The justice system needs more sympathy for victims of child sexual abuse
Child sexual abuse is more common than you think it is.
Last year, 56% of all sexual crimes in Northern Ireland were committed against children.
Those are official PSNI figures and so only take into account recorded crimes. Child sexual abuse is believed to be hugely under-reported. Research indicates that up to 90% of cases are never disclosed to police.
Neither the scale nor the secrecy of child sexual abuse is unique to Northern Ireland.
According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 7.5% of adults in England and Wales say they were the victim of sexual abuse when they were under 16. This amounts to 3.1 million people. Most of them told no-one at the time, with “embarrassment” the most common reason for not speaking out.
For something that is horribly, hellishly common, we as a society could respond better when a child does come forward to say they have been abused.
A new report from the NI Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY). Putting the Child at the Centre is focused on improving how child victims are treated by the justice system.
NICCY met with young people who experiences sexual exploitation as children and who then went through the justice system.
According to their findings, four key themes for victims emerged:
- They need to be believed and validated.
- Experiencing abuse has a huge impact on all aspects of their lives.
- They feel a loss of identity.
- They felt scared telling their stories to people in the justice system.
Failure to appreciate or anticipate the needs of young victims can lead to them being traumatised all over again.
Almost 25 years ago, a new way of handling child victims was established in Iceland.
Barnahus – which is a Scandi word for “children’s house” – built on good work in America, where practitioners were making efforts not to allow the criminal process to harm child victims, but took those principles much further, integrating this new approach into both the social security and justice systems.
The basic idea is that children’s involvement with the justice system should be sympathetic, as brief as possible and as consistent as possible. It says that police, prosecutors, social services, and both medical and mental health professionals should all work under one roof to assess a child’s needs and decide how best to help them. The people should be child-friendly – as should the building itself, which needs to be local to the child and a “home-like environment that is suitable for different age ranges of children and young people” according to the commissioner.
As things stand today, the justice system can be impersonal, it can be complicated, and its work can take a long time. The gap between reporting a crime and a trial can be years. The feelings of isolation and fear that are a frequent consequence of abuse can re-emerge or be exacerbated. A child engaged with the justice system following abuse is, simply put, at risk of being retraumatised.
Barnahus tries to mitigate against these risks. As well as being that one-stop shop, where children engage with the same group of professional people – rather than different police officers, different social workers, different clinicians every time – in the same place, it also involves fundamental adjustments to how justice works.
Typically, victims of a crime can be interviewed and re-interviewed at various times by police. This can occur over months or years. Then, in the case of a trial, they give live evidence in court, responding to questions from barristers for both the prosecution and defence.
This can be extremely stressful. Barnahus tries to do things differently, while still fulfilling the wider principles of open and proper justice. It involves full and forensic interviews, but these are pre-recorded, take place as quickly as possible, and take place within the Barnahus setting itself.
The idea is that a child who is going through their own process of recovery following traumatic abuse does not have to go over every detail of their abuse, outlining the facts to police or the courts under interview, months or years after they initially engaged the justice system.
At the same time, in case of a criminal charges there will be a person or people entitled to a full legal defence, and any Barnahus model has to respect this fully. According to NICCY:
The Barnahus should ensure that each child has a designated individual who acts as an advocate and source of information and discussion for the child and family. This advocate should be present throughout the criminal justice and therapeutic processes; and could be part of the “spoke” services (i.e., available remotely) for children and families living in more remote locations of NI.
Providing testimony, including cross-examination, should be as contained within Barnahus services and procedures, as outlined by the Council of Europe, for example through pre-recording of evidence held under the oversight of a court judge, and observed by the council for defence, prosecution, law enforcement, child protection, and the child’s advocate (Council of Europe, 2018). The forensic interview should be recorded (audio and visual) for use in any indictments. There may be an exploratory interview for the initial disclosure as well as court testimony. Both should be recorded to a very high quality to ensure that the child’s voice and testimony are heard and seen clearly, and so that informal credibility assessments of the child are not negatively impacted by poor-quality recording.
The Children’s Commissioner also says that there needs to be a clear and clean process around how any additional disclosures of evidence, such as a post-testimony recording, becomes part of criminal proceedings.
This represents significant change for our justice system. Pre-recorded cross examinations, which could take place years before a trial, are deeply unusual. However, it is possible. The expansion of the model makes that clear.
Today, more than 20 European countries including England and Scotland either operate or are developing systems based on broad Barnahus principles, tailored to each individual jurisdiction.
In her foreword to the new NICCY report, Children’s Commissioner Koulla Yiasouma said: “Young people are not always able to share their experiences of the system, particularly as understandably they want to move on. We are, therefore extremely grateful to those young people who did participate and to the organisations who supported them to do so.
“They have clearly outlined their need to be believed and validated, the life-changing nature of their experience, a loss of identity and their fear of sharing their experiences to the criminal justice system. All clear evidence that children have not been at the centre of these processes. They make the strongest case of why the system must be changed.”
NICCY has made a series of recommendations about how to implement a Barnahus model in NI.
Speaking to victims and learning about their experiences were central to this paper and to its conclusions. However, this was far from the only research the organisation did.
Stakeholders from across criminal justice, health and social care, and the third sector were also consulted, and asked about what it would take to make Barnahus a functioning reality in NI.
While sweeping reforms are never easy, that does not mean they aren’t worth doing. Nor is NICCY alone in calling for change.
Sir John Gillen – who oversaw the 2019 fundamental review of how serious sexual offences are handled in NI – took part in NICCY’s research, and outlined his own support for the Barnahus model.
He said: “The attitude [toward Barnahus] must be a “can do” not “I can't do”. We should be saying what can we do here to do this? Because the concept is absolutely first class. It's worked in Norway, Greenland, Denmark, Finland, and Lithuania, it’s working in England. I'm just a bit concerned that you can sit down if you're a civil servant and think of 100 reasons why all the money shouldn't be spent here. You know children are being absolutely devastated by this whole process - that's without price.”
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