Simple actions to limit further ordeal for Rotherham victims – Comment by Lisa Harker, NSPCC

Lisa Harker is Director of Strategy, Policy and Evidence at NSPCC

NSPCC Order in Court campaignThe 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.

20141050_Young_Witness_Campaign_600x600_10_AWWhat’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.

20141050_Young_Witness_Campaign_600x600_1_AWThe 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.

NSPCC Order in CourtThe 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.

 

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Support for Young Witnesses: a Human Rights Issue – Guest Blog by Paola Uccellari

 Logo-Colour-HiRes-small (2)Paola Uccellari is Director at CRAE – Children’s Rights Alliance for England. 


Paola

“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.

20141050_Young_Witness_Campaign_600x600_1_AWWhen 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”.

NSPCC Order in Court campaignThe 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.

20141050_Young_Witness_Campaign_600x600_10_AWIt 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.”

Please support the Order in Court campaign by signing the e-petition here

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Why I’m Championing Young Victims and Witnesses in Parliament – Guest Blog by Emma Lewell-Buck MP

Emma Lewell-Buck 09Emma Lewell-Buck is a former social worker and now Member of Parliament for South Shields.

Courts are intimidating places for anyone. I remember as a social worker having to attend court many times. It was rarely an enjoyable experience.

I was not alone in dreading giving evidence, many of my colleagues felt the same – the buildings were always intimidating, you could be left waiting for hours, the complex legal jargon could leave you completely confused and the cross examinations were always volatile.

NSPCC Order in Court campaignIt always made me think how much worse it would be if I wasn’t an adult; if I wasn’t a professional, used to the court environment and with colleagues and management to support me. What if I were a child, who had already suffered the trauma of abuse, being forced to relive it all again? Since then I have been left aghast by cases where children in this situation aren’t given proper support, where they have been accused of lying, cross-examined repeatedly for hours on end or asked wholly inappropriate questions for their age. And what’s more, they have been made to come to a court building to give their evidence where they might face seeing their abuser.

In all my work, I’ve always been clear that the welfare of a child must come first. Too often, it feels like this isn’t happening in our criminal justice system. Children who have been victims of, or witnesses to, abuse and other crimes need first and foremost to be protected from further harm, not subjected to a second traumatisation. Now, as an MP, I’m keen to make sure the needs of these children are heard in Parliament and are kept at the top of the Government’s agenda.

That’s why I recently asked the Victims Minister in Parliament what he made of comments by Judge Rook that all judges and lawyers taking on sexual offence cases should be required to undertake specialist and accredited training, so that vulnerable witnesses are questioned in a fair and appropriate way. From my time as a social worker, I know the importance of communicating effectively with children. Questioning children needs to be recognised for what it is – a specialist skill, requiring an understanding and appreciation of their development and communication needs.

20141050_Young_Witness_Campaign_600x600_10_AWWe need to recognise the impact this intensive and inappropriate cross-examination can have on vulnerable children, particularly those who have already experienced incredibly traumatic incidences of abuse. Specialist training for judges and lawyers to enhance their skills in communicating with children will go a long way to tackling this, and to promoting the interests of justice.

I have also written to the Victims Minister asking him to consider other ways the Government can improve support for children giving evidence. I believe that every child who needs it should have access to a Registered Intermediary, whose role is to ensure that questions are appropriate and understandable. This isn’t just about a child’s welfare: A child who doesn’t understand what they are being asked cannot answer effectively. They cannot give their best evidence and they cannot contribute to justice being served. That’s why I find it so concerning that less than 4% of children currently have access to a Registered Intermediary to help them understand what is happening during a trial.

In addition, I have asked the Minister to take urgent action to increase the number of remote sites so that no child has to face the intimidating court environment when giving their evidence – something which I, even as an adult, found stressful.

Too often, children are being made to feel like they are the ones on trial, not given the age-appropriate support they need at a time when they have to relive the most distressing of experiences.NSPCC Order in Court

This is why I raised this issue with the Victim’s Minister, and why I will continue to press the Government to commit to action on these issues – so that no child’s welfare is compromised in seeking the justice they deserve.

“The defence barrister had destroyed my daughter” – Guest Blog by Mum of Young Witness

The below guest blog is written by Victoria*, about her daughter’s experience of giving evidence.

When my daughter, Iris*, was 13, she seemed to change. She became withdrawn, spending an increasing amount of time in her bedroom. I put it down to teenage life and when I asked her about it she said nothing was wrong.

What I didn’t realise then was that she was too scared and confused to tell me the truth.

NSPCC Order in Court campaignI remember the day Iris told me that Alex* had been sexually abusing her. We’d know him and his wife for years; Iris looked on them like an auntie and uncle, their children like cousins. I tried to stay calm but my world instantly crumbled around me.

For Iris, disclosing the abuse was like a release. She felt safe that Alex wasn’t going to be able to touch her again. It felt like a step forward and, initially, the response was hugely positive.

We were assigned an amazing officer called Lucy* who supported Iris through all her police interviews. Iris was able to give her video evidence at a local Public Protection Unit – it wasn’t like a police station at all and, whilst the experience was far from pleasant, Iris wasn’t traumatised, and even felt well enough to go back to school after giving her evidence.

The process couldn’t have been made easier for us. I naively thought that a court case would be similar.

But worse was definitely still to come.

Alex was arrested and we were given a court date, scheduled for 9 months later. The year waiting was awful.

A few weeks before the trial we were given a tour of the court, shown the video evidence room and, critically, the two entrances to the court. This was so important to Iris – she couldn’t cope with seeing Alex before the trial.

The trial was due to start on the Monday. But the Friday before, we were told the court location had changed and Iris wouldn’t be able to visit it. She was distraught and the confidence she had felt about giving evidence drained away.

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We were determined to ensure Iris didn’t have to see Alex, constantly being on our guard during the long hours waiting to give evidence. Alex and his supporters had been intimidating us since his arrest and we were all nervous about seeing him.

Despite our efforts, the lack of separate entrances meant that we saw Alex and his supporters outside the court when returning from getting Iris some lunch. Seeing Alex devastated Iris, she became much more nervous and stressed. She wasn’t in a fit state to give her best evidence.

I was heartbroken leaving Iris to give her evidence.

I understood why I wasn’t allowed to go with her, but she needed someone there, a professional who knew her and could support her through questioning. Instead, all she had was a stranger.

Iris managed to hold it together through prosecution questions; they were clear and concise and the barrister was sensitive with her. However, the defence barrister couldn’t have been more different. I wasn’t allowed in the court but Iris’ grandmother had to watch as Iris broke down, torn apart by the barrister’s questions – questions she didn’t understand and which were wholly unsuitable for a 14 year old.

When Iris returned from giving evidence she was hysterical. I’d never seen a child in such distress – her eyes were swollen and raw from crying. She was shuddering with tears.

I felt like the defence barrister had destroyed her.

I wasn’t supposed to touch her or be with her as we were both witnesses but I knew I needed to calm her down. I was distraught – I felt powerless and unable to console her.

When Iris returned on the second day for more questioning, we had to consider the very real probability of stopping the trial as we felt that the defence barrister’s questioning was tantamount to abuse.

20141050_Young_Witness_Campaign_600x600_1_AWOur barrister decided that if Iris broke down one more time he would request that trial be stopped as what Iris was going through now was far too traumatic and Alex would walk free. It felt like the defence barrister was trying to upset Iris to the point that this would happen. Iris felt like she was on trial.

Eventually, Alex was convicted, put on the sex offenders register and given a suspended sentence.

We had got justice for Iris but at a great price.

Iris’ court experience felt like a second abuse. One of the worst parts is knowing there are things that could have improved Iris’ experience and avoided the trauma she experienced bringing her abuser to justice. If she had been able to give evidence from a remote location via a video link, she would not have seen Alex and been forced to relive the abuse and intimidation he subjected her to.

If the defence barrister had been more sensitive in his approach, Iris would not have faced the disgusting questioning she did. He asked questions that confused her and that she didn’t understand, she felt threatened and scared. It took her a long time to get over the horror of that questioning.

When we were contacted about the possibility of an Appeal by Alex and a retrial, I was adamant that I was not putting Iris through the trauma of another court case.

I would rather the man who abused my daughter walked free than subject her to what she experienced in that court room again.

No parent should ever have to feel that way; no child should experience what Iris did – especially when there are such simple measures that could have stopped her being traumatised a second time by the court process. Our justice system is meant to protect victims, not abuse them further and I hope that change is made with urgency so that no child, and no family has to experience what we did.

*Names have been changed to protect identity

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Dignity, respect and sensitivity: not too much to expect? – Guest blog from Baroness Newlove, Victims’ Commissioner

Seven years ago, my family was torn apart after my husband, Garry, was senselessly beaten to death on our doorstep by a group of drunken youths. The trauma of those early days was devastating enough but little did I know there was another big shock awaiting us.

Several months down the line our three daughters, Zoe, 18, Danielle, 15, and 12-year-old Amy were called as witnesses to their father’s death.

At the very least, I expected them to be treated with dignity, respect and sensitivity. How wrong I was. To my astonishment and outrage I had to sit, watching helplessly as defence barristers tore into them in the most brutal way. I couldn’t understand this callous approach to young witnesses who were doing their best to help deliver justice – it was appalling.

But then I began speaking to hundreds of crime victims in England and Wales and I now understand that my daughters are not alone in their experience. It keeps happening. In fact, thousands of children have to endure the intimidation and aggression of the court room. This must change.

Baroness Newlove visiting the Young Witness Service in Northern Ireland

Baroness Newlove visiting the Young Witness Service in Northern Ireland

I’m glad to see that improvements are slowly being introduced. Just a few weeks ago I had the opportunity to see one of the first instances of a child being able to record her evidence and cross examination in advance of the trial. This eliminated months of waiting for the case to come to trial and the pressure of giving evidence at a live trial.

This ground-breaking shift in the treatment of young witnesses is long overdue – by 25 years in fact. That’s how long we have been waiting for recommendations made by a senior judge to come into force. And it’s why the NSPCC has launched its Order in Court campaign to allow children to give their evidence away from a court and for barristers to be trained so they deliver more sensitive cross-examinations.NSPCC Order in Court image 2

The young girl giving pre-recorded evidence was in a better position than many young witnesses. The trained staff at the court did an excellent job – they were friendly and did their best to make the little girl as comfortable as possible. But sadly she still had to go to an intimidating court building and wait anxiously in a small room until the court was ready to start.

The following day, I had the pleasure of visiting the NSPCC Young Witness Service in Northern Ireland, where children can give evidence via video link in a room away from the court building. There was no comparison.

The service ensures that young witnesses are supported by trained staff and volunteers who are focused on their needs and can ensure they understand the process.

They can wait to be called to give their evidence in a bright, safe and comfortable space, watching DVDs, playing games or reading books.

All of this helps to minimise the stress and anxiety that builds, often resulting in them breaking down and finding it difficult to give their evidence. And we shouldn’t under-estimate this stress. As we know from young witnesses who have contacted ChildLine, they can be driven to despair, harming themselves or even contemplating suicide.

All of this took me back to the trial of Garry’s murderers and how worried, stressed and upset our girls were while they waited to give evidence and throughout the proceedings.

It is surely unacceptable to put young people through this gut-wrenching process when simple measures the NSPCC is proposing would make the world of difference to them and serve justice by supporting them to give their best evidence.

NSPCC Order in CourtThis campaign is something I applaud and I would urge you to help by sending a letter to your MP asking them to lobby government to deliver a justice system fit for children.

As Victims’ Commissioner, I want to see all victims, including children, put first in the criminal justice system. I have learned the hard way that the needs of victims and witnesses are often easily forgotten. We must never underestimate the impact of crime on victims or the further traumatic experience of being a witness. Nor the strength that is required to face someone who has harmed you or your family.

Join our Thunderclap to build a justice system fit for children.

Thank you to everyone who has supported the Order in Court campaign by writing to your MP – over 3600 people have now sent letters to their MPs. This has been vital in making MPs aware of the changes required to make the justice system fit for children.

But we can do more.

On 8 August we will be launchNSPCC Order in Courting an e-petition to demonstrate to the Government the overwhelming public demand to protect young victims and witnesses in the justice system.

To make sure as many people as possible sign our petition we will be using Thunderclap where you can ‘donate’ a Tweet or Facebook status. This will then be shared on 8 August at 8am with your friends or followers automatically.

Help us reach our target of 250 sign ups by:

  • joining our Thunderclap
  • spreading the word to your friends, family and contacts
  • raise awareness of our Thunderclap by sharing our suggested post on Twitter:

Please join our #Thunderclap for the #OrderInCourt campaign to build a justice system fit for children http://bit.ly/1n2Untn

How does Thunderclap work?

  1. By signing up you are allowing Thunderclap to send a pre-written Tweet or Facebook post from your profile.
  2. Thunderclap will automatically share this message via your Twitter or Facebook profile on 8 August at 8am along with everyone else who has signed up.

NSPCC Order in Court – comment by Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC

Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC

By any measure 1989 was a momentous year. The Berlin Wall came crashing down and the idea of the worldwide web was conceived.

NSPCC Order in Court imageThere was also a ground-breaking report from a UK judge recommending a better deal for child victims of sexual and other assaults who gave evidence against their abusers.

So, 25 years on Germany has been re-unified and we have seen astonishing advances in online technology. But is there evidence that things have improved so dramatically for the 20,000 or so young witnesses who pass through our courts in England and Wales every year?

Well, the jury isn’t even out on this. The answer is a resounding NO. And we know this because last year 1,200 children contacted our ChildLine service to reveal they had been left depressed, frightened, even suicidal by the experience of giving evidence against an abuser. One young girl was so devastated by her experience that her furious parents branded her ordeal ‘barbaric’, and were left wondering if their daughter had paid too high a price to get justice.

This is why today we have launched our Order in Court campaign to deliver a justice system that’s fit for children.We want them to have:

  • The opportunity of giving evidence without going to court.
  • Support from a qualified intermediary to help them understand the court process.
  • And training for lawyers so they can cross-examine without confusing and frightening the young witnesses.

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Thomas Pigot, was a highly experienced criminal court judge, who assembled an elite group of advisors from social services, the police, academia and the legal profession, after being asked by the then Home Secretary to look at new ways for abuse victims to give evidence in court. This came after NSPCC research showed an eight-fold increase in child sexual assault cases but with fewer than one in three of these resulting in a prosecution.

The charity said this lack of legal action was due to the reluctance of children to give evidence and the unwillingness of parents to put their sons and daughters through a stressful court appearance.

Pigot’s 75-page report, published in 1989, reflected this, noting that most children were disturbed by giving evidence which was a “harmful, oppressive and often traumatic experience”. And it added: “Quite radical changes are now required if the courts are to treat children in a humane and acceptable way.”NSPCC Order in Court campaign

The judge and his colleagues quite rightly pointed out that the quality of evidence from children is improved if they are not under duress, which in turn is in the interests of justice. And, of course, if they didn’t take part in a prosecution the offender would almost certainly remain at liberty to abuse more children.

So to usher in a new dawn for young witnesses they recommended no child should have to appear in court unless they wanted to. They also urged better training for judges and lawyers who should learn how to speak to children and end “oppressive questioning”. There was also a call for communications experts – Registered Intermediaries – to be on hand to help children understand confusing legal terms.

Yet today children who have suffered the horror of sexual abuse can still find themselves facing bruising and confusing cross-examinations from lawyers. Fewer than five in every hundred will have the services of an intermediary to help them through the ordeal and there is barely a chance to give evidence via a video link set-up at a designated location away from the court building.

Even though the 1999 Youth and Criminal Evidence Act adopted this last recommendation it has not been implemented by any of the ensuing twelve Home Secretaries. In fact we know of ‘remote links’ at just a handful of sites throughout England and Wales. Remarkably there isn’t one in London where last year nearly 3,000 sex offences against children were recorded by police.NSPCC Order in Court campaign visual 3

There is no official data showing how many young victims have benefited from this scarce resource. But as a guide one witness service, which operates at three of these sites, said only 15 children had used it in the last twelve months.

Most crown court buildings have a separate room where victims can give their evidence but some of these are described as ‘little more than broom cupboards.’ One even doubled as the judges’ garage.

Five years ago a four-year-old girl had to appear as a witness at the Old Bailey to tell a jury how she had been raped by Steven Barker, who was later jailed over the killing of Baby Peter Connelly.

She had to wait more than four hours before being called to give evidence and was then asked confusing questions while she sat in a sparse room with just a table and chair. When told she had to return to court the next day to face more cross-examination she burst into tears, saying she didn’t want to go back to ‘the naughty room’.

However the whole picture is not bleak. Kent police have introduced three specially adapted ‘remote sites’ for young witnesses. They are spacious, have sofas, toys and drinks machines. One legal executive who uses them said: “It’s a relaxed setting which makes it far more comfortable for the children when they give their evidence and helps put them at ease.”

So, why are there not more facilities like this? Why are we still failing children who NSPCC Order in Court image 2summon tremendous courage to give evidence against the people who have abused them – especially as NSPCC research shows only around one in five child sexual assaults result in a prosecution?

One answer seems to be the lack of a ‘Young Victims Champion’ – someone who can tie together all the strands of this crucial part of the criminal justice system.

Judge Pigot ended his recommendations with these words: “We hope our report will focus public and political attention on this vital subject and that improvements will not be long delayed.”

Twenty-five years later the former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, echoed that sentiment: “The day will surely come, and in my view it has already arrived, when the requirement for the physical presence of a child witness or victim in the court building will be, and should be, regarded as a hangover from laughable, far off days of the quill and ink pen.”

Sadly that ‘hangover’ is persisting and while we recognise that the wheels of justice often turn slowly a delay of a quarter of a century is both unacceptable and shameful and has left us with a justice system still not fit for children.