Select Committee on Home Affairs Memoranda


Submitted by Respond (CA 66)

  Respond is a voluntary sector organisation working therapeutically with people with learning disabilities who are victims and/or perpetrators of sexual abuse and other trauma. We provide long-term individual psychotherapy, risk assessments, group therapy and a national telephone helpline service. The helpline is open to people with learning disabilities, their parents, carers and professionals working in the field of learning disability and abuse. The organisation started in 1991 and the helpline was launched in 1999. We currently work with 50 individuals per week and received 1,000 enquiries to our helpline last year.

  We would like to respond to the questions and issues raised which will form the basis for the discussion of the Home Affairs Committee about the above subject.

1.  Do police methods of "trawling" for evidence involve a disproportionate use of resources and produce unreliable evidence for prosecution?

  As an organisation specifically working with people with learning disabilities, we are aware that at least 1,400 new cases of adults with learning disabilities as victims of sexual abuse are reported each year (Brown, Stein and Tusk, The sexual abuse of adults with a Learning Disability: a Second Incidence Study. Mental Handicap Research 1995). However, research suggests out of 284 suspected cases of sexual abuse of people with a learning disability, only 63 cases (a quarter) were investigated by the police. Only two cases proceeded to court and only one resulted in a conviction (Mencap report Barriers to Justice 1997).

  From our own experience in face to face work with clients as well as the calls received on the helpline, it is very clear the majority of cases do not make it to court due to so called "unreliable evidence". Often this is linked to police officers not being trained and equipped to interview people with learning disabilities sensitively and effectively. Adequate resources for an in-depth inquiry into allegations of sexual abuse, especially when it relates to institutional abuse which happened years ago, are also often not being made available.

  We believe police methods do not involve a disproportionate amount of resources, but rather the opposite. Effective implementation of the new government national guidelines of "No secrets" and "Setting the boundaries" with adequate resources is essential and in our view would produce reliable evidence for prosecution.

2.  Is the CPS drawing a sensible line about which cases should be prosecuted?

  Until this date, people with learning disabilities particularly have received unfair and unequal treatment by the British justice system, because they still are being deemed to be "unreliable witnesses in court" or their case wouldn't be taken forward due to the belief it would be too traumatic for a person with a learning disability to stand up and give evidence in court. This situation is slowly changing due to the Home Office Report Speaking Up for Justice, the new government guidelines "No Secrets" and "Setting the boundaries" as well as the White Paper "Valuing People—a new strategy for learning disability for the 21st century". As an organisation working with people with learning disabilities we welcome those initiatives and guidelines, which finally give recognition and equal human rights to people with learning disabilities. However, those initiatives and guidelines only become meaningful agents for changing peoples' lives for the better when put into practice. They clearly state the importance of special measures being made available to help vulnerable witnesses to give evidence in court.

  Only when special measures to help vulnerable witnesses give evidence in court are in place nationally and available to all equally, can an assessment be made about whether the CPS is drawing a sensible line about which cases should be prosecuted.

3.  Should there be a time limit—in terms of number of years since the alleged offence took place—on prosecution of cases of child abuse?

  People with learning disabilities are one of the most vulnerable groups of society and often rely on care staff and care services for long periods in their lives. They are often unable to recognise when abuse has taken place and are often to frightened to speak out about what happened due to fear of retribution by the perpetrator. Generally, abuse by its definition takes place in an environment of secrecy and generally with no witnesses other than other perpetrators, eg in cases of organised abuse like paedophile rings and ritual abuse. Perpetrators often intimidate their victim(s) with threats of violence against the victim(s) themselves or those close to them if they speak out. This should be taken into account when thinking about how long it may take a victim of child abuse to gain the courage to speak out. This is even more so the case for people with learning disabilities who may think they deserve the abuse for "being born wrong". The often devastating and long-term effects of child sexual abuse has been well documented over the past 30 years. We and other survivor lines receive calls from people abused as children who are affected for the rest of their lives.

  Putting a time limit on prosecution of cases of child abuse would give two devastating messages: Firstly, to perpetrators of abuse that children (especially those in residential homes) are an easy target with little risk of prosecution. Secondly, to survivors of abuse who are being punished firstly by the abuse and secondly by the legal system, which doesn't even recognise their trauma as a crime committed against them.

4.  Is there a risk that the advertisement of prospective awards of compensation in child abuse cases encourages people to come forward with fabricated allegations?

  Considering the stress and trauma involved in going to court, having to face cross examination by the defence, the length of time involved in a court case and the uncertainty of getting a conviction, it appears very unlikely that people would fabricate allegations for financial reward. This is particularly true for people with learning disabilities who have even more of a struggle to speak out and obtain support in managing the terrible effects of abuse in their lives. People who suffered abuse want to tell their story in court in order to achieve justice for themselves and recognition for the terrible things that happened to them. Going to court and facing up to the past can be an important part of the healing process. Gaining financial compensation is only one part of the process and the most important aspect for many survivors is the conviction of the perpetrator.

  Many survivors would consider financial compensation little consolation for the pain and suffering inflicted upon their lives and rather would have grown up without those experiences than receiving financial awards. However, in order to give recognition to survivors about the trauma they suffered, survivors should be entitled to financial compensation for the damages cause to their lives.

  You state in your press notice "(. . .) that a whole new genre of miscarriages of justice has arisen from the over-enthusiastic pursuit of allegations about abuse of children in institutions many years ago. (. . .)" We would like to point out that many survivors of child sexual abuse will not report it to the police, that those who do report it hardly ever go to court, and that the current conviction rate in relation to people with learning disabilities is less than one per cent. To our knowledge, the reporting of sexual assaults has gone down over the past five years, with only 11 per cent of rape victims reporting the crime and only four per cent of perpetrators being convicted. In our view, the Home Affairs Committee should be looking into safeguarding successful convictions of any sexual abuse crimes and creating an environment where victims are believed and supported.

February 2002


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