Groups of men are sexually exploiting children in residential care. Where is the outrage?

While the country is convulsed with events at RTÉ, a far bigger scandal has passed by without due attention

One of the side effects of the slow-motion car crash happening in RTÉ is that stories that normally would have generated coverage for days get neglected. We all know about the infamous RTÉ barter account, which was used for purchases of expensive flip-flops and tickets to prestigious events.

Very little attention has been paid to the victims of a much more sinister kind of barter, where children in residential care are exploited sexually by co-ordinated gangs of older men in return for gifts, alcohol, drugs or sometimes just affection.

Children in care will have already faced significant adversity, including neglect, physical, emotional or sexual abuse, family illness or breakdown, or other situations where their welfare is threatened. The State steps in to act in place of a good parent. Why, then, is there so little outrage about the results of the scoping study, Protecting Against Predators, published last month by the Sexual Exploitation Research Programme in the Geary Institute for Public Policy, UCD?

Why can't we protect girls in State care from sexual exploitation?

Listen | 21:34
This episode includes discussion of sexual exploitation and abuse. A recent study by UCD’s School of Social Policy has revealed that vulnerable girls in State care are being groomed and coerced into sex acts with multiple men, in exchange for goods such as clothes and jewellery, or at the instruction of older men they viewed as their boyfriends. For Irish Times reporter Jack Power, the harrowing findings reflect what he has been hearing from sources working in the area for the past three years. He tells Bernice Harrison what details the study has uncovered.

This week we learned that Tusla has already this year reported to the Gardaí 14 cases of suspected exploitation of children in residential care. Last year, there were 20 reports of suspected exploitation in the whole year. The State and professionals seem to be floundering and flailing as these young people are preyed upon by cynical and exploitative adult males.


Of the 5,800 children in State care, the majority are in foster care. About 450 are in small residential units of between two to six children, mostly in the Dublin area.

The public is hazy about the distinction between residential care and special care. Special care means being detained, not for criminal offences, but for their own welfare. Education takes place on-site. Doors can be locked. In contrast, residential care is much more open as it aims to give children in group settings as normal a childhood as possible. Predators hang around, offering attention, posing as boyfriends, and offering gifts to attention-starved and vulnerable girls and, occasionally, boys.

Only one of the interviewees used the word rape. Everyone else used euphemisms

There is one deeply distressing account of a young man with a learning disability who went missing for days at a time and came back with a new video game or mobile and unexplained sums of money.

One of the child support professionals interviewed for the study had recently attended a conference in Belfast on child sexual exploitation and recognised that the situation reeked. The young man needed to be removed for his own protection. However, a psychiatrist refused to let him be moved to a new location on the grounds that it would set back his progress.

Again and again, it is clear that professionals are overwhelmed, sometimes through lack of resources and sometimes through lack of training. For example, only one of the interviewees used the word rape. Everyone else used euphemisms.

It is clear that one of the interviewees only put together the extent of what was happening when preparing for the interview with the researchers.

“It [the sexual exploitation of children] was far more prevalent when we started the conversation amongst ourselves yesterday ... Like, we thought we might know one or two, but there’s 12 there now that I have listed and that’s just from brief conversations with my six colleagues.”

Although the problem is not on the same scale as Rochdale and Rotherham in the UK where thousands of girls were systematically exploited over decades, the inability to learn from the basic failures there, which included victim-blaming and viewing the girls as “up for it”, is depressing. A report this time last year from Telford showed the same patterns.

Protecting Against Predators refers to the concept of “‘difficult’ victimhood”. Girls may seem to be consenting, voluntarily getting into cars and engaging in sexual acts with a number of different men. But so-called consent is irrelevant in sexual relations between vulnerable children and adults.

When a child has been neglected or the victim of various types of abuse, it is not surprising that she or he lacks the self-esteem to know that this is not a relationship, but further abuse. The report refers to this as “choiceless choices”.

Who are the men who prey on these vulnerable girls? We need to focus on finding and convicting them

Some gardaí, fed up with chasing missing individuals, are reported as being more concerned with returning them to the care unit than finding out what happened to them when they were missing. The absence of appropriate training is shocking.

The scoping study also identifies the prevalence of pornography as a contributory factor to normalising damaging behaviour.

Who are the men who prey on these vulnerable girls? We need to focus on finding and convicting them.

Protecting Against Predators is just a scoping study so further research and training are needed. While the RTÉ debacle may be riveting, this abject failure to protect those who have already been failed so often is more deserving of sustained public attention and immediate action.

As another person interviewed for the research says, “I don’t hear people jumping up and down and screaming about it, which maybe they should be doing.” So why aren’t we?