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Health Board knew girl was being sexually abused in her home but didn’t tell gardaí

“‘Grace’ is no isolated incident. I know – the same thing happened to me”.

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A GIRL WHO was repeatedly sexually abused by her elder brothers and father in the late 1980s was left in her family home despite State health authorities being alerted to her plight.

The victim ‘Karen’ – not her real name – spent two years and 11 months living with her abusers while the Eastern Health Board (EHB) dealt with her case.

During that time, gardaí were never notified of her claims, or of admissions of guilt by two of her abusers (one of whom was a schoolboy at the time) even though it had been specified by EHB workers shortly after the abuse claims were aired that gardaí would have to become involved.

Karen says she received a verbal, informal apology from the HSE in 2012 for its predecessors’ conduct in their handling of the sexual abuse case.

Her files – which have been seen by TheJournal.ie – outline the mishandling of her situation by the EHB between 1988 and 1991, at which point Karen turned 18.

On at least four occasions during those years, social workers, psychiatrists and community care workers working within the EHB discussed the need for Garda involvement in Karen’s case. Despite this being marked in various reports as the next step in a plan or a ‘decision taken’, on no occasion were the gardaí actually contacted.

The story has echoes of a current scandal facing the HSE, in which a woman (known as ‘Grace’) with severe intellectual disabilities was left in a foster home in Waterford for 14 years after an allegation of abuse was made at that home.

“What bothers me is seeing the case of Grace in that foster home. Because I know that story is no isolated case – the same thing happened to me,” Karen told TheJournal.ie.

Karen only gained access to her file for the first time three years ago.

She did not realise that the HSE even held a file on her experiences as a teenager until 2011, when an officer employed by the executive disclosed to her that he had “read her file from the 1980s”.

The file

Karen first revealed that she was being abused at home in 1986. She was 13 years old and told a friend at her school what was happening with her older brothers. The friend urged Karen to tell someone in authority.

On that occasion the matter was dealt with by a combination of Karen’s school principal, her brothers’ principal from a different school, her parents, and a local priest – who Karen alleges, in a misguided attempt to soothe or mollify her, said that “boys will be boys after all”.

In September 1987, she was interviewed about the allegations of abuse by the principal in her brother’s school. At that time, one of her brothers apologised about what had happened and promised not to do it again. Karen says the abuse lessened but still continued.

Her story first became known to the health authorities – in her case the Eastern Health Board – when her mother referred her to a child psychiatrist at Crumlin Children’s Hospital the following year in April 1988, when she was just 14.

Her mother made the decision after discovering writings of Karen’s which described how she had been suffering sexual abuse, by her father at first and latterly also by her elder brothers, since she was four or five years old.

After “approximately five” meetings between Karen and her psychiatrist, her case was referred to a series of social workers in her local EHB area by that psychiatrist on 3 October 1988.

This was also the first occasion on which Garda involvement was broached – the psychiatrist in question informing Karen’s mother that “it is at the discretion of the director of community care whether or not gardaí need to be involved”.

Agents were swiftly appointed to the case to work with the family – but while a social worker met with Karen’s mother, no such community care representative ever sat down with Karen herself after the allegations were first made.

TheJournal.ie has seen the two partially-redacted letters which made social services aware of the situation. The psychiatrist makes reference to the fact that her patient’s abuse at the hands of one of her brothers “was more extensive and long lasting, culminating in sexual intercourse”.

The family is described to the EHB as experiencing “severe family dysfunctioning”.

Karen’s psychiatrist also told social services:

I feel that we really have to listen to what this girl is saying and work on the presumption that it is, in fact, true.

The majority of Karen’s EHB file – which she received through a Freedom of Information request in 2012 – is dominated by minutes of meetings taken by social workers assigned to her case, together with the professional opinion of her psychiatrist.

The first suggestion that she should be removed from the family home came in an assessment report by Karen’s psychiatrist, dated 22 July 1988.

“I feel that more details of abuse may occur as Karen progresses in therapy,” the assessment reads.

From a psychological viewpoint, the possibility of residential placement if the home situation does not improve, may have to be considered.

Gardaí not involved

A memo regarding a meeting between senior social workers and Karen’s psychiatrist on 24 November 1988 determines that “gardaí will have to be involved” in her case. But those present at the meeting decided that before any report could be made to the gardaí, there should first be a joint meeting between social workers and Karen’s parents.

“This is a very disturbed family… playing very dangerous games,” the memo reads.The social workers clearly regarded this meeting with Karen’s parents as very important, because they decided that “the gardaí will be held until after this meeting”.

Powerful controls are needed over them. There are implications for the younger children also. The sexual abuse is called “it” all the time and this has never been disclosed.

Five months later, in March 1989, another meeting was held on Karen’s case. The minutes of this meeting make clear that “gardaí have not yet been involved” in a plan of action for the case, and that it will be necessary for this to happen.

It is inferred from the case file that Karen’s mother was strongly against the idea that her daughter should be removed from her home, “for fear of what the community would think”.

“That was not her call to make,” says Karen, who is no longer in contact with any members of her family.

Karen maintains that, while her father left the family home in December 1988 and did not return, her abuse continued, albeit sporadically, at the hands of her older brothers.

In the minutes of the meeting involving social workers and Karen’s psychiatrist on 10 March 1989, reference is made to how Karen “despised her mother for not getting him (her father) out of the house”.

Karen is now happy that he has left – her mother knows this is best for the children but it is not what she wants. She appears depressed and unhappy.

The same meeting set forward a four-point plan of action for Karen’s case going forward. It read:

  • Karen’s mother to “encourage Dad to stay away”
  • Social worker to encourage Mum to address problems in his absence and “given time she may realise that she is better off without Dad”
  • “Gardaí will have to be notified”
  • “Protection issues will need to be discussed” 

A handwritten report on a home visit conducted by the social worker assigned to the case in April 1989 points out that the “issue outstanding in this case is the involvement of the gardaí”. This point is underlined.

This is the fourth mention in the files about the need for the gardaí’s involvement. Still they were not contacted. No explanation is given as to why this is the case.

Karen is adamant that at no time were the gardaí consulted or made aware of her situation between 1988 and 1991. Her files confirm this.

Likewise, the idea that she might be removed from the home does not appear to have been given any real consideration, while none of the social workers assigned to her case ever actually met her. Their meetings were solely with her parents, one of whom had acknowledged that he had molested her.

Admissions

Multiple documents from the file detail Karen’s father’s admissions regarding his behaviour towards his daughter. He admitted to being ‘oversexual’ with her and to touching, kissing and fondling her breasts.

A meeting of senior social workers and Karen’s psychiatrist on 24 November 1988 details how Karen’s father “has admitted to being oversexual towards Karen in the past”.

Likewise, a summary letter from Karen’s psychiatrist to the main social worker involved in the case from 10 September 1991 says that Karen’s father “admitted to touching Karen in the breast region, but was saying that this was intended as a comforting gesture and was devoid of any sexual content”.

This letter also details that Karen’s psychiatrist was concerned about her situation and that “as interviews progressed, I became aware that Karen was in need of more structured, focused therapy regarding her previous experiences of being abused”.

Despite acknowledgement and confirmation that her accusations of sexual abuse were valid, she was never removed from her home.

“When you see what happened with the likes of Roma children here being taken from their home by gardaí and you think ‘maybe they’re just being overly-vigilant’ – well none of that vigilance was in place in my case,” Karen says.

It was much more a case of ‘what would the neighbours say?’.

And then you hear about what happened to ‘Grace’, left to rot in a home in Waterford, and you realise that nothing has changed.

Vigilance by the gardaí was never an option in Karen’s case as they were simply never made aware that she needed protection.

No further role

Over a year after informing social services of her situation, Karen’s psychiatrist in Crumlin referred her to the Adolescent Incest Survivors group at the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre on 8 November 1989, something Karen was only eligible to do once she passed 16 years of age.

After this, Karen’s interaction with her child psychiatrist ceased.

In December 1989 a memo from a home visit by the EHB social worker describes how a barring order application against Karen’s father from entering the family home was dropped as he had “sworn an undertaking” not to enter the house.

In that same memo the EHB social worker says that “with support systems being in place for Karen… there is no further role for social work involvement in this case”.

Her brothers still lived in the same home.

The social worker makes specific reference to Karen’s mother who is described as “a woman who has soaked up all of the crisis presented to her as wife and mother, in such a quiet and undemanding way, perhaps too quiet and undemanding”.

In 1992, by now aged 19, Karen made three separate complaints of her own volition to gardaí regarding what had happened to her.

Karen subsequently alleged in civil court proceedings she took against her brothers that “her mother put her under severe pressure to withdraw her complaint to the gardaí, due to the fact that her mother was fearful that her sons’ lives would be ruined if the full force of the law were applied to them”. She withdrew her complaints some time in 1993.

In 1994 Karen finally left the family home. She was then 20.

Distressing

“When I was being seen by the child psychiatrist in Crumlin they were more concerned about the fact that I was self-harming than about what was happening to me at home,” Karen says.

She describes the the discovery of her old case files as being “distressing”.

Just to know that there was awareness among members of the health board that I was being sexually abused. And nothing was done.

In 2015, Karen took civil proceedings against her two elder brothers. During the case against one of her brothers, the High Court heard that her abuse began in 1979 when she was five years old.

The court record sums up Karen’s testimony: “She was told to get into bed with him and he touched her inappropriately. The degree and intensity of the sexual abuse escalated in 1980 when the touching became more intimate and involved digital penetration three times per week approximately.”

There was further escalation of abuse to vaginal and anal intercourse once or twice per week when she reached the age of puberty. When asked to stop, it is alleged that the defendant told the plaintiff that he would tell their mother about other sexual activity between her and her older brother and that she would not be believed.

One of Karen’s brothers attempted to have the case against him dismissed because of her delay in bringing it. He refused to answer her claims, citing his privilege against self incrimination. He lost the motion, after which the legal action against him was settled out of court, as was the action against Karen’s other brother.

Karen doesn’t believe that were her circumstances to happen today that anything different would transpire:

“I don’t think it would be handled differently because the same people are in charge,” she says.

Both the child psychiatrist who had Karen as a patient and the social worker who dealt with her case to the greatest extent are still working. The psychiatrist is still employed by the HSE, while the social worker has gone into private practice.

They stood over what they did. They left me there. The people in charge at the HSE are more concerned with covering themselves than anything else.

After contacting the HSE – the EHB’s successor – for comment TheJournal.ie was told all legacy cases were taken on by Tusla, the State child and family agency. Asked for comment with regard to Karen’s story, the agency replied in a statement saying it “cannot comment on individual cases”.

“This is to protect the confidentiality and privacy of the children and families with whom we work,” the statement reads. “Complaints regarding the kind of abuse detailed in this story can be made to Tusla at 01 771 8500 or by emailing tellus@tusla.ie. Anyone who wishes to report an allegation or concern about a child should contact their local Social Work Office.”

Tusla later contacted TheJournal.ie to suggest that Karen might want to make contact with a Community Care officer. She didn’t.

Read: Foster care case: ‘These are allegations of rape using implements and horrific sexual abuse’

Read: “How can they trust the system with their child?” – HSE whistleblower

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