Help justice work for abuse children

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The Independent Online
The abuse started when Samantha was five years old. But it was not until six years later that her mother Gail found out what her ex-husband had been doing.

Finally admitting she had been abused did not end the pain for Samantha. Charges were pressed against her father and she was called as a witness.

"It took nine months before the case came to court after the preliminary investigation and medical examination," said Gail.

"We were told we had a choice between counselling and therapy prior to the case. But it was also said that if she had therapy, they might not take what she said as seriously. So we had to make the decision not to take her for therapy for these months and it was awful to see one of your children suffer for that long."

Child abuse cases are particularly difficult to prosecute and fewer defendants enter a guilty plea in these cases. The acquittal rate for child abuse cases is 27 per cent, compared with a national average of 16 per cent.

At present 30 per cent of child witnesses have no preparation for court. The NSPCC employs support officers to prepare children for court, and also runs Justice For Children which campaigns to remove unnecessary stress for children in courts.

Frances Le Roy is a child witness support officer in the Home Counties. She works with children like Samantha so they know what to expect when they go into the witness box.

"Children can be worried about terribly small things which if not sorted out can be difficult. Simple things like 'what if I want to go to the toilet?' can become big worries," she said.

The NSPCC is trying to make sure good practice is followed in all courts. Justice for Children has prepared a pre-trial checklist which is presently being piloted around the country.

It would ensure that a child gets necessary breaks so that they do not lose concentration in the cross examination and are not kept waiting at the court for hours before being called.

The charity also wants all evidence to be video-taped in advance rather than subjecting the child to cross examination, often long times after the events took place.

At the end of the day giving evidence will always be difficult, so anything that helps a child is a step in the right direction: "I feel very privileged to work with some of these children," said Ms Le Roy. "They are so brave when you think of all the stuff they've been through and then to have to go through it all again. I feel quite humbled."

Names have been changed.

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