Why victims deserve so much better

The Joseph family, like the Bulgers, suffered the devastation of the murder of their child by a child. Now, 13 years later, they feel the system has let them down
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The Independent Online

The murder of children is thankfully rare. Horrifying events like the abduction and killing of toddlers such as James Bulger and Sharona Joseph unite us in outrage and sympathy.

Sharona Joseph was two when she was snatched and killed by a disturbed 12-year-old boy. The family cannot be expected to recover fully from this tragedy. What happened has been especially hard for the couple's elder daughter, Daniella, who was nine when her sister was taken. Mr Joseph says she regarded Sharona as her best friend. She remains deeply affected.

Mr Joseph describes Daniella as a "beautiful woman of 22" who has been "caught in a nightmare for 13 years". She is a talented actress and drama has proven a useful therapeutic tool. Her parents hope that she will obtain a place on an acting course to develop her talent.

Mr Joseph speaks in a refreshingly even handed tone about offenders. He is not critical of education and rehabilitation programmes for young criminals. However, given his family's experience, he believes that eight years "is not sufficient" time for James Bulger's killers to return to society. Mr Joseph also condemns mob law, referring to last year's mistaken vigilante attack on a paediatrician's home in the aftermath of Sarah Payne's death.

Geoffrey and Ora Joseph believe that the system has let them down. Their principal complaint is that there are inadequate support mechanisms for bereaved families. They would have wished to have been offered something more tangible than "platitudes". Mr Joseph says that "more respect should be given to families of the victim". In his view, the "weighting of the scales of justice is wrong", inclining too far towards the welfare and needs of offenders. One further injustice he feels is the treatment of collateral casualties such as Daniella.

Victims of crime are entitled to financial redress from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority. Immediate relations in homicide cases receive a "fatal award" of £5,500, but siblings get nothing. In child crimes, brothers and sisters are not compensated for their suffering despite being an obviously affected group.

Relatively sophisticated psychological support has been available only since 1996. Before then, neither police nor probation services were obliged to maintain contact with relations post-sentencing.

Following conviction the Josephs say they received no news of their daughter's murderer, now a man of 26. He could be in the next street. The family cannot bear to refer to him by name. They have "no reason to meet this person at all" but want to know his whereabouts. Mr Joseph says probation services made no attempt to contact them and "only recently were we made aware of our rights". Because of reporting restrictions they assumed they were not entitled to any information.

There is an automatic ban on reporting identities in youth courts. Murder cases, however, are tried in adult courts where the judge decides whether to restrict publicity under S39 Children and Young Persons Act 1933. The court can ban publication of pictures or of information that could lead to children being identified.

Reporting restrictions can be lifted on conviction. Sometimes this is thought to encourage offenders to face up to the consequences of their crime. Mr Joseph re- members that the judge at Chelmsford Crown Court exercised this discretion at the end of the trial. However, after the furore surrounding the Bulger case, an injunction was imposed preventing details of the offender's name or whereabouts being revealed. This remains in place. The family is contemplating a legal challenge so that families living close to the killer can be told who he is. They will be making their views known to the Home Office.

Renewed interest in Sharona's case because of Thompson and Venables' imminent release prompted the Josephs to contact Hertfordshire Probation Services on 29 June. Mr Joseph says he asked them if they would have contacted them and was told that they were intending to get around to this. After 13 years, one would hope so. The Home Office declines to comment on specific files. However, it confirms that in older cases it tries to make contact but it is "a question of resources".

The Josephs appear to have been neglected because of the arbitrary fact that their child died before more victim-friendly rules were introduced. In 1990, Michael Howard, then Home Secretary, published a Victim's Charter, which was revised in 1996. This set out for the first time the "service victims of crime should expect". A key feature was providing victims with important information, including release dates.

From 1996, probation officers are supposed to "get in touch with you to find out whether you want to be told when the prisoner may be released". Enquiries are made two months after sentencing. Concerns can lead to conditions being attached. Belatedly, the Josephs have been assured their "views will be sought and taken into account".

The Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2000 came into effect this year. It is not retrospective. Section 69 imposes a statutory duty on the probation board to consult with victims, including relations, before release. They must be allowed to make representations and to be informed of conditions. In cases falling outside the Act, the onus can fall on victims to find out what is happening. As Sharona's case demonstrates, people do not necessarily know who to contact. Nowadays, contact details are given early on by specially trained police family liaison officers. In response to the 1996 Charter, information packs contain details of bodies such as Support after Murder and Manslaughter, a self-help group funded by £120,000 from the Home Office and Victim Support. The latter is a national organisation, also Home Office funded, that provides help and emotional support to people in the aftermath of crime.

Mr Joseph acknowledges the role of Victim Support, but says they lack "strong enough powers". Anne Coughlan, Chief Executive of Victim Support London, acknowledges that "Victim Support is one of the few organisations that work long term with families bereaved through homicide." She agrees that "Services for children who have experienced serious crime or have lost someone close to them through crime urgently need to be developed and appropriately funded."

The Josephs' plight indicates an unwarranted disparity in aftercare for those who suffered loss before 1996. I ask Mr Joseph what can be done for Daniella. He replys: "the word is not can, but should". He believes that "every victim's family is different. These are special cases where the families deserve to receive individual care and attention." The severity and impact of certain crimes could justify a fund to cover private therapy and activities that would assist in rehabilitating people tormented by long-term aftershocks. Mr Joseph contrasts "all the money spent on Thompson and Venables" with that allocated to victims' families.

Louise Delahunty, a specialist criminal lawyer, says that "with the advent of the Human Rights Act, the rights of victims should be high on the Government's agenda. The question is what structure and funding will there be to assist victims in this new era?"

Nothing will bring the lost children home but, in the words of the Victims Charter, the Home Secretary should "make sure that the unpleasant effects of the crime are not made worse by what happens later". The Government has said it must prioritise victim support. This is its chance to put its money where its mouth is.