Paola Uccellari is Director at CRAE – Children’s Rights Alliance for England.
“Reading the experiences of the brave children on this website is tough. Their shocking stories show how far we still have to go if children’s human rights to be protected from violence, abuse, neglect and harm are to be made real. Too few children are able to tell someone about their abuse. Often these children have been abused by someone they love – so some of the people that children would normally speak to when they need help are out of bounds. It is heartbreaking to imagine how these children must feel when the authorities they ask for protection make their experience even worse through their treatment of child victims of abuse. It is appalling that the system that prosecutes those who abuse children is too often inflicting a whole new sort of abuse.
The very least we can do is make sure there is a system which is designed around children, designed to end – not prolong – their trauma. A system designed to ensure they get justice, a fundamental human right. A system which does all it can to ensure they are not further harmed by this process, again, a fundamental human right.
Twenty five years ago a thorough report by Judge Thomas Pigot recommended that our justice system be re-designed to give children a chance to tell their story in the safest way possible. This recommendation reflects the requirements of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was drawn up at the same time.
When a child is abused, the feelings of horror and outrage we experience come from our very basic instinct that children are special and deserve our protection. This need to protect children from harm forms the basis of the laws and conventions drawn up to protect children’s human rights. These laws are clear that children are especially vulnerable to human rights abuses. They recognise that children are vulnerable whenever they come into contact with a system designed by and for adults, a system which is often hard to understand, frightening and hugely intimidating. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child says that children not only have the right to be listened to but also the right to be protected from severe mental and emotional harm – something that is all too common for those children who are brave enough to give evidence on their traumatic experiences of abuse in our courtrooms.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which interprets the Convention, has recognised that “much of the violence perpetrated against children goes unchallenged … due to the lack of child-friendly reporting mechanisms. For example, they have no one to whom they can report in confidence and safety”. It has been clear that “a child cannot be heard effectively where the environment is intimidating, hostile, insensitive or inappropriate for her or his age”. With this in mind, it has told states which have signed up to the Convention, which includes the United Kingdom that “the proceedings should be conducted in an atmosphere enabling the child to participate and to express her/himself freely”.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has recognised that any hearing for a child ”is a difficult process that can have a traumatic impact on the child”. It has said this must take place in “an environment in which the child feels respected and secure when freely expressing her or his opinions”. It stresses the need for processes to be both “accessible and child‑appropriate”, and for children to be provided with adequate and appropriate information in relation to the proceedings.
The UN Committee is clear that the adaptations and protections which are important to allow child victims to participate effectively and safely in criminal proceedings are also owed to those children who are accused of crimes. This makes sense. Children who appear in court as defendants can also find the experience frightening and confusing, making it difficult to participate effectively and defend themselves. They can be very damaged by the experience which can then seriously undermine their chances of rehabilitation. To distinguish between the rights of child defendants and witnesses to adaptations in court proceedings is inappropriate when one considers that they are often the same children – a high proportion of the children who end up accused of crimes have been victims of abuse or other crimes in the past.
It is shameful that, 25 years after we signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, we are still failing to act on these laws and recommendations. We need a system which puts protecting children at the start, middle and end of its work. A system which makes real the commitment we made as a country when we signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. A system which ensures every child who is brave enough to take the first step has their human rights to gain justice, while being protected from harm, upheld. Those children need that system now.”