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10 February 2016

In bringing justice in the past, don’t forget the victims of the present

The invasive nature of these court cases can stop young people from reporting horrific abuse, or providing evidence. 

By Javed Khan

It takes tremendous courage for vulnerable young people to disclose allegations of sexual abuse and even more courage to seek justice by reliving it in court.

Our expert workers see first-hand the impact it has, as they carefully guide young people through the justice system. We hope that every successful conviction gives others more confidence to come forward.

It would be a terribly backward step if the current Metropolitan Police historical abuse investigation deters young people from coming forward, for fear they will not be believed.

Victims must have great confidence in the justice system if perpetrators are to be brought to justice.

We believe in children and young people and will always be here to help support them through the darkest times. We are here for them whether or not they choose to go to court, whether their case is dropped due to lack of evidence, or whether the defendant is found not guilty.

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All victims must be listened to, and then it is the responsibility of the police to carry out thorough investigations to check and test the necessary evidence needed to secure convictions. But our priority is and always will be for the welfare of the child. That’s why Barnardo’s continues to campaign to improve the court system for victims of sexual exploitation in order to increase conviction rates.

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The invasive nature of these court cases can stop young people from reporting horrific abuse, or providing evidence. Until they are better supported through this daunting and potentially damaging process there will only be marginal increases in the number of prosecutions.

The needs of the children should be taken into account when considering what special measures are used. They should help decide whether they want to give evidence from behind a screen, or from remote locations via video-link, so they don’t have to go into the court building. There is also a need for better access to registered intermediaries – communications specialists who support young people to give evidence. I know all of this does happen, but not consistently, so it’s not good enough yet.

Barnardo’s report of the Parliamentary inquiry into the effectiveness of legislation for tackling child sexual exploitation (CSE) and trafficking within the UK advised that specialist training be given to all judges and lawyers involved in CSE cases.

So far we have seen very good practice by some judges and barristers and things have improved, but it is hugely variable. Judicial management of cases is essential, in order to restrict length of questioning, complex questions and aggressive approaches by defence barristers. Again, it’s better than it was, but there should be no exceptions.

Barnardo’s has a handful of Independent Sexual Violence Advocates that support CSE victims through the court process, coping with the trial and knowing what to expect. We know this support is hugely valued by the young people they help, but we simply don’t have the capacity to help all children who need it.

There’s no doubt that high profile child sexual exploitation cases across the UK have raised people’s awareness about sexual exploitation and what it is. More children are coming forward to report abuse, and many others are being supported when they are at risk of becoming victims. The Operation Brooke case in Bristol was a good example of where working together brought about convictions. Barnardo’s made sure all agencies had a good knowledge of CSE and were able to identify victims and perpetrators.

Progress has been made but we must ensure that it continues. The somber fact is that everywhere we go we find more young people needing our CSE services. That’s why we must do everything possible to encourage young people to feel that they will be listened to and believed when they get the courage to speak up. Let’s not allow the latest headlines to move us back to the days when abused children didn’t feel they would be heard.