Charles Flanagan, TD.
Minister for Justice and Equality
Department of Justice and Equality
51 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2
RE: Count Me In! Survivors of Sexual Abuse Standing Together for Change
My name is Paula Kavanagh and I am writing to you as part of the ‘Count Me In! campaign’ (Survivors of Sexual Abuse Standing Together for Change).
I wish to begin by thanking you for getting behind the recent referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment. Regardless of your personal views, we really appreciate how the politicians respected and backed public opinion. Many of you felt that through listening to individual stories you were brought on a journey and that hearing the ‘hard stories’ helped all political parties understand how real people’s lives were affected by the amendment.
I am supporting this campaign because I truly believe there is strength in numbers. I also believe that if those that get to legislate for all of us, understood the true and lasting impacts of abuse they would do right by us.
I am hoping that by sharing my story you will have a deeper understanding of the issues I face as a result of the abuse I suffered. Armed with this information I hope you feel in a better position to support bringing about the necessary changes to address this problem. Ireland is being provided with the opportunity to again demonstrate that we listen to our citizens and take the necessary action.
Hopefully me sharing my story will bring you on another journey.
I was born the second youngest of ten children (6 Boys, 4 Girls) in Ballyfermot, Dublin in the 1960’s. Our family was not particularly unique or special, but we did appear to be a little better off than those around us as we had a family grocery store built onto the side of our home.
I grew up in a time that children were to be seen and not heard and were treated as though they were the property of their parents. It was also felt that what happened in childhood was somehow unimportant and wouldn’t even be remembered.
My home was not a safe place to be for any child. My father was an average man, nothing particularly special about his appearance, he was quick to anger, loud and aggressive and appeared to feared by all who came into contact with him. He on the other hand, feared no one. He had a real disdain for anyone in positions of power or wealth and I always felt he was cheated by life. He was forever dreaming up new ways to make it big but, as he never had any follow through, he remained resentful and jealous of anyone who was successful.
As a sexual predator he developed the art of grooming over a period of time using his own children as guinea pigs. By the time I came along (I was the fourth girl) he was proficient in his skills of manipulation and coercion. He had a particular hatred he saved just for me. He never lost an opportunity to let me know just what he thought of me and he also ensured that all my siblings knew that siding with me was not the way to survive in our home.
I remember for my first day in school, Joyce my older sister made a name badge out of carboard for me. It only stands out in my memory as it was the first time I realised my name was Paula and not ‘cunt’ or ‘maggot.’
My father began sexually abusing me from as young as 3 years of age and continued to rape me almost daily until my late teens. Words cannot explain the lasting damage that his abuse did. I was completely destroyed with no chance of any semblance of a normal life. The physical abuse was horrific and has taken me many years to overcome its damage. But the worst damage that I still struggle to overcome is the physiological conditions and disorders that I developed as a direct result of the abuse.
Home was a case of the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t. I had crippling social anxiety as a child, although I didn’t know that what it was. I cried every morning and begged and pleaded with my mother to let me stay home instead of going to school. When I knew that I was going to be forced to go to school, I would go into a panic where I physically couldn’t breathe. Again, I didn’t know at the time that these were anxiety/panic attacks that I brought on myself to get out of going to school.
These attacks also got attention from my mother who would have to sit at the back door with me on her lap, rubbing my back until my breathing returned to normal. My mother was absent emotionally from all of us and so any attention from her was precious. However, even as a child, I understood how this was not something my mother wanted to do. I sensed her discomfort and frustration that I was holing her up from opening the shop. This lack of bonding with my mother led to me developing a number of attachment disorders.
School was not a place of learning or safety when I was young. I didn’t know how to speak to anyone and so spend most days in the yard on my own. I was terrified all the time, afraid of the teacher and I constantly soiled myself because I was so afraid to ask to go to the toilet. I remember the humiliation of going home to be put standing in a bucket of water in the back yard while my mother gagged washing the caked in excrement off me.
When I was around 9 or 10 years of age I was offered a place on a summer camp that took a group of children away to a hostel in Wexford for a few days. The evening before I was due to leave, my father raped me so violently it resulted in me getting a prolapsed womb. I was in a lot of pain and my mother insisted on bringing me to the hospital. When we got there my father pulled the doctor aside and told him that I must have been playing with a stick of something because I was at that age. The doctor did nothing and allowed me to go away.
At home I was isolated, and I also struggled to form any kind of friendships outside of the home because everything in my life was controlled by my father. Even well into my adulthood I made poor choices in personal relationships, I really struggled with poor self-esteem and my confidence was nonexistent.
When I was 25 years old my fathers abuse came to light and after a lot of back and forth to doctors, hospitals and physiatrists we decided as a family to report him to the gardai. The whole process from there on was distressing and added to our already shattered lives. The process of making statements was very difficult and upsetting. I was asked to use words and describe details of the abuse that I was not expecting. I had to talk about things that I had long since buried and I had to do this to a complete stranger.
Little did I know at the time that was to be the easiest part of the whole process as the State now took over and we were no longer either included or wanted.
Arriving on the day of my father’s court case was beyond devastating. My sisters, mother and myself got to meet the barrister that was taking the case on behalf of the state a half an hour before it began. It was also then that we were informed that we may not even be allowed into the court hearing as there was to many of us (our brothers and partners were there to support us). It was then that the barrister asked if we would like to read our fathers statements that were to be read out in court during the trial. All the while he and his assistant struggles to make any form of eye contact with any of us, this sent a strong message of shame to all of us sitting in his office. He also told us not to expect my father to receive any form of custodial sentence due to his age as the judge may suspend any sentence he hands down.
I cannot express what a blow reading my father’s statement about me, was on the day. I was not prepared for just how his words on the page would impact me long after the trial was over. I was angry and hurt that he got to only pled guilty to what I could remembered on the day of making my statement. He had done so much more than what was in that statement and I felt cheated that he again had the upper hand.
Entering the courtroom on the day was also something I will never forget as what stands out was the fact that my father was sitting no more than four feet from me. He was staring me down trying to let me know he was still in charge.
Sadly, I never got the opportunity to get up in court or provide a victim impact statement. The judge did ask if anyone would like to speak, but this came out of the blue ten minutes before recess and with no warning and no time to react. My sister Joyce immediately put her hand up and was instructed to take the stand. The Judge asked a few questions and then said it was time for lunch.
We all went across the road to a pub for lunch and myself and June talked about how we really should get up and say something. We returned to the court all fired up to ask if we could now speak but were told that it was too late and that the Judge had already made his decision.
When the judge came out he began reading out his decision that sounded like a foreign language to me. I struggled to understand what was being said but I heard 94 counts and 7 years. He went on to say that the sentence was to run concurrently. This meant that my father would have to serve 7 terms of 7 years to run concurrently. I had no ideas what that meant, and no one was there to help us understand what had just happened.
A couple of things I believe would have made this process easier to manage for me.
- If we had of been informed all through the process, what was happening what to expect at every stage it would have greatly reduced the distress of the process.
- If the barrister and his team had some form of training prior to meeting us I believe the process although distressing would have not have been half as upsetting.
- If I had of been given the opportunity to read my father’s statements prior to the trial, I would at least have had time to absorbed it, not have to try to manage the shock minutes before entering the courtroom.
- My father should never been seated in such close proximity to me in the court room, this was intimidating and frightening.
- I believe that if I had of spoken on the day it would have contributed to me feeling empowered and less of a victim. I’m not sure if I would have gotten the same benefit from a victim impact statement.
- We should have had someone with us to explain what was happening, the language been used. This would diffidently have helped reduce the stress of the whole day.
Another way my life circumstances could have been improved would have been access to ongoing free counselling. I spent an absolute fortune on therapy and for at least seven all I did was work to pay for my therapy.
I have, and to some extend still suffer from depression, panic attacks, anxiety, addictions, headaches, and chronic pain, all as a direct result of the abuse I suffered as a child. These are not easy conditions to overcome but with the right supports, it is possible.
I hope that after reading my story you have gained a better understanding of how difficult it is to live with the impacts of sexual abuse. The difficulty in gaining access to appropriate services that are both affordable and local only make matters worse.
We will be asking for the following changes to be implemented by our legislators to ensure that the issues surrounding abuse are being tackled from all perspectives:
- Guidelines to ensure consistency in sentencing of all sex offenders.
- When sentencing, no consideration should be given to sex offenders for age, health or their standing in the community;
- If sentencing is to run concurrently the amount of charges must considered and the sentence must be lengthened adequately to ensure justice is served;
- Incentives to reduce the length of sentence, any remission and or temporary release should to be linked to the offenders’ participation and engagement in an evidenced based treatment programme;
- Treatment to be available to offenders both in prison and following their release, this will support their reintroduction in to society and reduce the risk of reoffending;
- Provide specialised training for all those who come into contact with or are required to support victims of abuse (Judicial, Garda and frontline workers).
- Expert witness to be called in all sexual abuse cases to ensure court understands victim behavior.
- Provide free services for those who need support.
- Provide adequate funding to Rape Crisis Centres, One in Four and CARI not only to eliminate waiting lists but also fund the much-needed expansion of their services. DRCC have a waiting list of at least nine months for people to access their services. CARI have over 100 children on their waiting lists. One in Four are also struggling to meet the needs presented to them due to lack of funding.
- Fund a second SAVI report so that accurate information is made available to assist the much-needed strategic planning, development and implementation of services for victims, their families and offenders.
As my representative, I would be grateful if you would raise these issues at the earliest opportunity in the Dáil and bring it to the attention of An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.
I thank you for giving consideration to this issue and I look forward to hearing from you.