If children accuse, can there be justice?

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The Independent Online
When the Bishop Auckland child abuse case was thrown out last week at Newcastle Crown Court, the Crown revealed the existence of a crisis: the prosecutor said it should not be inferred that the accusers - children alleging sadistic sexual abuse - were lying, but that a jury would not believe them. This important caveat went generally unheeded by the media.

The outcome of this case has made January 1995 a historic moment for British children; it has liberated a briefly buried wish in the adult community to accuse the accusers, children. This case began when the children of Victoria Avenue made allegations against a local boy. He was subsequently charged and convicted of sex offences. He appeared in the dock again last week, this time with his parents and half a dozen other local adults, on conspiracy charges. But the Crown prosecutor, David R o bson QC, dropped the case. Victoria Avenue now enters the historical record with only one culprit - a child. Mr Robson's faith in the child accusers seemed to have ebbed when he told the court that the case was becoming "reminiscent" of the "Salem witch trial".

This was the second major trial of alleged crimes against children to be thrown out at Newcastle Crown Court. Last summer, two nursery workers were found not guilty of serious sex offences. None of those close to the children - parents, the police, health and social workers - thought they were lying. But because adult investigators had failed to lift the burden of evidence from very young children, the judge decided they that should not be subjected to the cruelty of the court.

What are these cases really telling us? That these children received neither justice nor the investigative imagination and resources that would be devoted to cocaine smuggling or corporate fraud. In the nursery investigation it was more than three monthsafter the accused man had been formally alerted to the allegations before his home was searched. In Bishop Auckland it was five months before the suspect's home was searched. Children were alleged to have been subject not only to sexual crimes, but to stupefaction by drugs and bizarre assemblies of abuse.

That adults dress up, do drugs and terrorise children is no longer a surprise to many police, doctors and social workers. But when it comes to the criminal courts, in anything other than simple, straightforward sex-offence cases the odds will be against the accusers rather than the accused. We can cope with an MP's asphyxia but not with the idea of adults doing weird stuff to children.

It seems we can't cope either when children, having tested their investigators with a little information, then entrust them with a lot. Why, we protest, didn't they tell us everything during that initial interview in front of the video camera when the nice policeman asked them to tell their story for the nice judge? But the children tend to be terrified and take their time. The more secure and confident they feel, the more they tell and the worse it gets. But what has the criminal justice system done totake their terror away? What has it learnt about the conditions in which children communicate?

The system is not concerned with either of these questions. Rather, it has confined itself in the Nineties to controlling the conditions in which children speak. The Memorandum of Good Practice is the bible of investigators. It was pushed through by the Home Office, despite the protests of many of the experts it consulted. It prescribes that a child be interviewed only once, for no more than an hour, in almost laboratory conditions. It then takes at least a year for a case to come to trial. The child's first conversation with the court will be the cross-examination, not a friend but a foe. Of course, it doesn't work. Only 6 per cent of 14,000 interviews videoed in the first year ended up in court, and a tiny percentage produced a conviction. The Home Office has merely replaced investigations with interviews. The promise that videoed interviews of children would improve their chances in court was always hollow. The Home Office was merely wresting control of child abuse from the Department of Health andrestoring the dominance of the police.

Decent police officers found they had the upper hand, but to do what? The police often ignore the 1991 Home Office circular on complex investigations and - most importantly - the preservation of evidence. When I recently asked the senior officer in a biginquiry how he implemented the circular, he had never heard of it. Last week, the Association of Directors of Social Services took the amazing step of sidelining the memorandum; it was never about catching criminals, but about containing children.

Many of those close to both cases believe the children were abused and reassured the parents and children that they'd catch the baddies. But no baddies were caught, and the children were chided instead.