Lisa Harker is Director of Strategy, Policy and Evidence at NSPCC
The events in Rotherham bring into sharp relief the challenge we face as a society in keeping children safe from abuse and ensuring victims of these horrific crimes get the help and support they need: 1400 children intimidated, sexually exploited and deeply harmed in ways we can barely begin to imagine, yet dismissed as unworthy of protection even when they found the courage to seek help from the authorities.
What happened in Rotherham was more than a consequence of the way that the police and children’s services work – although this mattered too. Rather, it was the result of a culture that was prepared to tolerate the existence of sexual abuse and which refused to see “troublesome” teenagers as victims, in need of protection and support.
We should be clear that Rotherham is not an isolated case. Shocking as it is, it already follows high profile cases of widespread sexual abuse in other towns and cities. Right now there are tens of thousands of children who have been sexually abused and urgently need help to rebuild their lives. It is a national disgrace that there is such a dearth of support for children in these circumstances.
What’s more, it’s clear that the horrendous abuse suffered by the young girls in Rotherham and in places like Oxford, Telford, Rochdale and Derby is just one part of a grotesque experience for them. It’s hard to fathom and an unpalatable fact to take that, even if a victim in this nightmarish situation manages to persuade someone in authority that they have been groomed, raped or hired out for sex and a prosecution ensues, they will still have to brace themselves for a potentially traumatic court hearing.
These young victims face the daunting prospect of re-living these painful, terrifying, degrading times for a judge, jury, barristers and public gallery. And for some children who have already endured abuse beyond the nightmares of most people this is simply a step too far.
Twenty-five years ago respected High Court Judge, Thomas Pigot, produced a ground-breaking report which recommended no child witness should have to appear in a court unless they wanted to.
Yet all these years later, major changes are still needed. The justice system remains far too intimidating for child witnesses: the lack of remote sites means 99% of children still have to attend the court building where they run the risk of bumping into the very person accused of abusing them. For many children the mere prospect of being in the same building as their abuser can result in them being unable to give their evidence.
The Rotherham Report highlighted the voice of one young victim who said that witnesses needed much more support to help them through the whole process from the beginning. This chimes with what young people tell us through ChildLine where, last year, 1200 children contacted us to express their concerns and fears about giving evidence.
Whilst the cultural shift required in the way we view and treat victims will take time, there are simple actions the Government could be taking now to improve the situation for thousands of young victims of sexual abuse and exploitation. That’s why the NSPCC continues to push the Government, through our Order in Court campaign, to commit to expanding the number of remote sites so that more children can give evidence away from the court building. You can help us by adding your name to our e-petition, which we are taking to Downing Street this Friday.
The terrible cases exposed in Rotherham have focused all our attention on the need to make sure victims get the best possible support and are protected from further abuse. It serves only to increase our determination to help more children and young people and ensure that no child is traumatised in pursuit of justice, or left too frightened to tell their story because of what might face them at court.
Add your name to the Order in Court e-petition, calling on Government to ensure there is at least one remote site in each region so that more children can give evidence away from court.