Child sex abuse: Victim advocates needed
Every child making allegations of sexual exploitation should see an independent advisor before interview, MPs have said.
By - Jack Sommers - Police Oracle
Officers should ensure every child who is allegedly a victim of sexual exploitation has an Independent Sexual Violence Advocate assisting them throughout the investigation and prosecution of cases, a report by MPs has said.
The Home Affairs Select Committee made its recommendations after hearing evidence from senior officers, victim charities and representatives of the criminal justice system on the prolonged failure to bring two high-profile child sexual exploitation rings in Rochdale and Rotherham to justice sooner.
The report, which was previewed on PoliceOracle.com yesterday, was published ahead of new guidelines on child sex exploitation that are due to be announced today, June 11, by the Director of Public Prosecutions and the College of Policing.
The Home Affairs Committee report also advocates changes to the criminal justice system – including the setting up of special courts for sexual offences – as well as moves to make the experience of giving evidence less traumatic for victims.
The MPs said all child sex exploitation victims should have the support of an Independent Sexual Violence Advocate (ISVA) from before they undergo an Achieving Best Evidence (ABE) interview. The ISVA should be trained in court processes and continue supporting the victim throughout the trial and beyond, they added.
The MPs heard evidence that ISVAs were important for securing effective victim court testimony. The advocates are specialists commissioned by Baroness Scotland through the Home Office Violent Crime Unit in 2005.
When she appeared before the MPs giving evidence, Det Ch Supt Mary Doyle of Greater Manchester Police described the role as “absolutely key” in supporting victims and witnesses through the criminal justice system.
The MPs’ report said: “Support through the prosecution process is vital as it can mitigate circumstances which may lead to evidence being withdrawn by the victim at short notice.”
Charity Victim Support gave evidence about the value of ISVAs to MPs, highlighting: “To have the same supporting individual present from ABE interview till the end of the process will allow a young person to develop trust and confidence to share more details of abusers as time goes on.
“Young people will often share their worst experiences at a very late stage so it is important that this relationship is constant and is maintained.”
The report also said the Police Service had a duty to challenge Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) decisions not to prosecute if it disagreed.
DCS Doyle said it would have been “appropriate” for South Yorkshire Police officers to challenge the CPS decision not to prosecute the Rotherham case in 2009 because they found the witnesses unreliable.
“It is necessary for the police and the CPS to work together but that relationship must not preclude professional challenge,” the MPs said in their report.
“The ability to constructively challenge a decision taken by either party will strengthen the response of the criminal justice system to cases such as these and ought to be actively encouraged by senior management in the CPS and across all police forces.”
Elsewhere in the report, the MPs said that there needed to be a further package of reforms to allow victims to be able give clear and effective evidence.
While they accepted that a defendant must have the right to to test evidence, committee members felt current balance was currently skewed too strongly in favour of protecting the rights of a suspect – and that distressed victims giving evidence in court was not in the interests of justice.
They suggested that the Lord Chief Justice could consider recommending to the Judicial College that further training be developed for legal professionals involved in dealing with sex abuse cases, recommending that the Ministry of Justice provide relevant funding for any work.
The report added: “We also recommend that the Ministry of Justice introduce specialist courts, similar to the domestic violence courts currently in existence, for child sexual abuse or sexual offences as a whole.
“We do not mean that new buildings or new bureaucracies should be created, merely that in each region, one court room should be designated as the preferred court for the most serious child sexual exploitation cases.
“This court room should be selected on the basis that it has the most up to date technology and appropriate access and waiting facilities…We will write to the Ministry of Justice requesting periodic updates on this piece of work and will revisit the issue in 18 months time,” the document added.