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'It was most unlikely the girl’s injuries happened the way her parents alleged': How gardaí handled Ireland's first FGM trial

A married couple were yesterday given prison sentences after being convicted of allowing female genital mutilation to be carried out on their young daughter.

Image: Shutterstock/Stephen Barnes

THE LEAD GARDA investigator in the country’s first-ever female genital mutilation (FGM) trial has said the learnings he and his team have from carrying out the investigation will be invaluable to any similar cases in the future.

A married couple were yesterday given prison sentences after being found guilty last year of allowing FGM to be carried out on their young daughter.

On 28 November, a jury at the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court unanimously found the married couple guilty of FGM and of a separate charge of neglect or cruelty related to the same incident on 16 September 2016.

Judge Elma Sheahan sentenced the girl’s father to five and a half years in prison for the FGM charge, and three years for the neglect charge. The sentences will run concurrently.

The girl’s mother was sentenced to four years and nine months years in prison for the FGM charge, and two years and nine months for the neglect charge. The sentences will also run concurrently.

The couple, who can’t be named for legal reasons, denied the charges. FGM, which refers to the ritual cutting or removal of some or all of the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons, has been outlawed here since 2012.

The maximum sentence for an FGM conviction in Ireland is 14 years, while the neglect conviction has a maximum sentence of seven years.

The State did not argue that the couple carried out FGM on their daughter themselves, rather that they “aided and abetted, counselled or procured FGM” to take place.

The couple had claimed their daughter, who was just under two years old at the time, sustained her injuries after falling onto a toy while not wearing a nappy at the family’s Dublin home. This version of events was disputed by three medical experts over the course of the trial.

‘Difficult’ case

Central to the case was evidence gathered by Garda Inspector Daniel Kelly and his team.

In an interview with TheJournal.ie post-sentencing, Kelly said certain elements of the investigation were “quite difficult” as the trial was the first of its kind in Ireland.

The couple took their daughter to Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital Crumlin (OLCHC) on 16 September 2016 and asked for immediate assistance because she was bleeding. The young girl had to undergo surgery to stop the bleeding, the court heard during the trial.

Medical professionals examined the girl in September 2016 at OLCHC. Professor Thambipillai Sri Paran, who carried out surgery on the girl, and Dr Sinéad Harty, who examined the girl, both told the trial the girl’s clitoral head was missing – consistent with FGM Type 1.

“The story didn’t match the injury that I saw,” Paran said during the trial, adding: “When the story and the injury doesn’t tally, we know we are legally obliged to raise the alarm.”

Kelly said the opinion of doctors at OLCHC that FGM had occurred was the starting point of the garda investigation.

We had an opinion, as outlined in the trial from the medical professionals who gave evidence, that it was most unlikely that the girl’s injuries happened the way the parents alleged.

“The medical opinion was that it was more likely to be FGM – that was a definitive opinion, the start point,” Kelly explained.

He said it was clear early on in the investigation that expertise outside of Ireland would be needed, given the lack of previous FGM cases here.

In order to get the opinion of professionals who specialised in FGM, Kelly travelled to London to deliver DVDs of examinations carried out on the girl to consultant paediatrician Dr Deborah Hodes and consultant gynaecologist Professor Sarah Creighton, who run a specialised clinic in London that helps identify FGM and help those who have undergone the procedure.

“She was able to say that it was FGM,” Kelly said of Hodes’ input to the investigation.

‘No clitoral hood’ 

Hodes gave evidence during the trial and compiled a report about her findings as well as a general overview of how and why FGM is carried out. Hodes has helped devise FGM training for paediatricians in the UK and has given advice about FGM to the British Director of Public Prosecutions, the Home Office, the Department of Health and the Department of Justice, the court previously heard.

Describing what she saw on one of the DVDs, Hodes told the court in November: “There was a raw bleeding area where I would have expected to see the clitoris.” She noted that the view was “obscured somewhat by blood” but that she “couldn’t see the clitoral head”.

A catheter was inserted after surgery to make it easier for the girl to pass urine and “avoid pain”, she noted. The presence of the catheter highlighted that the bleeding was “coming from above the urethra”, she noted.

You would expect to see the clitoris and the clitoral hood, but I didn’t see this, I saw lots of blood. 

Hodes told the court the parents’ explanation that the girl sustained her injuries after falling backwards onto a toy while not wearing a nappy “does not fit with the clinical findings of the injury”.

“It’s not possible that falling back onto this type would cause this degree of damage,” she said, adding: “It’s my opinion that there’s nothing sharp there.”

She said the fact no other injuries or bruising were evident on the girl in the examinations backed up this view. “If a child were to fall backwards onto her buttocks, onto this [toy], I would expect quite a lot of the area to be injured, not a specific part of the area.”

The toy the girl is alleged to have fallen on, an activity centre with a steering wheel and other protruding objects but no sharp edges, was shown in court on a number of occasions.

‘Identify the nature of the injury’

Kelly said, as is the case in other investigations such as those involving an alleged assault or sexual assault, it is “standard for gardaí to investigate to obviously identify clearly what the nature of the injury is and that dictates the course of the investigation”.

Kelly said the “broader knowledge” of FGM he and other investigating gardaí now have is “very important” and will aid any future cases in Ireland.

It is quite a new subject and it’s important to understand some of the reasons behind why it is carried out. Hopefully we will now be able to see the signs in relation to it, based on what we have learned.

TheJournal.ie has been covering FGM in Ireland and abroad in recent years. It is estimated that about 6,000 females living here have undergone the procedure and many others are deemed to be at risk of being subjected to it. 

Campaigners here have long been calling for a national action plan to be introduced to ensure as many females as possible are protected. Such a plan would see greater coordination between relevant stakeholders including healthcare workers, gardaí, social workers, government departments teachers and childcare workers.

When asked if he supports this approach, Kelly said the implementation of this type of initiative is an issue for policy makers but he believes An Garda Síochána would be “open to discussions” on the subject.

The children of the accused are currently being cared for by their aunt, their mother’s sister, and Judge Sheahan noted that the appropriate services are “supportive of this and are overseeing it”. She said the children have remained in similar surroundings and the same crèche, and are “said to be well cared for and doing well”.

Kelly said he could not comment on the children but confirmed gardaí are maintaining “a level of engagement” with the family, social workers and Tusla, the Child and Family Agency.

He said, given the distressing nature of some of the evidence gathered during the investigation, gardaí were made aware of the welfare services available to them – as is normal procedure when dealing with any particularly sensitive or difficult case that may affect them.

‘A strong and important message’

Speaking outside the court today, Detective Chief Superintendent Declan Daly of the Garda National Protective Services Bureau noted that the sentence “sends a strong and important message that female genital mutilation, the mutilation of children and young girls, is not and will not be tolerated”.

“Ireland has a long and proud history of embracing traditions and customs from abroad, however there can be no ‘welcome’ for any activity which brings harm to children,” Daly stated.

He encouraged people to be “vigilant and aware of this crime” and urged anyone who suspects or believes a child is likely to be subjected to FGM, either in Ireland or by being brought outside the country, to contact their local garda station, the Garda Confidential Line on 1800 666 111 or call the Child Abuse Reporting Line on 1800 555 222.

A garda spokesperson later told TheJournal.ie that teachers and neighbours or anyone who suspects a child may have undergone FGM or be at risk of being subjected to the practice should contact gardaí, stressing that any infomation they give will be handled confidentially.

“It’s a criminal offence here in Ireland and it’s a criminal offence to bring a girl out of [the] country to carry out FGM,” the spokesperson noted.

They added that a person should not feel bad about alerting the authorities as there is “a duty of care on everybody to alert gardaí if they think something is wrong”.

“In the case of a child or a teenager, a person might notice a change in their personality, that they used to be happy but now are withdrawn, or that they were away for a while and may have been out of the country.”

They said, if deemed necessary, gardaí will investigate, adding: “If there’s nothing wrong, there’s nothing wrong.”

‘Lack of insight and remorse’

Outlining her reasons for the sentences imposed, Judge Sheahan yesterday told the court she had to “take into consideration the nature of the offence”, describing it as “surgical intervention obviously neither medically warranted or justifiable upon [the girl] in a non-medical surrounding”.

She said this situation was “further compounded by the most egregious breaches of trust by those who are presumed to protect their infant child as opposed to put them in harm’s way”.

Judge Sheahan said the girl at the centre of the case has “healed well physically”, according to medical professionals, but she will likely experience long-term psychological effects from the “severe and invasive procedure”.

Sheahan said being subjected to FGM will have “a real impact on her quality of life in the future”, adding: “The true significance of what has occurred may not become apparent for years to come.”

The judge said, as the case was “the first of its kind” in Ireland, she looked at the sentences handed down for similar convictions in other jurisdictions. She noted that a mother found guilty of carrying out FGM on her daughter in the UK was sentenced to 11 years in prison. The maximum sentence in the UK for this conviction is also 14 years.

However, she noted that the details of the Irish case and the UK case were different – FGM Type 1 was carried out in Ireland while Type 2, partial or total removal of the clitoral glans and the labia minora (the inner folds of the vulva), was carried out in the UK. She added that there are also “significant differences in terms of penal regime in the UK” and the requirement to serve up to 50% of the sentence before being considered for release.

“The limited amount of prosecutions brought before the courts is acknowledged to be owing to the hidden nature of this offending, often carried out with the collusion of extended family members, which this court notes is not the case in this trial,” Sheahan stated.

She said, after examining the evidence presented to her, she deemed the offence to be in the ‘mid-range’ and said the appropriate headline sentence was seven years in prison for the FGM conviction and four years in prison for the neglect conviction.

However, she said mitigating factors also had to be taken into account. She said serving time in prison may be more difficult for both parties due to the nature of the offending involved and the fact they are not originally from Ireland.

Judge Sheahan said one of the “most significant” factors she had to consider was the fact both of the accused had pleaded not guilty. She said this had resulted in “lack of insight and lack of remorse”, something that “is a concern to the court”. She said, as a result of this, none of the sentences would be suspended.

The judge said the mother was the primary caretaker of the couple’s three children, adding that she is “fully aware of the effect of her imprisonment her on her children”.

The children of the accused are currently being cared for by their aunt, their mother’s sister and Judge Sheahan noted that the appropriate services are “supportive of this and are overseeing it”. She said the children have remained in similar surroundings and the same crèche, and are “said to be well cared for and doing well”.

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Órla Ryan

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