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Who is failing child sex abuse victims?

This morning I read a report on the BBC news website saying that Barnardo's claim that child victims of sexual exploitation are being failed by the Criminal Justice System.

There are a number of different offences that you might chose to call child exploitation that range from rape of a child aged under 13 through to causing a child to watch a sexual act.  In between are offences such as meeting a child following sexual grooming and abusing a position of trust (which unlike other offences has an age of consent of 18-years not 16-years, so if a teacher had sex with a 17-year-old student with his or her consent the teacher would be guilty of an offences).

In criminal law, to secure a conviction the prosecution must make an allegation (the charge or indictment) and must then prove so that the jury are sure (in old language this was beyond reasonable doubt) that the defendant is guilty of the offence charged or indicted.  The proof is shown by producing evidence, which could be the testimony of a witness, CCTV, DNA, fingerprints, financial records, telephone records or pretty much anything else that you can think of.  This is the same process for sexual offences as it is for theft or drink driving or anything else.

Sexual offences have long been said to have very low conviction rates both in themselves and when compared to other offences.  Some people claim this is because the system is prejudiced and others claim that it is because of statistical anomalies.


Barnardo's chief executive Anne Marie Carrie said, apparently in respect of the CJS that, "we need to see drastic changes to make sure the abusers who control such vulnerable children for sex and personal gain are brought to book."

In the time I have been in practice drastic changes have already been introduced.  When I began work a victim of rape, for example, would have to come to court and give evidence live in the court room before the man she said raped her.  In fact, it was even permissible for the defendant to cross-examine the victim himself!  Even where he did not do the questioning he would be able to see her at all times and many victims found this very uncomfortable and difficult to deal with.  Particularly, as at that time it was perfectly lawful for the defence to question her in detail about her sex life in an effort to show that she was promiscuous.  Back then previous convictions for similar offences would be very difficult to introduce before a jury.

Today, evidence is often pre-recorded at the time that the victim makes the initial complaint in a special interview room with specially trained police officers asking the questions.  These videos are commonly played as the victim's evidence.  It is still necessary for a victim to be cross-examined by the defence; however, nowadays the victim can chose whether to give evidence in court from behind a screen where the defendant and public gallery are unable to see her or via video-link or live in court in the normal way.  The Defendant is expressly forbidden to cross-examine the victim personally.  No questions about the victim's sex life are allowed unless an application has been made before the trial to the judge and I can assure you that it is very difficult to get a judge to agree to such applications and when they do agree questioning is strictly limited.  Also, it is becoming increasingly easy for the prosecution to adduce evidence of bad character on the part of the defendant.  Bad character could be previous convictions or even previous unproven allegations of a similar and independent nature.

Of course, things could be made even easier for the prosecution quite easily.  But, for every change you make that means conviction is easier you must balance that with the likelihood of a miscarriage of justice occurring.  My memory of the news as a teenager is characterised by hearing of miscarriages of justice coming to light what seemed to me like every other day.  When I first studied law, I was indoctrinated with the maxim that "it is better for ten guilty men to go free than for one innocent man to be convicted" and was taught stories of when the innocent had gone to prison.  I'm not sure whether that maxim is still taught, I suspect not.

The problem with prosecuting sexual offences, particularly against children, is that the allegation often doesn't come to light until a long time afterwards by which time there is no forensic evidence.  Even in a "stranger-rape" case, if the defendant is saying that the victim consented to sex then the forensic evidence may be of limited value.  A typical sex case will be the word of one person against another.  Where a jury has to be sure that the defendant is guilty it is quite hard for them to convict.

With the greatest of respect to Barnado's, I think they have missed the point and identified the wrong problem.  It seems to me that the job of the Criminal Justice System is, for the most part at least, to mop up the mess when things go wrong.


The real problem is not the lack of convictions but the number of offences being committed.  Since I began work as a solicitor, organisations have become more careful about the people they employ; however, checking previous convictions will not inform you of people who are a danger but who have not been accused of a crime before, such as Paul Anthony Wilson who I understand had never been in trouble before he applied for work at a nursery.  What needs to be done is for a proper thorough system of supervision to be in use at places where vulnerable children are at risk of being abused.  Barnado's themselves have been guilty of failing to properly supervise their staff in the past as a quick Google search of "barnardo sex allegation" will show you.  You might also read the excellent blog by Winston Smith, which isn't strictly about this issue but does show the disorganised way in which establishments homing vulnerable young people are managed.

Are the courts failing the victims or should the authorities be doing more to prevent these children from becoming victims in the first place?

Comments

  1. Barnardo's have a vested interest: one cannot picture them ever saying "OK, we think enough is now being done to help children", because that would cut into their donations. Pretending that they are any less biased than an explicit pressure-group is at best ingenuous, and devalues their statements even if they make sense.

    The CRB-check system is a dysfunctional nightmare, and it and the culture surrounding it have put off large numbers of people from wanting anything to do with (other people's) children. We didn't exactly have an over-supply of such people even before that started. In return for this real damage, there's been a small decrease in the number of "stranger" offences, and no improvement at all in the far larger number of in-family offences. But it looks as though "something is being done", and that's apparently good enough.

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  2. RogerBW, in politics doing something is far less important than being seen to be doing something.

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  3. Oh, I'm well aware of this. I just occasionally like to have a bit of honesty in between my propaganda.

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  4. I agree Roger...there's far too much money to be grubbed in perpetuating the problem.

    Thousands of people's livelihoods is dependant on there being a never-ending stream of victims to support. If they can at least look busy then it must be assumed that they are.

    Seen-to-be-done...yet nothing done..so more must be done. An endless cyclic system inhabited by people as destructive and abusive as those they purport to wish to see in court.

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  5. I agree entirely with The Defence Brief, on this issue as with so many others.

    I think Tattyfalarr might be taking things a bit far though when he/she describes; "An endless cyclic system inhabited by people as destructive and abusive as those they purport to wish to see in court."

    I spent some time in care as a child, escaping physical and emotional abuse at home. I continue to attend a well known self help group and have, as a result, met many people in caring professions. It is my belief that the vast majority go into such professions not to feed such a cycle but to seek to break it. Further still, many of them come from a background of having been abused themselves. To suggest otherwise is, in my opinion, akin to suggesting that The Defence Brief encourages criminal behaviour to keep himself in a job.

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  6. Anonymous, my experience has been that there's a huge divide between the people who actually do the work and the ones who have to play endless politics to get the money to allow the work to be done.

    Even when it's the same person who's moved from one job to the other, the pressure of constantly having to be in a political world of appearances and emotional manipulation rather than real data and hard facts apparently means that someone who was previously quite reasonable will lie, cheat and steal in order to promote a good cause. (And sometimes they end up doing the cause harm, in order to get more money. If anyone really wanted to put a dent in child-abuse, they'd tackle the 90% that comes out of existing family or near-family relationships, not run scare stories about strangers.)

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  7. I don't doubt that there are people in positions who seek to preserve those positions. I simply don't like the insinuation that large numbers of people cynically work in care professions with ignoble motives. I agree that "stranger danger" is massively overplayed, but the press have as much responsibility for that in my opinion. FYI - I do not work in a care industry.

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