People under investigation for child abuse, including sexual abuse, will be permitted to personally interview their alleged victims in certain circumstances under new Tusla investigatory procedures.
Child protection experts have expressed serious concern that the guidelines, which are contained in the Tusla’s new Child Abuse Substantiation Procedures, are overly weighted in favour of the rights of alleged abusers and risk “re-traumatising”alleged victims of abuse.
The new policy guidelines, a copy of which has been seen by The Irish Times, are set to come into force in June, and Tusla social workers are currently receiving training in their implementation.
The introduction of the guidelines follows several legal cases brought against Tusla by individuals investigated over abuse allegations who claim their rights were breached by the agency.
Social workers must “stress test” allegations when interviewing complainants, the guidelines state, including by asking if there may be an “alternative explanation” or “misinterpretation on their part” in relation to the allegations.
In some cases social workers should facilitate suspects to “stress test” the allegations themselves by personally questioning complainants or witnesses.
If the complainant is still a child or is a “vulnerable adult”, it would be “generally” inappropriate for them to be questioned by their alleged abuser, the guidelines state.
If direct questioning is judged inappropriate, other forms of “stress testing” should be considered, including allowing the suspect to write out questions to be put to the complainant, allowing their solicitor to question the complainant or allowing the suspect to ask questions via videolink.
In some cases a suspect may be allowed to be in the room while questions are put by a social worker, the guidelines state. “Consider using a screen to separate the complainant or witness who is being questioned.”
Tusla staff are instructed that the identity of the alleged victim should be disclosed to the suspect at an early stage, even in cases where the “complainant is at serious risk from the [alleged abuser].”
In most cases alleged abusers should be allowed to tell their employers or partners that they are under investigation before Tusla does so.
In cases not involving “immediate serious risk” to children, the rights of the accused must take precedence over the need to inform third parties of abuse allegations, the guidelines state.
Tusla social workers tasked with substantiating allegations of child abuse should also consider the impact their findings could have on an alleged abuser, including the impact on their employment prospects, their family or on childcare proceedings they are involved in, the document states.
Tusla defended the guidelines on Monday, stating they were drafted to comply with emerging case law and court directions “in this complex legal area”.
Alleged abusers are constitutionally entitled “to fair procedure and due process” and Tusla’s guidelines are in line with best practice, a spokeswoman said.