How the courts still let down our most vulnerable children

For many victims, the trial of their abuser only adds to the trauma. The first national study of young witnesses published reports that the judicial process often leaves children feeling confused, alone and suicidal

At 15, Sally told a schoolfriend that her stepfather had begun sexually abusing her when she was six. He had continued for eight years until her mother divorced him because of his violence. 'My friend marched me to a teacher and made me tell,' she said. 'In the end, it only took a few words and, suddenly, it was over.' Sally's sister, Carol, had been abused from the age of seven. 'We had bunk beds. He would come in. I would shut my eyes and try to think of other things. I didn't tell my mum because I thought she would be upset,' she said. In September last year, after several months, the case came to court. For the two teenagers it was a long time to wait. Both felt intimidated by their stepfather and his family, who live in the same small community. 'I couldn't go out without my mum,' Sally said. 'I had panic attacks. I'd wanted to be a drama teacher but I had to drop out of school. During those months, it was as if all my dreams were coming to an end.'

Tomorrow, the NSPCC, in partnership with Victim Support, publishes In Their Own Words, a devastating study of 50 seven to 17-year-old child witnesses in criminal proceedings, including 32 who were involved in cases concerning sexual offences. Drawn from 29 courts across the country, the research is the first of its kind in that the children, rather than their parents or guardians, speak out. In spite of recent measures to improve proceedings for witnesses, the research reveals the trauma many children experience in trying to give their 'best evidence' to court. While a minority were positive about acting as witnesses, the majority, interviewed in 2004, voiced serious concerns. These included a lack of pre-trial support and therapy and extended periods waiting for the trial to come to court, which, for some, resulted in self-harming, suicide attempts, behavioural problems and truanting. The children also said they were not informed about the progress of their cases — including the fact that their alleged abuser was free on bail. They also faced sudden adjournments and court changes. The witnesses were confused by court procedure and often felt they were bullied. Kirk, nine, said: 'The woman on the defendant's side was horrible ... she said I was lying ... I felt sad, but I managed to stick to my story ... I don't think they should be allowed to say you're lying.' 'It's a terrible ordeal for children,' said Barbara Laycock, a volunteer witness supporter for children. 'They are expected to open their hearts to the court about events which are hard enough to whisper to a friend.'

In July 2003, a Home Office report concluded that young witnesses do not have access to a 'coherent system nation-wide'. Between 2003 and 2004, Victim Support's Witness Service identified 18,466 people it considered entitled to support in court but who were not referred to the service as vulnerable or intimidated. Victim Support says it is likely that the majority of these were young witnesses. The experiences of witness support schemes suggest that this survey is a reliable indicator of what is happening across the country. One coordinator for child witnesses in the south-east of England says: 'Witness support workers feel they are presiding over an intolerable situation in which children who are called as witnesses are subjected to abuse from the system. 'We are regressing to a situation where the young and most vulnerable don't have access to justice. Of course the defendant has an absolute right to a fair trial but changes which are common glitches in organisations, like an adjournment, can have a dire effect on children.' In the past two years, the coordinator says, there has not been a single conviction in her region in a child abuse case.

Joyce Plotnikoff, a lawyer and former social worker, is co-author with Richard Woolfson of In Their Own Words. 'The defendant's right to a fair trial is paramount,' she said. 'But that should not be incompatible with a system that can also properly test a child's evidence, in terms that she or he understands. We haven't got anywhere near that yet. Half of the children in our study did not understand words or found questions confusing.' Cathy is 22. She suffers from cerebral palsy and has the mental age of a child of six. She was abused for years by a family friend who was eventually convicted of molesting and raping 33 children and sentenced to nine years in prison. In court, the defence barrister asked her if the defendant had touched her breasts. Cathy said no — because she had a different name for that part of her anatomy. The judge ordered her evidence inadmissible and the charges relating to her were dropped. 'The least they could do is learn the language that Cathy uses,' says her mother, Ellen. 'Cathy is angry. Her abuser was convicted but she hasn't seen justice done.' The judiciary have long been aware of the need to give priority and care to child witnesses. In 1989, the Pigot report recommended that the part of proceedings involving a child witness should be dealt with 'as rapidly as is consonant with the interests of justice'. In 1995 representatives of the judiciary called for 'a national scheme to monitor fast track schemes for child witnesses'. Ten years later no monitoring scheme exists. On the contrary, the time between the initial statement and a case coming to court is often even longer if a child is involved. The 50 young witnesses questioned in the report waited between eight and 18 months. Under the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, children under the age of 17 are eligible for special treatment. This includes the recording of their first interview (to avoid multiple interviews by a range of professionals, as still occurs in Scotland), giving evidence over a TV link or behind a screen, the removal of gowns and wigs and the opportunity to meet members of the court before the trial.

'A view exists that everything is much better — policy, procedure, legislation,' said the NSPCC's Barbara Esam. 'In fact, what we learn when we listen to children is that, in the implementation of these changes, we're still failing miserably.'
One court administrator told The Observer that a handful of individuals regularly appear in court lists with charges of sexual abuse made against them that end in acquittal. 'They may be innocent but it's clear is that some children are unable to tell their story — especially if they have been abused before.' The government is reviewing the situation for child witnesses. It is also piloting the use of intermediaries (largely speech and language therapists) to help witnesses with communication difficulties. From next month, as part of the No Witness, No Justice campaign, witness care units will offer witnesses of all ages advice and support. One problem is resources. The charity Victim Support has a budget of £31 million but needs more than double that to meet existing demand, let alone the new initiative. The NSPCC, which is launching the Caring for Children in Court appeal, needs to raise £3.2m to expand five of its young witness support projects to meet the rapidly accelerating demand. The charity is one of a handful of organisations, including Barnardo's, that offers specific support to children. Plotnikoff says that, because the quality of support is uneven, we now have 'justice by geography'.

In Sally and Carol's cases the children were supported by Helen Lewandowska of Warrington NSPCC Young Witness Service and her six-strong team. Their stepfather, who pleaded not guilty, was convicted and sentenced to 10 years. 'Without the team', says Anne, the girls' mother, 'our family would have fallen apart.' The NSPCC team use videos and reading material to familiarise children with court proceedings. A mock-up of the court is also used, and a visit to court is arranged during which they are introduced to the legal team. The witness volunteer remains with the child and family before, through and after the court appearance, if needed. This year the Warrington team will handle more than 200 cases; last year it was 150. But even strong support can be sabotaged by bureaucracy. One young witness had the court in which she was due to give evidence changed five times. The final change was announced by the police calling at midnight to inform the family and waking the neighbours. Lewandowska says that intensive support helps. 'It makes the experience as good as it can be. Can you imagine the courage it takes for a 15-year-old to stand up in court and say she has been raped by her dad, knowing that her mother has chosen to stand by her father?' Of course, some children lie and adult lives have been ruined as a consequence, so evidence has to be tested. The defence's aim is to win the legal case, not necessarily to establish the truth. 'One of the easiest ways to do that is to completely discredit the child, and that can have long-term consequences,' said one child witness co-ordinator.

Woolfson argues that there should be a cultural shift on the part of the judiciary and the legal profession to increase vigilance about the quality of questioning. 'The public has grown up watching American TV programmes in which the lawyers are constantly saying, “I object, your honour”. In practice, in a British court, challenging what a colleague says is the very last thing that's done.' When it does happen, it can make a difference. In the NSPCC study, the parents of Colin, aged 16, praised the judge. 'He did ... keep stopping the defence lawyer and saying, “Is this really relevant? Shall we move on?” He was clearly aware that Colin was a young witness.'

'The key question to reform is this,' said Joyce Plotnikoff. 'Would you be prepared to let your child go through the court system? The answer, for many at present, is “no”. In the interests of children and in the name of justice, that has to change.'

Some of the names in this article have been changed to protect anonymity.

Yvonne Roberts
6 February 2005,6903,1406839,00.html

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