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Irish Examiner, April 27th 2023.
A pilot operation of the ‘Barnahus’ model in Ireland has had 255 child sexual abuse cases referred to it between November 2020 and the end of 2022.

Children who have been sexually abused are facing “undue delays” accessing the justice system in Ireland, with specialists documenting a waiting time of between two and nine years, according to a new report.

A joint European Union and Council of Europe project conducted a preliminary review of the operation of the ‘Barnahus’ model in Ireland. The model, taken from Iceland, brings together the health, therapeutic, forensic and policing services into one specialist centre to ease the trauma for child victims.

Ireland set up a pilot in Galway in September 2019 which began receiving referrals in November 2020 under the name ‘Barnahus West’. Barnahus South is due to open in Cork by the end of the year, followed by Barnahus East in Dublin.

The EU-CoE Inception Report consulted with the Gardaí, the HSE, Tusla, Children’s Health Ireland and the departments of children, justice and health.

“Staff in Barnahus West note the proceedings [child abuse cases] could take two-three weeks in court, however children are waiting between two and nine years for a court date,” the report said.

“The Ombudsman for Children noted that cases take between 12 and 36 months before being taken to court and children go through multiple interviews during the evidence gathering process because there is no clear approach among agencies, which has the potential to be traumatising and creates huge delays.”

The report stated there were “undue delays” in accessing the justice system for child victims in Ireland. It said: “These delays might bring to the fore a number of challenges, eg, a child may no longer be a child at the time of the hearing; a child cannot move on with their lives before the case is closed, years of carrying the victim ‘hat’.”

It added: “One of the main issues identified during the consultations is that children need to testify about traumatic events in a court setting that is not child-friendly.”

Improvements

The report noted some improvements, including the possibility of an “intermediary” in court hearings to support the child.

It said the recording of specialist interviews is permitted but not used in all cases and that the child is still needed to be available for cross-examination. It said pre-recording of cross-examination before trial “would mitigate the secondary trauma and could support more victims to come forward and go through the criminal justice system”.

The report said there was a need for a special court for sexual offences with a co-located children’s court.

It said that Barnahus West had 255 child sexual abuse cases between November 2020 and the end of 2022. The report said resources were a “major concern particularly for first respondents – police officers, nurses and social workers”.

The report raises concerns on the sharing of information between agencies, differing views between agencies about Barnahus, the lack of joint specialist training and the need to update training. The Department of Justice said the report offered “a preliminary exploration” of the views of the people involved with Barnahus.

Emer O’Neill, Chief Executive/Clinical Officer at CARI, said: “Here in CARI we know that children wait for the court proceedings for a number of years. We are all too aware that the waiting can impact on healing from their experience of child sexual abuse. In fact, court delays can actually prevent a child from processing and dealing with the trauma.”

John Church, ISPCC CEO, said: “We often talk about ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ and we need our criminal justice response to serve children better, with a key objective of mitigating against re-traumatisation.” He said Barnahus was an excellent model and was concerned to hear agencies involved had raised resource problems.

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