Tuesday, 9 September 2014

The Child Abuse Inquiry

The Child Abuse inquiry announced by Theresa May is getting a lot of airtime at the moment, primarily because of the issue of the suitability of the panel chairman. Baroness Butler-Sloss was originally appointed and had to withdraw when she decided that her family connections made her position untenable. Concerns have been raised about the suitability of her replacement, Fiona Woolf. That will play itself out in due course.

I'm more concerned with what the inquiry will have to look at if and when it goes ahead. The Terms of Reference haven't yet been published, but Theresa May has stated that her purpose is for the inquiry "To consider whether public bodies – and other non-state institutions – have taken seriously their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse."

Matthew Scott in his blog Barrister Blogger has offered some ideas about the inquiry, including suggestions for who might be suitable to chair it. Broadly speaking his suggestions revolve around judges or lawyers with experience of prosecuting, defending or judging sex crimes.
My concern with this approach is that somebody only with experience of the cases that come to trial is not going to be experienced in the various ways that cases fall by the wayside long before they get near a courtroom. In addition, he/she will probably know little about the efforts necessary to protect and support victims of child sex abuse in recovering from the abuse, whether or not the matter comes to trial. Nor will he or she have any knowledge of the measures that would help detect abuse early, nor of preventive measures that would deter abusers from abusing in the first place. It is notable that the currently nominated chair, Fiona Woolf, is a commercial lawyer, and doesn't even have the experience of addressing child sex cases in criminal court. I addressed this point in a comment on a recent article in the Guardian.
One of the problems with child sex abuse is that, on this subject, nobody acts according to normal adult standards of logic and reason.

Somebody new to this subject is going to be applying normal adult logic and will get into a terrible mess because they expect people to behave rationally according to normal standards, and they don't.

First let's look at the abusers themselves. They don't act rationally or they would not abuse. Many of them engage in a huge degree of self-deception in order to convince themselves that the children they abuse are freely consenting to the relationship.

The child victims don't act rationally by adult standards. They can't, they are children, their adult rational minds haven't been fully formed yet. Moreover they are placed into a situation where lies and secrecy abound, and their trust in adults is fatally undermined.

Those in authority don't act rationally, because they don't understand the psychological dynamics of the relationships between abusers and their victims. An abuser can be a pillar of society, intelligent, committed, a person everybody wants to know - and secretly a child abuser as well. The two are not mutually contradictory.

The idea that an abuser can be a high-functioning individual in all other aspects life is beyond the experience of most people, and so when evidence of abuse comes to light, it gets discounted on the basis of the abuser's otherwise good character.

Those who set policy in many cases act rationally in assuming that people with good intentions who see abuse will always report it, and that compulsion to do so is not needed for people to do what they know is the right thing.

But that doesn't take into account the simple disbelief that can afflict someone seeing something that "does not compute". People are suddenly wracked by doubt and wonder "What if I'm wrong?" They don't want to wreck and esteemed colleague's reputation or career, still less do they want to be labelled a troublemaker. And so they give into their doubts and do not report.

Even if they overcome their doubts, they then have to get past an institution's management. Here we have a whole new barrier to reporting, the reputation of the institution. A child abuse case can be very bad for business. The temptation can be overwhelming to find a way of handling it "in house", quietly, without the adverse publicity that will probably follow from a report to the authorities. People genuinely believe that by such actions they can protect both the children in their care and the reputation of the institution. In fact, the only person protected is the abuser.

And so at every turn, you have people acting in ways which on the face of it don't make any sense. It takes about a year of involvement in child protection in some capacity or other to start unravelling this in your head. Some people never manage it.

This inquiry can't afford to waste a year while the leader of it starts to understand that on this subject everything she ever knew about human behaviour is wrong.

That by itself is enough of a reason why Fiona Woolf's appointment is misguided.

If there is reason to think that there has been political interference in the investigation of child sex abuse cases, I agree with Matthew Scott in his assessment that there is little or no chance of decisive evidence of this being uncovered without the inquiry being converted into a full public inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005. If there is an establishment cover up, then those members of the establishment who are involved are hardly going to voluntarily give evidence as to their culpability. Similarly, documents that reveal the extent of any cover up are hardy going to be provided to the inquiry voluntarily. Compulsion will have to be used, and for that the inquiry will have to be converted to a full public inquiry. It might as well be done sooner rather than later. To delay will only give the impression that there is a cover up and the inquiry is being designed in such a way that it cannot reveal it.

Much of the recent publicity has surrounded alleged abuse by politicians living or dead, and alleged political interference in police investigations. But Theresa May's statement suggests that the remit of the inquiry is to be far wider than that.

I suspect the issue of cases being halted because of political pressure will form only a small part of the inquiry. It is likely that the vast majority of the failings in the system occur long before cases ever come to court and have nothing at all to do with protecting senior politicians.

If so, then the inquiry is going to have to look at all the ways in which cases of abuse might fail to be acted on or even reported.

These include (but are not limited to):
  • The child does not disclose the abuse at the time.
  • Other signs of abuse (e.g. physical, behavioural) are not noticed.
  • The signs are noticed (e.g by a member of staff at the child's school) but not reported within the setting.
  • The signs are reported but the report is not passed to the local authority children's services.
  • The report reaches children's services but is not acted on, for instance through lack of resources, because the report is disbelieved, or because it is thought not to reach the "harm threshold" that justifies intervention.
  • The report reaches children's services and is passed to the police for criminal investigation but the police decide no crime has been committed.
  • A child makes a disclosure to the police but is not believed.
  • The police investigate but decide no crime has been committed.
  • The police investigate and pass the file to the CPS who decide there is insufficient evidence for a prosecution.
  • The child, unable to face the prospect of giving evidence in court, withdraws the allegation.
  • The case results in an acquittal either on a legal technicality or in part because the complainant collapses under the pressure of cross-examination that he or she is insufficiently prepared for.
  • The investigation is halted because of political pressure.
If the inquiry is to do its job thoroughly, it needs to investigate each of the ways in which an abuse case might not receive the timely attention is requires. It will need to look at whether each item is a significant contributor to the overall failings, and if it is, what would need to be changed in order to fix this. Each element may require a different fix.

Proposals already exist for many of these elements, and it will be the task of the inquiry to decide whether they ought to be widely adopted. For instance, taking the very first item on the list above, the inquiry might decide that more needs to be done to improve age-appropriate sex education in schools in a way that would encourage children to disclose if they have been abused. The NSPCC has been looking at this area with its #TalkPANTS initiative and the Underwear Rule. The inquiry could look into whether this initiative should be included in the curriculum on sex education.

Each possible failure point will need to be looked into in the same level of detail if we are to thoroughly overhaul our child protection arrangements. There is probably no proposal or combination of proposals that can catch all abuse. But I'm sure we can do much better than we are at the moment.

In addition, we need to look into victim support, both for children and for adults who come forward to disclose abuse that they suffered in childhood. We don't want another case such as the shameful lack of support for Frances Andrade.

This is going to be a big job if done properly.