Five members of a family have been convicted on a range of charges including the rape, sexual assault and exploitation of three children after a trial at the Central Criminal Court. Guilty verdicts were returned in 77 of 78 charges. Vivienne Traynor reports on the trial.
The family at the centre of this case came to the attention of social services in 2011, five years before the children were taken into care. Their mother was at an antenatal visit and a hospital social worker noticed two of her children had third degree burns.
A social worker who dealt with the family from 2014 to 2016 told the trial she was aware of the 2011 referral and that her colleagues had previously visited the home and were shocked by the level "dirt, flies and nappies".
Some supports had been given to the family and things had improved temporarily but the parents' care of the children tended to lapse as soon as those supports were withdrawn. The social worker said she was also aware that gardaí had been called a number of times over concerns about the children being unsupervised.
She paid a visit to the home in October 2014 and said the outside of the house was strewn with rubbish. Inside the house was "desolate and quiet" with piles of clothing around various rooms. She said the house was filthy and there were no cleaning products, soap, toothpaste or toilet rolls. An 18-month-old child who looked "pale and grey" was strapped tightly into a buggy and when she spoke to him he was "blank and unresponsive".
She said there was a concern the parents may have had undiagnosed intellectual disabilities. However, she also believed they understood what was being discussed at case meetings about the care of the children. A number of supports were given to the family and they had regular visits from family support workers. Plans were put in place for the care of the children but there was a pattern of non-compliance by the parents.
Teachers had repeatedly raised concerns about the children's welfare and had reported matters to Tusla. They outlined numerous incidents where they had concerns for the children regarding their hygiene and physical and mental well-being.
The children were categorised as being at risk of neglect and there were ongoing concerns for their nutrition, hygiene health and dental care. There was also a concern about them being given medication to make them sleep. The father had admitted giving medication prescribed for one child to the other children because they would not "settle or stay quiet". They were finally taken into care in 2016.
A number of foster parents gave evidence about the condition of the children when they arrived into foster care. They had no possessions except for the clothes they were wearing. One of the parents said the eldest boy did not appear to know how to use a knife or fork and was fascinated by the amount of food they had in their house. A woman who cared for his two younger siblings said the children did not appear to know how to wash themselves or brush their teeth and had a disturbing relationship with food. All of the children had dental problems or missing teeth and their hair, skin and nails were in poor condition.
It was while they were in foster care that concerns were raised about some of the children's sexualised behaviour and language and a report was made to gardaí. Specially trained gardaí visited the three older children in their foster homes where they made allegations of abuse.
They were later brought to a special interview facility where their statements were recorded on DVD. The children had also been invited to write down anything else they may have remembered. Gardaí accepted that inviting children to make notes was not included in the guidelines for interviewing child witnesses. However, they said they had many years of experience and had found it to be a useful exercise. They said the guidelines were not mandatory and were there to assist the process.
The main prosecution evidence for the sexual abuse charges was the testimony of the children which was heard in the early days of the trial. The testimony of two of the children was relayed to the jury by recorded video interviews which had been carried out in 2017 by gardaí who are specially trained to take evidence from vulnerable witnesses. They were aged nine and eight at the time of the interviews. The jury was told it was best practice to take the testimony of children as soon as possible and the law provided for a recording of those interviews to be presented as their testimony in a trial.
The children, a girl and a boy now aged 12 and 11, were later cross-examined live by video link from a specially equipped room in their home county. They were accompanied throughout this process by an intermediary who specialises in speech and language and helped them to understand the questions and advised the court on how to phrase those questions.
In the recorded interviews taken when they were aged nine and eight, the sister and brother said they had been repeatedly abused by family members including their parents, uncles and aunts. The detail of that evidence cannot be reported by order of the court for the protection of the children's welfare.
The older boy gave his evidence live by video link. Now aged 14, he also described abuse and exploitation he said took place in the family home by a number of adults.
The 56-year-old father had pleaded not guilty to 31 charges including rape, anal rape, oral rape, sexual assault, sexual exploitation and wilful neglect between August 2014 and April 2016. An additional three counts against him were withdrawn during the trial. The prosecution described the father as "a serious multiple offender" against his children and said he had allowed others to abuse them.
Prosecuting counsel Bernard Condon said he had neglected his children by choice rather than through incapacity. The alleged neglect of the children was an "essential part of their vulnerability," Mr Condon submitted. "It makes them more available. Lack of care, lack of boundaries, lack of safety. They become much more vulnerable to advantage being taken of them," he said. "Atrocious things" were done to the children, the prosecution alleged. "They didn't just happen like that," Mr Condon said. "They happened because of a combination of people coming together at the right time in the right circumstances. Huge advantage was taken by people who had responsibilities as adults."
The three older children all gave evidence as to how their father abused them. One of the boys maintained "a firm adoption of this wrong-doing by his father," the jury was told. "There's no resiling. There is no hesitancy in his account of things," Mr Condon said. Mr Condon noted there were "striking similarities" between the children's allegations and said it would be "extraordinary" for children that age to keep their story straight if they were not telling the truth.
Mark Nicholas SC, defending the father, had told the jury there was no supporting evidence to prove the father had abused the children and said the credibility of the children's evidence remained the central issue. Mr Nicholas said the jury would have to ask themselves if the children's testimonies related to "a lived experience or something they could have picked up from somewhere".
In relation to the neglect charges, Mr Nicholas said it was important to understand that not all neglect is criminal neglect and that criminal neglect has to be deliberate. He said there was "a huge microscope" put on this family over the years by social workers, family support and charity workers, but at no stage did anyone suggest the parents were "bad folk", that this was "wilful behaviour".
He submitted the neglect of the children was "down to capacity and limitations" of the parents, who have a low IQ and an intellectual disability. He said the child neglect charges were "tacked on" after the children made abuse allegations against their parents. The trial heard that the father admitted to the family social worker that he regularly gave the children melatonin medication, which was prescribed to one of the children who had a medical condition. He said he gave it to them because they would not "settle or stay quiet" and that he gave the most to the girl because she was "the hardest to knock out".
The 34-year-old mother had pleaded not guilty to 25 charges relating to five of her children between August 2014 and April 2016. These included ten charges of sexual assault and three of allowing others to engage in sexual activity with a child. She also faced two charges of sexual exploitation. These charges related to her three eldest children. She also denied 10 charges of wilfully neglecting five of her children. The prosecution said she was a "central" part of the case, that she sexually abused her children and allowed them to be sexually abused by others. After her arrest, she admitted abusing her children and named others who she said had also abused them.
The prosecution said this was some of the strongest evidence in the case. Prosecuting counsel Bernard Condon said she had a solicitor with her throughout the interviews and had consulted with her solicitor 11 times. He said while it was convenient for her not to accept those admissions now there was a ring of basic truth to them which was consistent with the children's allegations.
Referring to the neglect charges, he said her low IQ or intellectual disability was no excuse. "That's an insult to people with intellectual disabilities to say they would leave their children in that condition," he said. He said the mother was given every possible support by social services, but she didn't want their help, regularly walked away from them and asked when they were going to close their case on the family.
"It all comes full circle," he said. "They didn't want them there because there were other things going on there. They didn't want these people under their feet."
Dean Kelly SC, defending the mother, said she had made "exhausted admissions" to gardaí in her fifth of six interviews over a two-day period and that no allowances were made by gardaí for the woman's intellectual disability.
He urged the jury to put out of their mind "the fallacy that innocent people don't confess to crimes they didn't commit". He said her admissions should have been questioned further by gardaí, as many of them were "hard to make sense of". Mr Kelly submitted that the sexual abuse of the three children could not have happened because of the "constant scrutiny" of State agencies. He said it was almost like "a police helicopter was hanging over the house, where everything was illuminated" and suggested that it would be "extraordinary" if the allegations as set out by the children happened "under the noses of that constant level of scrutiny". In relation to the neglect charges, Mr Kelly referred to evidence the mother was "struggling to cope", which he said did not suggest a deliberate and callous attempt by his client to wilfully neglect her children.
The children's 35-year-old aunt had pleaded not guilty to three charges including two counts of sexually assaulting the girl and one count of sexually assaulting one of the boys between August 2014 and April 2016. The prosecution said the children's maternal aunt was "not a central player" but said that did "not absolve her from her responsibilities". During her garda interviews, the aunt told gardaí that what the children were saying was truthful. But she later clarified that by saying she had not seen anything or done anything to them.
"I know I told you it was the truth but it actually isn't," she told gardaí. Prosecuting counsel Bernard Condon said she was "leaning towards making admissions". He said that while the two children she is accused of abusing resiled "a little bit" from their allegations in relation to their grandmother and their uncle's partner, they did not make any such concession in relation to her.
Anthony Sammon SC, defending the aunt, told the jury that his client had "tied herself in knots" during her garda interview. She had a consultation with her legal advisors and returned and confirmed that she did none of the things alleged against her, he said. He urged the jury to focus on the credibility of the children's evidence and he referred to diary entries of the foster mother of the two children which said the children had a convincing way of telling or making up stories and she was concerned they could make things up about her foster family.
She had also described the girl as having different personalities and being "an actress". Mr Sammon also referred to an incident during which the girl asked if she could jump on her foster father's lap and when he refused, she threatened to tell his wife that he had hit her. "This demonstrates a capacity to be malicious and to lie," Mr Sammon said.
THE 49-YEAR-OLD UNCLE
The children's 49-year-old uncle - the husband of their maternal aunt - had pleaded not guilty to 10 charges relating to the three older children between August 2014 and April 2016. In relation to the two boys, he denied three counts of sexual assault and three counts of sexual exploitation. He denied two counts of rape and two counts of sexual assaulting the girl. Two additional counts were withdrawn during the trial.
The prosecution said he was "right in the middle" of this case and right in the middle of the family's affairs. Senior Counsel Bernard Condon said the man was present at the family's case conferences with social workers. He was a "recurring feature in this case in all of the children's allegations" and the children gave "strong, compelling, consistent evidence" against him, he said.
The prosecution alleged the uncle played a significant role in the abuse of the oldest boy, and told him not to tell anyone.
Andrew Sexton SC, defending the man, told the jury that his client "vehemently denied" these "devastating allegations" and "in very simple terms he said he had never abused these children".
Mr Sexton said "there was almost a mini army investigating this family" and said the suggestion that these sexual offences were going on during these times "was implausible".
"The more you examine this case, the cracks being to appear. You have a very unique set of people together, with all kinds of crazy, chaotic behaviour, which makes it very hard to assess what is actually going on," Mr Sexton said.
THE 27-YEAR-OLD UNCLE
The children's 27-year-old maternal uncle pleaded not guilty to nine charges relating to two of the older children between August 2014 and April 2016. He denied five counts of rape and one count of sexually exploiting the younger boy and one count of rape, one count of sexual assault and one count of sexually exploiting the girl. The 27-year-old was acquitted on one charge of sexual assault. One count was withdrawn during the trial by direction of the judge.
The prosecution said he was "a key part" in the sexual abuse of the children. The man was the only one of the five accused to give evidence during which he repeatedly denied all of the allegations against him. "I witnessed nothing and I did nothing," he said.
When asked why he was top of the lists of people the boy and girl said abused them, the man said he didn't know and maybe they were mistaken. He agreed the children knew him very well. The court heard that both children first named their uncle as an alleged abuser in their second specialist garda interview. Mr Condon urged the jury to think about whether they would expect young children to unburden themselves fully in their first meeting with gardaí.
"These are deeply traumatised children coming to make deeply unpleasant communications to strangers - gardaí - not knowing how it will be received," he said. He denied that the uncle was an "afterthought" to the case because he was only mentioned in the second interviews.
He said the girl in particular described "in great detail" what her uncle did to her. The prosecution rejected the idea that the children were "trying to destroy people' and tell untruths". He said the fact they conceded they may have been mistaken in relation to the allegations against other people in the case was a "mark of honesty". "How many people were involved in this? How many people were abusing these children?" he said. "They are very, very young. They are doing their best. And they have given an account."
Mr Condon said this man gave a "bizarre presentation" to gardaí along the lines of "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" in which he said he wasn't aware of the conditions the children were living in. "Everybody else (was aware)."
Conor Devally SC, defending the uncle, submitted it was a sad situation where brutalised children had been "mismanaged". He said their evidence against his client was hard to make sense of. He said the late inclusion of the man in the case suggested there were many reasons to suspect something strange and that it would be a "travesty" to convict him on the evidence presented.
In closing arguments, prosecuting counsel Bernard Condon told the jury this was an extraordinary case involving multiple allegations. The central aspect of the case was the manner in which it was communicated. He said a trial was a process of communication and bearing in mind these were children, the process of communication was not perfect.
He said there was no perfect way to be a child victim, no rule about how you communicate the wrong done to you. While the defence might argue about children not making certain allegations in their first garda interviews he asked if they were expected to unburden themselves the first time they meet a garda.
"These were deeply traumatised children having to make deeply unpleasant communications to strangers not knowing how it will be received," he said, adding that the jury had heard evidence from a specialist garda about how children tend to drip feed information.
The defence had argued in general terms that the testimony of the children was the only evidence against their clients and could not be relied upon, particularly after they had withdrawn allegations against their grandmother and another aunt who were released from the trial.
Counsel for the children's 27-year-old uncle had said the safeguards to ensure spontaneous and untainted disclosures from children during garda interviews were not in place when the children made their own notes which they referred to in their second garda interviews.
Defence counsel also said it was simply not credible that the children had been subjected to a litany of horrors at a time when the family was under the intense scrutiny of social services. One defence counsel said if the prosecution's case was to be believed, family members would have come to that house to abuse children and almost had to pass social workers at the gate as they arrived.
They said at no point did social workers or family support workers who were specially trained in child protection raise any concerns about physical, emotional or sexual abuse and the only reason the children were taken into care was because of neglect.
After the five children were taken into care, the woman went on to have a sixth child after what a social worker described as a "concealed pregnancy". The social worker said the woman had not told anyone she was pregnant and went into labour at home. The sixth child was also taken into care.
The case against two other women - the children's uncle's 32-year-old partner and their 57-year-old grandmother - was withdrawn during the trial after the children they were accused of abusing said they could either no longer remember them doing anything or that they could have been mistaken.
In the absence of the jury, the court heard that the grandmother made admissions to gardaí in relation to sexually assaulting her grand-daughter. She told them: "I only did it the once" and "I think you know, there's no point lying".
These garda interviews were ruled inadmissible by Mr Justice Paul McDermott for a number of reasons, including that the grandmother asked for a solicitor at one point and was not provided one, that she had an intellectual disability and appeared not to understand words like "allegation" or "implication".
The judge further found that in one of the interviews there was "verbal aggression and foul language" by the interviewing gardaí. As a result, none of the grandmother's garda interviews were played to the jury.
Tomorrow, read more from Vivienne Traynor on the children's testimonies