To be honest at first I didn’t believe a lot of what Sarah was telling me. There was just too much bad luck, too many coincidences and too many instances of discrimination to have credibly happened to one person. Outrageous behaviour on the part of people like the HSE official Sarah claimed had told her it was her fault that her daughter was raped. Or the Social Worker who dangled the carrot of access to the services they sought if Sarah and her daughter would stop complaining about the HSE.
The bare bones of what Sarah was telling me rang true. Her daughter had been raped and systematically abused by a neighbour. The DPP had found insufficient evidence to bring a prosecution. Though the Gardai referred Sarah’s daughter Maggie to the HSE she didn’t get the psychological or medical assessment she required. This was because the HSE wanted to interview Maggie on her own but the 11 year old rape victim didn’t want to go without her mother. A stand-off ensued.
All of that was all too believable. The level of rudeness and hostility that Sarah said she experienced initially sounded excessive to me. I related it all to a colleague who suggested I drop the matter, too much of it was unproveable, the rest was hearsay. Her alarm bells were ringing too. But because there was a violent rapist and paedophile at large within a community, and because a by now teenage girl was still being denied access to services she should properly receive I decided that it was of sufficient public interest to pursue.
An off record conversation with an HSE official appeared initially to confirm my colleague’s suspicions about Sarah. The official went to extraordinary lengths to blacken Sarah’s character. I might well have accepted what I was being told but the claims smacked of overkill. I spent a day or two chasing my tail checking out the allegations, all of which proved to be outright lies. Even though what I was told is demonstrably false I won’t relate any of it for fear some of it might stick. It suffices to say that in over twenty years of being on the receiving end of off record briefings I have never ever heard anything similar.
Not that any of it matters because all the attempts by a public official to ruin the reputation of a private individual did not distract from the central problem. Maggie had been raped and the HSE had not provided her with any counselling.
Maggie made an attempt on her life in the weeks before her mother got her independent private counselling. She made a further attempt to kill herself when the DPP told her mother he would not be pursuing her case. She made another attempt on her life after she regrettably decided to confront her rapist and denounce him, but he raped her again at knife point. She tried to kill herself again a few months ago, seven years after she first reported her abuse.
Where were the Gardai in all of this, you are probably asking yourself. Why wasn’t there a squad car parked right outside this man’s house 24/7? Why haven’t this man’s other rape victims been persuaded to give evidence? The Garda investigation of Maggie’s case is itself the subject of an investigation by the Garda Ombudsman at present. It would be unwise to prejudice that process or the possibility of renewed action against this paedophile by An Garda Siochana. So I will keep my own counsel on the answers to these disturbing questions for the moment. But time is of the essence.
The Office of the Children’s Ombudsman has earned itself some stripes by wading in to this one up to its waist. In an as yet unpublished report I have had sight of it takes the HSE to task for how it failed Maggie.
They couldn’t find a female doctor to conduct a medical examination. “The HSE actions in arranging medical examinations show significant and unexplained lapses of time”
Solicitors for Maggie contacted the HSE six months after she had first reported her allegations in an attempt to try and get the HSE to engage directly for the child’s benefit. The Ombudsman notes “It does not appear that the HSE substantively responded to that request at that time”. In actual fact the letter was ignored by the HSE.
“Communication difficulties” with the child’s parent “were exacerbated by administrative inefficiency and delay on the part of the HSE”.
The Ombudsman’s office met with Maggie and concluded “It is clear that she feels her views were not respected by the HSE and that her voice was ignored”
The ombudsman blames the HSE for not obtaining direct knowledge of the child’s basic wishes and concludes “The delay had direct adverse effect on the child by depriving the child of social work”
In response to my report on RTÉ Radio 1’s Drivetime the HSE told me that they were in the process of drafting a response for the Ombudsman so they couldn’t comment. The same statement also said, “The HSE is conscious of the trauma of child sexual abuse and alleged child sexual abuse and offers counselling, support and services to anyone (my italics) who has disclosed alleged abuse.”
Maggie is seventeen now. She is bright and articulate, but clearly emotionally wounded. The rapes have obviously taken their toll. But so too has not being believed. In this interview I conducted with her she intimates that she would almost prefer the abuse to have continued than not be believed.
That made me feel ashamed I ever doubted her story. Then again, when in the fullness of time all the details of what Maggie has been put through by supposed servants of the public can be revealed you will have a hard time believing it too.