Health and Fitness

‘If a stranger did it, I could talk about it. But it’s my brother’

It is not unusual to hear a judge refer to a case as “among the worst I’ve ever dealt with”. The phrase has become an almost judicial cliche, like calling a defendant a “Walter Mitty type” or warning a repeat offender they are in the “last chance saloon”.

It is a way of marking the facts of a case as standing above the normal level of depravity the courts deal with, rather than an objective ranking of the seriousness of a crime.

But when Mr Justice Patrick McCarthy used the phrase six years ago to describe the aggravated sexual assault and attempted rape of a woman by her brother, it was clear he meant it.

Jailing the man for 12 years, the experienced judge said the only other case he had dealt with which came close in terms of seriousness was that of a man who abducted a mother and her young child before brutally sexually assaulting the woman and abandoning the child on a city street.

Seven years after the attack by her brother, Rose-Ann* still finds it difficult to talk about the events of that day. When she does speak about it, it seems to be with a misplaced sense of shame.

“I start crying when I talk about it. If a stranger did it, I’d be able to talk about it more. But the fact that it’s my brother, people are like, ‘Oh, that’s sick. That’s incest’.”

Yet, from her point of view, that day was not the most traumatic incident from that period of her life. When asked what was, she is emphatic: “When they took my children from me.”

Rose-Ann (33) likes to talk to strangers. “They don’t know anything about you so they don’t judge you.” When she starts, the words come quickly. She pauses only to dig pages out of her voluminous Tusla and Garda files to illustrate her story.

Born in the midlands, she has just one memory of her father, being lifted over his open coffin when she was four, after he had died in an accident. “I just remember a little cut on his face.”

Shortly afterwards, her mother entered a new relationship with a man who Rose-Ann liked. However, he too died a few years later.

A Tusla file describes her mother as a strong woman who was a good parent and provided for the family. However, she was also emotionally distant. Rose-Ann says she was put to work at an early age, cleaning and minding siblings. Other than that, she does not remember much from her childhood.

She was a shy girl who described herself as feeling like the “black sheep of the family”. She enjoyed history, English and geography in school but was eager to leave school to get a job. “I missed my debs because I was cleaning,” she recalls.

My kids should have been taken in 2014. I had stopped eating, I was six stone. My mindset was not good. There were issues in the family home

In 2006 she met Sean through a friend. Prior to this Rose-Ann had only had one significant relationship, which lasted a year and broke down when she found out he had cheated on her.

Sean was shy and had a troubled relationship with his own family, Rose-Ann told social workers. He said he was a year older than her but she said she later found out that he was three years her senior. Three months later she became pregnant.

She described Sean as a “wonderful” father and husband until a close family member of his died. From this point, Rose-Ann told Tusla, he became physically violent towards her. On one occasion she fled to a friend’s house for safety. She said he followed her and assaulted her, causing her to miscarry a pregnancy. It was around this time that Tusla became involved with the family.

Rose-Ann described her pregnancy with her third child as extremely difficult. She was plagued by health issues and suffered severe postnatal depression, something she still deals with in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “I was induced as well. It was absolutely horrific,” she says.

Six months later, Rose-Ann’s brother contacted her. His landlord was coming over and he said he needed help cleaning up the alcohol containers littering his apartment. By this stage Rose-Ann was feeling better and the depression she had suffered after her pregnancy had waned. She told Tusla that at this point her partner and children were doing well with the support of social workers.

Her brother was a heroin addict who started taking drugs at the age of nine. By June 2014 he had racked up a long list of convictions, including for robbery, drugs and possession of stolen articles. A few months previously, he had been released from a custodial sentence for attempted robbery.

Rose-Ann said that, at the time, her brother’s chaotic lifestyle meant she was the only one of her family members who was still in contact with him. Asked about her memories of her brother as a child, she remembers him pushing her off a bench and kicking her.

When her brother asked for her help with the apartment, Rose-Ann grabbed her cleaning materials and left, as Sean put their children to bed.

“I kind of got a weird feeling. Do you ever get a gut feeling sometimes? I just didn’t have like a good vibe. When I arrived he had his shirt off and cuts all over him.”

Rose-Ann’s brother lunged at her and threw her on the couch before threatening to stab her if she did not do what he said. He held a piece of broken plate to her neck and said he would let her bleed to death as she pleaded for him to stop. He said “I want to be with you” before sexually assaulting and attempting to rape Rose-Ann.

While this happened she managed to use a phone behind his back to call 999 and scream her whereabouts down the phone. Gardaí arrived shortly afterwards to find Rose-Ann in an extremely distressed state. They arrested her brother and later told Rose-Ann they believe he planned to kill her that day.

“I was severely f**ked up in the head from days of drink and heroin taking,” he told gardaí in an interview afterwards. He later pleaded guilty. His barrister told the court that he remains “haunted” by his actions.

“This act of violence was the worst breach of trust, and to do it to the person who was offering him the charity and milk of kindness and understanding was terrible. He realises what he has done and can never leave it behind him,” the barrister said.

Rose-Ann said after the attack she scrubbed herself with bleach. She digs out the victim impact report which was handed into court. “All I want to ask is why, why did you do it to me? You can come out of prison and start afresh. I have to live with this for the rest of my life. You took away everything and I hate you for that,” she wrote.

The impact of the attack was exacerbated by the reaction of some of her family to the length of the prison sentence. “I wasn’t expecting him to get 12 years and my family fell out with me. They said murderers don’t even get that long.”

According to a Tusla document from 2016, Rose-Ann said she received “mixed support” from her family and that members have occasionally questioned her version of events, despite her brother pleading guilty to the attack.

After the attack, the instability in Rose-Ann’s home life increased significantly. Sean felt responsible for what happened to her and started to drink heavily, while Rose-Ann started to distance herself and the children.

She said she tried to distract herself by keeping busy but felt under increasing pressure due to the pending court case and the increasing level of Tusla involvement in her life.

Rose-Ann said she had heard whispers about allegations of childhood abuse but that she had no idea there was an official record

Several months after the attack, Rose-Ann moved out of the family home and began a relationship with a man who had contacted her about her brother’s case.

The relationship lasted less than two months before Rose-Ann returned to her family. Around this time she showed up in an A&E “with self-harming behaviour”. On another occasion, after the assault, she was admitted to a psychiatric facility at the behest of gardaí and her GP, after threatening to self-harm. She was released the same day after doctors determined she was not at risk of suicide.

In 2015 she became pregnant again, putting further strain on her relationship with Sean, according to Tusla files.

During this time Tusla was in regular contact with the family as a result of concerns about the children’s care. In 2015 it put the family under a “supervision order” and afterwards noted an improvement in their situation.

However, it said the relationship between Rose-Ann and Sean, who were living together but no longer in a relationship, began to deteriorate after Rose-Ann became pregnant with her fourth child.

This culminated in officials raising concerns with Rose-Ann about neglect, emotional abuse and alleged domestic violence and resulted in all four children being taken into foster care in September 2016.

On the day the order was obtained, Rose-Ann says Sean tried to suffocate her. She said she had previously made a statement to gardaí about the alleged violence but that she did not take it further because she did not want him to go to prison.

Since that day, Rose-Ann’s four children have remained in foster care despite her repeated efforts to regain custody.

The timing of her children being taken away in 2016 is a source of deep frustration for Rose-Ann. She acknowledges that in 2014, after the attack by her brother, she was not able to care for her children.

“My kids should have been taken in 2014. I had stopped eating, I was six stone. My mindset was not good. There were issues in the family home.”

She mentions her guilt for leaving her children for the brief period in the months after the attack, something which was also noted in a psychological assessment carried out in 2017.But she says by 2016 she was doing “a lot better” and she feels Tusla should have done more to allow her retain custody of the children.

Rose-Ann has little positive to say about the Child and Family Agency. She alleges officials were less than supportive after her postnatal depression and that there was a lack of empathy when she was sexually assaulted. She also alleges that social workers treat her with less objectivity than they do Sean.

“I went through something traumatic that the agency used against me,” she said.

She is not alone in having complaints with the agency. More than 500 official complaints have been made by members of the public against Tusla in the past five years, according to data released in August 2021.

For their part, Tusla staff have complained about Rose-Ann’s “hostility” and “aggressive” behaviour towards social workers and a lack of insight into why her children were taken into care.

Rose-Ann is continuing to try to regain custody of her children
Rose-Ann is continuing to try to regain custody of her children

Rose-Ann concedes she has sometimes been less than constructive in her dealings with Tusla. On one occasion a family law judge threatened her with prison for contempt after she said she would go to the home of one of the foster families caring for her children.

It was after one confrontation with social workers that Rose-Ann said she learned of another possible source of trauma from her past, one she could not even remember.

According to Rose-Ann, during a 2018 meeting about her children, a social worker said her confrontational behaviour was a result of “the exceptional sexual abuse she had experienced as a child”. This exchange was documented in a Tusla report later obtained by Rose-Ann.

Rose-Ann said she was taken aback by the comment. She said she had heard whispers about allegations of childhood abuse but that she had no idea there was an official record.

She called Tusla after the meeting and was eventually put in touch with someone who confirmed a file existed from almost 30 years ago. The comment prompted Rose-Ann to use Freedom of Information legislation to obtain as many documents about her past as possible.

She was disappointed with the result. Regarding the accusations of sexual assault, she received 11 pages of an almost 80-page file detailing allegations of child sexual abuse against her in 1992, when she was three or four. Of the pages she did get, large sections were blocked out while the handwriting in the unredacted portions is often difficult to discern.

One page makes reference to a medical examination showing “redness in [the] vaginal area”. Another reads, “there appears to be no role for social work at present. I am therefore, with your permission, closing the case.”

The unredacted portions of the file do not name the suspected abuser. But Rose-Ann says, based on information from various parties, including a mental health professional familiar with her file, that she knows it was her father.

“When I got the file I did cry to be honest. I was gobsmacked. I knew there was something but I never knew there was a file.”

These days, Rose-Ann says she is in a much better place than in 2016. She is in a stable relationship with “a wonderful man” and has processed what her brother inflicted on her in 2014, she says.

She now has a fifth child, a boy, who is in her care. One of Rose-Ann’s main worries is that her other children do not get to see him as frequently as they should.

She expresses a remarkable sense of forgiveness towards those from her past, even her brother. At one stage she asks that a detail from her brother’s childhood be left out of any article so as not to embarrass him. “I don’t want to hurt my family,” she says.

Rose-Ann says she has no hate for anyone after all that has occurred. “I am very sad over everything that has happened but it makes me more appreciative of life and of my kids.”

She is continuing to try to regain custody of her children, including through studying family law herself. According to one social work assessment, Rose-Ann is “an intelligent and articulate woman who has the ability to achieve reunification with her children should she focus her energy on meeting their needs”.

However, Rose-Ann says she has been warned unofficially that reunification could be years away. This is why she wants to tell her story publicly, she says; to create a record. “When they get old I need to show them that I did try and that I did love them.”

*Names have been changed to protect identities

If you have been affected by the issues covered by this article, help and support are available from: (1800-778888) (RoI 1800-477477; NI and GB 0800-47747777) (116-123)

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