Recently I was shocked and saddened by the tragic death of Frances Andrade who bravely gave evidence against Michael Brewer, a man who had abused her when she was only a child of fourteen. Whilst we may never know for sure if her death could have been prevented, this is yet another reminder of the lifelong damage caused by sexual abuse.
In the last few months the Savile case, the sexual exploitation of young girls in Rochdale and Rotherham, and the reopening of investigations into abuse in a North Wales children's home, have all highlighted that society has a long way to go in protecting children from harm.
In the Rochdale cases where children suffered terrible abuse and exploitation, some professionals reportedly believed that the abused adolescents were "making a lifestyle choice". But how can a fourteen year old child make a lifestyle choice to be groomed and exploited for sex? Fortunately the lack of action was remedied and a number of abusers were eventually brought to justice.
In another case, not publicised in the media, a social worker commented about a sexually exploited girl of thirteen, who had been carefully groomed, that nobody was forcing her to go back to the men exploiting her for sex; she had the choice to walk away. This professional clearly had little insight into how abusers can control children, some of whom are groomed so young that they think sexual abuse is normal. How would a child trust any adult when those who are meant to be there to help protect them do not recognise the child has been ensnared by exploitative adults?
The terrible commonality in all of these abuse cases is that children were afraid to speak out or did not think they would be believed. In Rochdale when victims did initially speak out, we now know they were not believed, and because of this some children continued to be abused. In other cases of abuse the children continued to carry the trauma of their experiences through their adult lives. The victims in the Savile case spoke of how cathartic it is to have finally been listened to and believed. It is tragic they had to wait so long.
An abused child who is not listened to becomes an invisible child and the lesson they learn is that they don't count. The majority of children who contact ChildLine are between the ages of thirteen and seventeen; they tell us that seeking help can be hard and that it is difficult to speak up about harm and abuse. They are often too scared or ashamed to speak out and are not sure they will be believed; ChildLine in some cases does literally provide a lifeline for these young people.
Members of the public must wonder why it's so hard to bring child abusers to justice? Justice secretary Chris Grayling said in October, with respect to the recent child grooming cases in England, that "a culture of tolerating child sexual abuse is still rife". So, what has to change?
Well, a start would be that we actually listen to what children tell us and act on it. Inevitably children will pick up on the fact that adults sometimes have trouble believing them and this becomes a way of perpetrators keeping them silent. But we must do more to give children the confidence to speak out and believe it will make a difference. But society has to recognize that even this will count for nothing if the criminal justice system stacks the odds against children by making it difficult to get a legitimate case to court.
In January this year the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Keir Starmer apologised for the shortcomings of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in dealing with the allegations against Savile and said that something had to change. He described it as a watershed moment for child protection. In a statement accompanying the report he observed that the criminal justice system seems to expect a higher burden of proof for sexual offences than it expects in other crimes. This clearly does not help abused children who are vulnerable and therefore more likely to be fragile coping as witnesses.
The DPP's report, prepared by Principal Legal Advisor Alison Levitt QC, pointed to the errors of judgement by experienced and committed police officers and prosecuting lawyers who acted in good faith, but got the outcome wrong. And the report laid bare what many professionals working in child sexual abuse know, that there is still a tendency for the criminal justice system to be overly cautious about the reliability of children.
Since the late 1970's, and as a result of an increasing awareness of child sexual abuse, more children have given evidence in court. Their testimony has been essential because the child victim is also generally the only witness to the crime, and even where there is physical evidence of abuse the child's testimony is crucial to securing a conviction.
But I know from my own experience and what many colleagues in social work and other professions continue to tell me, that there is still concern in the criminal justice environment that children make unreliable witnesses and can be too easily led and that this makes taking cases to court more difficult.
Legislative processes developed in the 1990s and 2000s, aimed at improving practice and developing good quality investigative techniques to enable the gathering of reliable evidence, were meant to make a difference. But despite reforms over the years, coupled with the training and development of police, lawyers, social workers, health and education professionals, it would appear that the system is still imperfect and we are letting abused children down.
We must never forget the power abusers use to manipulate children and the sophisticated methods they use to cover their tracks, demonising children, failing to listen to them, doubting their credibility and exercising too much caution about their suggestibility can only serve to help perpetrators to discredit what children say.
If as a result of the bravery of people like Frances Andrade, whose traumatic experiences of giving evidence in court ended in a terrible tragedy, we really do change things for the better then it truly will be the watershed moment the DPP aspires to. The Police and NSPCC deliberately named their report 'Giving Victims a Voice'. Achieving that for abused children is the challenge to us all.