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End of mission statement of the UN Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, on her visit to Ireland

Dublin, 21 May 2018

Let me start by thanking the Government of Ireland for the invitation extended to me to undertake this visit from the 14th to the 21st of May 2018. This is the first visit of a UN Human Rights Council appointed Special Rapporteur to monitor, report and advise on issues related to the sale, sexual exploitation and abuse of children in Ireland. It is also the first visit to the country by a UN independent expert since 2012. Based on the positive experience of my visit, I hope that it will open the door for other UN independent experts to follow, especially considering the confidence Ireland has demonstrated in the UN special procedures system by extending, in 2001, a standing invitation for all thematic mandates to visit the country.

The objective of my visit was to assess the scope of sale and sexual exploitation of children in the country, and the measures adopted by the authorities to prevent and combat it, and provide care and recovery for victims.

During my eight day visit I have met with multiple stakeholders in the capital and in Limerick and Galway. This includes meetings with the Minister and representatives of the department of Children and Youth Affairs; representatives of the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Trade; Health; Education and Skills; Employment Affairs and Social Protection; and Justice and Equality. I also met with officials of the Child and Family Agency, Tusla, at central and local level; the Office of the Director of Public Prosecution; and the An Garda Síochána.  I met with members of independent national institutions, including the Ombudsman for Children; the Adoption Authority; the Special Rapporteur on Child Protection; the National Board for Safeguarding children in the Catholic Church and the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. I am grateful to have met eminent members of the Oireachtas and of the judiciary and to have had the opportunity to observe ongoing sessions of the Child Care Courts; the Children Court; and the Central Criminal Court. During the course of the past week, I visited a residential care centre; a therapy centre; a direct provision centre; and the joint adult and children sexual assault treatment units in Galway. I further met with the Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland and held discussions with non-governmental organizations involved in research, advocacy and service delivery. Last but certainly not least, I greatly value the discussions I had with survivors of historical abuse and with children, including those serving on the Comhairle na nÓg National Executive.

I am grateful to the Government for the collaboration before and during the visit. I also wish to express my gratitude to all who met with me for their readiness to engage in an open dialogue on the different issues arising in the context of prevention, rehabilitation and accountability in the context of sale, sexual exploitation and abuse of children in the country, and for their willingness to find solutions to end this scourge and to provide protection and assistance to child victims and children at risk.

Positive steps and developments

In many ways, this was an opportune time for my visit to Ireland. In recent years, Ireland has taken notable steps to incorporate the voices of children—and their best interests—in national governance and domestic legislation. Taking the Thirty-First Amendment as a benchmark, which recognizes the rights of children as actors in their own right, we can see that a number of legislative and practical changes have sought to bring this approach into effect.

Enactment of the 2017 Sexual Offences Act deserves a particular mention, since it defines a range of violent and coercive acts against children as criminal offences and closes loopholes where they existed and introduces new provisions regarding the giving of evidence by children in sexual offence trials. I also welcome legislation providing that children who are victims of crime must have criminal proceedings explained to them.

In addition, the very recent passage of the Domestic Violence Act is to be applauded, since it criminalizes forced marriage and completely outlaws child marriage.

I view these strengthened protective provisions in tandem with innovative initiatives, such as the Garda Juvenile Diversion Programme, which seeks to ‘divert’ child offenders from the criminal justice process. If carried out with the appropriate therapeutic and social support, it has the potential to prevent criminalization of child offenders who may have themselves been victims and for whom rehabilitation needs are to be prioritized.

The establishment of Tusla in 2014 as the Child and Family Agency, separate from the Health Services Executive, is a sign of Ireland’s willingness to undertake necessary institutional reform. While still a relatively young organization coming into its own, its establishment has sent a signal that child protection is not only in the domain of health service providers but a national priority calling for a holistic approach.

I also positively note the initiatives taking place around the country to strengthen the voices of children in governance and in legislation affecting children such as adoption and childcare proceedings.

In addition, I commend both public authorities and representatives of the private sector in the country for having recognized the need to respond to the growing threat of technology-enabled child abuse, including through a multisectorial approach. It is reassuring to see the development of legislation which criminalizes not only possession of child sexual abuse materials but also the accessing of these harmful materials, and to note that many types of child sexual abuse material is outlawed in Ireland, including real or created images, objects and graphical depictions. The commitment of the ministries, the Garda, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs and the Internet Service Providers Association to remain vigilant and pro-active in this area is positively noted.

However, despite these positive developments, there is still work to be done to better prevent and respond to the sale, abuse and sexual exploitation of children in Ireland. For the purpose of these preliminary conclusions I will highlight two interconnected issues of concern and pressing need for action, namely the development of a national strategy to prevent and respond to sexual violence against children and the need to more comprehensively account for ‘historical’ abuses against children which continue to impact Irish society today.

A National Strategy to Protect Children from Sexual Violence

From the outset, it is important to note that the impact of Ireland’s legislative advancements is hindered by the lack of a dedicated and integrated strategy to prevent and respond to sexual violence against children.

I am concerned about the absence of global national data on reported incidents of child abuse and sexual exploitation, including data which illuminates the prevalence of these phenomena and the outcomes of efforts to combat them, including at judicial level. I understand that Ireland does not yet have an overarching approach to statistics and how sexual offences against children are defined and disaggregated. Data are needed to inform policies and their absence necessarily prevents the efficient distribution of resources to combat them.

There is a need to develop further care services around the country, to increase coordination amongst agencies working to prevent and respond to sexual violence against children, and to ensure that services provided are timely and continuous. Almost all of the specialists I spoke with who address either risk factors or cases of sexual violence against children indicate resources are needed, including more personnel and more training.

While talking with a diverse range of stakeholders, the pressure points in the system were regularly pointed out: For example, the joint protocol concluded between the An Garda Síochána and Tusla provides that child victims of abuse and sexual exploitation are to be jointly interviewed by social workers and police to prevent re-traumatization of children recounting their experiences both for evidence gathering and care assessments. However, this does not always happen in practice, due to confusion about the process, or availability of trained specialists or lack of understanding of each other’s responsibilities.

The fact that there is only one specialized forensic examination centre for victims of sexual assault who are under the age of 14—while there are six such centres for adults—means children regularly travel hours to be examined after experiencing abuse. Such additional burden can compound the harm imposed on child victims and also increase the chance that forensic evidence of crimes against children is compromised.

In a similar manner, child victims of sexual abuse are not guaranteed counselling that is appropriately specialized and nearby after experiencing abuse. A protocol exists that would routinely connect child victims of abuse and sexual exploitation directly to mental health services, but, in practice, the services supplied by a few non-governmental and governmental organizations simply do not meet the demand. Waiting lists to access mental health services are long and children might not receive services even after being referred.

A shortage of social workers, a low ratio of trained judges given the size of the population, and the limitations on forensic and mental health services mean those professionals who are available are under strain. It also means backlogs emerge that affect the time in which children are initially connected to services, the time in which care and recovery services are evaluated after placement, and the speed with which court proceedings progress. Delays in these processes can leave children in situations of risk, prolong the trauma of children who have already been subject to sexual violence and prevent accountability of the offenders.

In this respect, I support the upcoming review of child care and recovery services nationwide. The proposed ‘One House’ project, which would co-locate police and social services could help overcome coordination challenges, provided that the model ultimately selected also incorporates therapeutic services for child victims.

I have been made aware of the fact that prosecutions and convictions for cases of sexual violence against children are low. One contributing factor to this is the evidentiary challenges that arise, for example, due to weaknesses in the testimony of a child who is required to give evidence well after the offence took place or who was not interviewed by Gardai that have been specially trained to work with child victims. Increasing the number of trained Gardai, including women, and building the capacity of the court system are necessary steps to improve accountability for sexual crimes against children.

It is important to highlight that certain children have specific vulnerabilities in respect of the child protection system because they live in riskier settings than other children, have fewer protective family and social structures around them or have limited ability to participate in decisions about their care.  In this regard, particular attention should be paid to how a national strategy would impact young people with disabilities, children in care, those from Roma and Traveller communities and young migrants.

The desire of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to increase investment in early prevention and intervention programmes is also welcome, since effective prevention will reduce the pressure on the responding components of the child protection system.

Another area for further development would be addressing the deficit of trust and concerns about information sharing between institutions. All actors in the child protection system should have an understanding about the role of complementary institutions and how they could facilitate that role while upholding the best interests of the child, each from their own perspective but allowing for complementary approaches and procedures. Such cohesion could be achieved by better and joint training.

Several institutions spoke with me about increases they are seeing in reports of sexually harmful behavior, particularly among adolescents. Access to sexualized images online is undoubtedly contributing to this rise, conveying the wrong message about sexuality. Analysis of data from a national child abuse helpline further reflected that such behavior is likely to be a precursor to peer-to-peer sexual violence.

The Relationships and Sexuality Education could play a role in this respect. However, the curriculum varies by school and is sometimes changed at the discretion of individual teachers. Young people I spoke with expressed discomfort with raising their legitimate concerns about matters around sex because of the settings in which they are receiving sex education, where the topic is expressly connected with religion or conveyed by members of the clergy or otherwise felt to be taboo. They have suggested—and I agree—that teachers should be educated on this.

In addition, the sexual education curriculum should be comprehensive, incorporating the diversities of sexual experience, and targeting all children, including those with disabilities. I am encouraged by the efforts of young people, like the West Mead Comhairle, and the initiatives of Tusla to identify gaps in sexual education related to the concept of consent.

Finally, in terms of youth participation, I am concerned that young people are not fully empowered to give their viewpoints on issues of sexual violence in particular. Young people already face dismissive attitudes from some adults about their own agency and desire to effect change. Couple this with an uncertainty about services available for sexual abuse and anxiety around a difficult and complex topic and we see that their viewpoints are not simply not expressed. I am convinced the energy of young people, together with the firsthand insight they would bring to these issues, remains an untapped resource on preventing sexual violence against children in Ireland.

Accounting for Past Abuses

Ireland’s willingness and potential success in achieving reforms which aim to put children first is intimately linked with the way in which the country addresses the abuses committed against children in the past and the lessons learned. Horrific abuses perpetrated against children inside and outside of health, education and care institutions were the consequence of a system where young women and children were treated as inferior human beings and not as individuals with their own rights and need for protection.

As confirmed by the Ryan Report, sexual abuse was endemic and the State and surrounding community failed to stop it. The Ferns, Cloyne, and Murphy Reports highlight the breakdown of protective mechanisms following allegations of sexual abuse against children in church settings. In addition, the McAleese report demonstrates that the State was actively involved in maintaining the system of Magdalene laundries. However, that report does not address the systematic and endemic incidents of sexual abuse and forced labour of children, which are reported to have taken place in the Magdalene context. The inquiry into Mother and Baby Homes has yet to be finalized,

I am concerned that the narrow mandates of subsequent commissions of inquiry have prevented the full scale of child sexual abuse, forced labour and illegal adoptions to be known. The State should rectify this by carrying out an inquiry that covers the gamut of human rights abuses identified in these and similar settings. However, the review itself should be focused on the types of human rights abuses committed, not on particular institutions, also to account for the fact that abuses are alleged to have occurred in and outside of institutional settings. This would also avoid that there is arbitrary unequal treatment of survivors based on their individual circumstances.

Obstacles to justice which prevent accountability of responsible parties should be removed. I am concerned to learn that participation in ‘ex gratia’ schemes set up for the Magdalene survivors are conditioned on survivors not identifying perpetrators of abuse against them, and on survivors forfeiting their rights to bring an action against actors deemed responsible for their exploitation.

I met with a number of survivors of Mother and Baby’s homes whose suffering, anguish and distress is overwhelming. They have been denied access to records and information held by the State and by Religious Orders about their own lives, whether in or outside these settings, to which they are entitled and which would constitute a precondition for closure.

Redress provided so far is unsatisfactory. Survivors have identified the need for counselling services as a pressing issue and have also highlighted the fact that apologies have not been made related to the failure of the State and of Church structures to protect them. This silence conveys the message that the dehumanization they experienced was, and continues to be, societally sanctioned. Time is of the essence to heal what remains an open wound.

In this respect, I welcome the news of the Minister of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs that an invitation has been extended for my colleague, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, to look at this issue from a holistic, transitional justice perspective.

Given the legacy of forced and illegal adoptions in Ireland, including those amounting to sale of children, I also encourage the Irish government to further conduct a national examination of all alleged illicit activities undertaken in the field of adoption, which would clarify the scope of this issue both historically and in the present.

It is widely noted that many such arrangements were made illegally through the use of falsified documentation or by coercing natural mothers to consent to the adoption of their child against their will. Intercountry adoptions further expanded the practice.

While the scale of adoptions has reduced over the years in line with evolving social attitudes related to unmarried motherhood, concerns persist that safeguards presently put in place by the Adoption Authority are not strong enough to prevent the carrying out of illegal intercountry adoptions should individuals attempt to continue illegal practises which would amount to the sale of children under international law.

On the other hand, the fact that Ireland has only one accredited international adoption agency and has significantly reduced its number of international adoptions is welcome, since this disincentivizes harmful competition and reduces the chances that weaknesses in the protection framework of countries of origin will be exploited. I support the vision of the Adoption Board Chair of an Ireland with more open adoptions, in which context children’s right to identity is less likely to be controversial. In my 2016 report to the Human Rights Council, I called for adoption protections to be seen in the wider lens of child protection. In that respect, it will be important to ensure a follow up on factors underlying possible breakdowns in adoptive relationships.

Further, adoptees have expressed their concerns to me that the Adoption Information and Tracing Bill, which is currently being considered, stigmatizes them and forces them to sign away the rights to ever contact their natural parents. There is a need for this bill to be closely examined so that it strikes the right balance between children’s rights to information and the privacy rights of birth parents, considering also other legislation in place.

Conclusion

Ireland has already taken significant steps to improve the protection of children by putting policies, legislation and structures in place to respond to sexual violence, be it in a fragmented manner. Emerging public awareness of the impropriety of silence and a lack of transparency in the face of abusive practices should be supported at the highest political level. What remains then is integration and collaboration between the dedicated stakeholders making a contribution in this area, as well as openness and reparation for the harms of the past.

Thank you for your attention,

END