We have been asked on many occasions what advice we would give to anyone thinking about bringing charges against their abuser. The decision to prosecute or not is a very complex and personal choice. It certainly was not a decision we took lightly, and I was not aware at the time of just how difficult the legal process would be.
I now understand that the legal process is harder than it needs to be, but I hope that by sharing my experience, and in hindsight what I would do differently today, might be of some help to other survivors who are undertaking this life changing course.
For me it began with the decision to report my father to the police. This was done with a collective agreement amongst all the family. It was not taken out of bravery but more because we felt there was no other choice. I am grateful that I was spared the experience of being isolated and alone going through this process, as I am aware that it is not the case for many victims.
Making a statement to the police was terrifying to put it mildly. I was driven by the need to ensure my father did not return to the house. I was enraged that it appeared that he was still in a position of power and I believed that it was only a matter of time before he came home and continued living as if nothing had happened.
If like me, you had never spoken about your abuse then ideally the first time you are ready to talk should not be making a statement. I would recommend that you call one of the support agencies and get support before making a statement. If I could do it again I would have someone with me while giving the statement, a counsellor if possible. Make no mistake it will still be an awful experience, telling a complete stranger your story will never be easy, but the reward is that you finally tell your truth and begin taking your life back.
Following the making of my statement, the lack of information and complete exclusion from the process was both frustrating and hurtful. We didn’t realise when making our statements that the decision to prosecute meant we handed it over to the state and we were no longer needed. The decision as to whether or not the case made it to court would be made by the DPP and we had no say in the outcome of that decision.
Surplus to Requirements
Discovering we were now considered surplus to requirements, devastated all of us. We were hurt and frustrated at the lack of involvement. Waiting for a decision from the DPP seemed to take forever. This left a lot of time to question if the decision was the right one.
I convinced myself that the case would not go ahead because not only did the abuse take place so long before we made statements, but my father’s age might also be a consideration. I believed he would return and everything would be worse than before because he now knew that he was untouchable. I found it difficult to relax or sleep during this time. I felt constantly on edge.
When the DPP finally made the decision to proceed and prosecute my father we remained excluded. My father eventually pled guilty, so we were not even required as witnesses. It was very difficult to accept that our lives would be discussed in a room of strangers and we were not part of that process. I deeply resented that others had the power to make decisions about my life and once again I was powerless.
Time to Prepare
Looking back now, I really appreciate how long it took for the case to come to court. I needed time to attend counselling and build up my strength to be able to face him in court. One of the biggest obstacles I had to face at the time was my absolute fear of him and my inability to stand up for myself in his presence. I felt so ashamed for what happened to me and believed I was responsible for it. I felt that everyone would be disgusted with me. I really struggled to see the help that was on offer.
I still feel it is sad that I felt like this. If it was any other crime I don’t believe I would have taken responsibility. For example, If I was physically attacked or robbed I wouldn’t think twice about telling everyone what happened to me.
My advice to anyone undertaking this journey is to get professional help and take all the support available to you whether it be from your friends, partner, family and/or professionals. I knew even back then just how fortunate we were that as a family we all stood together. I cannot imagine just how traumatic this process is to go through alone.
Counselling will support you through the process and your growing awareness about how your abuse impacted your life can only add strength to your resolve as you navigate through the legal system.
If family members do not support you coming forward to deal with your abuse, it may be helpful to know that each member of the family can experience abuse differently. Although other members of your family may also be victims of the same abuser, they may not be ready to face it. Some may have no memory of the abuse at all. In certain cases, victims block the memories in-order to survive and the memories can lay dormant for years until a crisis such a death or birth triggers it to emerge. You will have no control over how others behave so it is important that you put all your energy into building yourself up to be able to cope with the challenge ahead.
When you finally hear about your court date I would strongly recommend that you insist on a meeting with your Barrister. You need him/her to provide you with the details of what you can expect on the day, how the hearing will run, in what order and who will speak. Ask if not offered, to read all the statements made including your abusers statement as this will help you prepare for what will be read out in court. Listen carefully to what the Barrister says about the possible outcome of the case. Your Barrister might indicate that your abuser may receive a small sentence, walk free, or get a suspended sentence but either way it is all down to the judge on the day. Best thing is to prepare yourself and remember the outcome is not the most important thing here. You having the opportunity to tell your story and shed the blame will happen regardless of the outcome.
For us, we only met very briefly with our Barrister on the day of the hearing. His obvious discomfort when talking to us and his avoidance of any eye contact made the meeting both difficult and upsetting for everyone. When he offered us the opportunity to read our fathers statements I was horrified not only by its contents but that we only get to see it five minutes before the case whereas he saw ours immediately. The language my father used indicated that he knew us and our personalities which proved he studied how to manage us for so long. I honestly wouldn’t have given him credit for that. I guess up to that point I believed that his abuse was not so premeditated, and he didn’t have any awareness of who I was. Unfortunately, none of us had any time to process this information as five minutes later we asked to wait in the lobby until our case was called.
You can get strength on the day by having someone to support you, if not your family, friends, or partner use a professional. I would strongly recommend you take advantage of the professional agencies court accompaniment services. (The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre 1800 77 8888) or (One in Four 01 662 4070). These services will help you to be aware of the practicalities on the day i.e. the layout of the court room, the location of both Barristers, where your abuser and you may be seated on the day of the hearing.
This might seem of little importance on such a traumatic day but for us having never been inside a court room and only going on what we seen on TV programmes, to find on the day of the hearing that our father was sitting on a bench not four feet from us was so distressing words cannot express how it felt.
To make things even worse when the Barristers spoke they used a lot of legal jargon that I hadn’t got a hope of understanding. If I was to go through this again I would definitely have someone with me that could explain what was happening.
I believe that if you make the decision to go down this road, no matter what the outcome, you will not regret it. While the whole process is difficult it is worth it. Remember it is never wrong to speak up and tell the truth and take back your power. You’re a survivor not a victim and placing the blame for what was done to you where it belongs is an act of kindness and compassion to yourself.
Paula – 22nd March 2018