The Crown Prosecution Service’s latest grim statistics show that, despite the increasing number of police recorded rapes over the past five years, the prosecution rate has reduced. This state of affairs, has been branded as the 'decriminalisation of rape' by the Victim’s Commissioner Dame Vera Baird QC.
And the data's fine print also reveals a heart-breaking truth: the victims suffering from the worst outcomes are children. Just 16 per cent of victims aged 10-13 saw their abuser charged for the abuse they inflicted, with 55 per cent then seeing no prosecution take place. By contrast, the charge rate in the 25-59 victim bracket was 46 per cent, while the no prosecution rate was 30 per cent.
Disclosure of sexual abuse is a massive undertaking for a child, with only around an eight of cases coming forward. Many victims are petrified of their abuser and the ramifications of reporting them and, in these cases, the vast majority of abuse is perpetrated by a family member, making it all the more miserable for the child to tell someone. So when a child does say that they are being sexually abused, it is our duty to do everything in our power to protect them and punish the individual who dared to think they could get away with it.
Child sexual abuse cases are admittedly complex. Non-recent sexual assaults are resource intensive to investigate and there is often little evidence beyond the testimony of the victims. And when the victim is a traumatised child who may be developmentally ill-equipped to describe or understand what was done to them, these difficulties can be compounded.
But imagine being an 11-year-old abuse victim who finds the bravery to disclose what was being inflicted on you, only for your abuser to walk free without even being charged. Beyond the terrible harm this does to victims, the message this sends to child sexual abusers is that they can operate with impunity: they get to wreck a life with no ramifications or accountability.
So how can we drive up prosecutions for child sexual abuse? First, by supporting child victims to preserve the quality of their evidence. Asking a child to repeatedly recount the worst moments of their life to various strangers over a period of months can inevitably lead to them getting tangled up with their testimonies, damaging the quality of the evidence. The Icelandic Barnahus model, replicated in The Lighthouse in London, is the best way to solve this.
Children referred to Barnahus over suspected sexual abuse undertake two interviews. The first interview, designed to sensitively elicit disclosure of abuse from the child, is conducted by a child psychotherapist with training in forensic interviews. If the child says they are being harmed, the interview is paused for the alleged offender to be apprehended. Then, the second investigative interview goes ahead. Watched by professionals including the police, lawyers and child protective services via video link, they feed questions to the interviewers who will ask them in a more child-friendly manner. This dramatically reduces the number of times the child has to recount their abuse, helping to combat any issues over the quality of evidence.
The Icelandic model has seen a trebling of convictions for child sexual abuse and much improved therapeutic outcomes for victims: rolling it out across the UK should be seriously considered.
For the minority of victims who do get their day in court, sentencing is crucial. Of the cases where there was a successful conviction last year, only around half of these offenders were immediately remanded to custody, with an average sentence length of just four and half years.
Sentencing guidelines currently recommend a one-year custodial sentence for possessing the most serious type of indecent image of a child. That using photos of the worst moments of a child’s life for your sexual gratification warrants the same recommended sentence as the theft of a bicycle worth £500 needs looking at urgently.
Prosecution rates are insufficiently punitive to serve as a deterrent to paedophiles, while low sentencing not only undermines the gravity of these crimes but risks sending a message to victims that society does not take the damage done to them seriously.
The UK needs to demonstrate that it is a deeply hostile place for child sexual abusers to operate by building a fiercely protective and supportive environment for victims and survivors. It’s the grown-ups job to stand up for children, and we must demand better for them.