When a video adds to a child's trauma

Taped interviews were intended to help abused children to give evidence. Now a charity is calling for changes. Glenda Cooper reports
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Legal reforms to help abused children to give evidence in court have not gone far enough, and further changes are necessary so that the system is not "stacked against child witnesses", according to a leading children's charity.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) says guidance should be tightened up for the sake of children's welfare, with many at present unable to handle the stress of appearing in court. 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 for all cases of 16 per cent.

The NSPCC is calling for four amendments to the Memorandum of Good Practice brought in three years ago. The MOGP says that children should be interviewed on video and that it should not last longer than an hour in most cases.

But the NSPCC says that pre-interview assessments should be conducted in appropriate cases to establish whether a Memorandum interview is necessary. At present many children are put through the trauma of giving a videotaped interview only for it to be discovered that the allegations are not substantiated or not serious enough to warrant a criminal prosecution. If prosecution is not going to be contemplated, the child may be better served by not conducting a videotaped interview.

The MOGP also recommends that interviews should be planned to last less than an hour in most cases. But the charity says that this "one-hour rule of thumb does not recognise or acknowledge that children do not always tell about all the abuse they have experienced in a neat one-hour package. The majority of children tell their stories over time and when they feel safe."

It wants the Memorandum to be revised to allow a child to add information to a complaint in further interviews.

The charity also says there is not enough attention paid to the needs of particularly vulnerable groups of children, such as the young disabled or those whose first language is not English. The Pigot committee, set up by the Government in 1989 to look into video evidence, recommended that such children should be interviewed by a skilled professional with whom the child is confident.

This skilled professional would act as an interpreter for questions put by the prosecution or defence, but the reform was not supported by the Government and at the moment social workers and police officers are expected to interview these children.

Other reforms would include additional guidance on how to interview young and disabled children, the importance of preparation and its distinction from coaching child witnesses (at present 30 per cent of child witnesses have no preparation for court), and clarification about who makes the decision as to whether the child has therapy prior to the trial or not.

The director of the NSPCC, Jim Harding, says: "The aim of the MOGP and videotaped evidence was to reduce the trauma for children having to appear in court. It is clear, however, that the 1991 Criminal Justice Act is simply not doing enough to protect children from what can be a deeply distressing experience."

'She had kept the abuse secret for so many years and now she had to explain it all in an hour'

Samantha was 11 years old when her mother, Gail, found out she had been systematically abused for the previous six years by her father.

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

"All the time she kept it as a secret to herself," said Gail. "It took nine months before the case came to court after the preliminary investigation and medical examination.

"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, then it might count in the case, 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.

"She had to make do with me. I went up to the library and borrowed some books. But it was painful to me to listen as well. I thought as a mother I should have realised and I didn't for so many years so that must make me a bad mother.

"The video interview lasted for about an hour. She'd only met the police officer for about 15 minutes before the interview. It was quite difficult for Samantha to express herself. After all, she'd kept the abuse as a secret for so many years and now she had to explain it all in an hour, reveal all these very personal, quite horrific things to a complete stranger. If you or I were in a position like that, we'd find it quite difficult, never mind a vulnerable child.

"In some cases children have a video interview and then it's decided there's not enough evidence. There should be preliminary interviews so that a child doesn't have to go through that ordeal unless there is going to be a case."

Gail was fortunate in that she was supported by the NSPCC, which took Samantha down to the court and showed her around to reassure her about the day of the case. Even that could not prepare her for cross-examination: "They were trying to suggest that maybe she wasn't quite telling the truth. Imagine hearing a whole courtroom being told that."

Samantha's abuser got 10 years. But her family is faced with having much longer to come to terms with what happened to her. And Gail feels the whole ordeal was exacerbated by the way courts treat children.