheets between the HSE and the gardai when a concern about child sexual abuse is reported. In the Dublin Metropolitan Area, only 1% of those concerns resulted in a joint action sheet. Across all six Garda regions, the completion rate averaged just 23%.

The review accepts that many frontline staff in the gardai and HSE do liaise well but remarks that this is less to do with adherence to formal procedures than to the happenstance of good personal relationships.

Unfortunately, happenstance works both ways. Good personal relationships between gardai and priests in the past were responsible for the concealment of child abuse. People in the professions need to be professionals first and friends second or else lines get blurred and vulnerable children get lost in the haze.

Chief Inspector O’Toole’s review speaks to society at large as she stresses that prevention and handling of child sexual abuse cases cannot be left to the gardai alone. However, she finds room for specific improvement in the Garda response, including the immediate recording of complaints on the central Pulse computer system, something she says gardai can be reluctant to do until they are sure there is substance to the concern.

You can make the chicken and egg argument all day, debating if substance should follow a complaint or vice versa, but there is no excuse for delaying investigations where children are concerned and the review says there are often delays of weeks "unless there is a perceived serious and immediate threat to the wellbeing of a child".

Other recommendations are for the appointment of an assistant commissioner to develop child protection practice; for greater training in child protection for all gardai; for better information for victims on reporting and investigation procedures; and for dedicated reporting phone lines to be manned 24/7.

The response of Justice Minister Alan Shatter is robust in defending existing policies and practices while stressing that new legislation to establish tighter Garda vetting procedures and introduce the offence of failing to report a child protection concern is on the way.

However, it is worth noting that Chief Inspector O’Toole’s review was passed to the gardai and minister for response over a year ago and we’re only now seeing it published.

Practical changes will only follow attitudinal ones. On the latter it seems we have some way to go.








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