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February 07, 2005

Courts 'add to child abuse ordeal'

February 7, 2005 [The Guardian} United Kingdom
By Clare Dyer, legal correspondent

Child victims of sex abuse are traumatised all over again by the court system, according to a study of child witnesses published today.

Children giving evidence in court are routinely accused of lying and suffer distress, including breaking down in tears, while those enduring the long wait for their cases to come to court resort to self-harm, suicide attempts, bedwetting and truancy.

The NSPCC, which commissioned the research with Victim Support, is launching a campaign today to raise £3.2m to help child witnesses through the trauma of giving evidence.

The television personality Noel Edmonds, chairman of the Caring for Children in Court Appeal, said: "It cannot be right in a modern society that children who have suffered so much are treated in this way. We are failing our children if courts don't make the best possible attempts to hear their evidence."

Joyce Plotnikoff and Richard Woolfson interviewed 50 children and young people between seven and 17 who gave evidence in court, 32 in sex offence cases. The children felt intimidated in court and some said appearing as a witness had been as traumatic as the original abuse.

Half did not understand the words or phrases being used in court, just under half said they had been accused of lying, and more than half said they had been very upset, distressed or angry. A fifth of those said they had cried, felt sick or sweated.

One child said: "The defence wasn't nice. He was horrible. He said I was a liar. No one warned me beforehand that he'd say that. I don't feel I got to say everything I wanted to."

The parent of a 14-year-old witness told the researchers the case was not about getting to the truth but about skills, money and technique.

Mr Edmonds said: "This new research is as explosive as it is depressing. Children said they were shouted at, accused of lying, and were confused and upset by the long words used by lawyers, often when they were the victims of serious crimes."

The NSPCC also said children were having to wait unacceptably long periods of time before the cases reached court - on average almost a year - despite longstanding government policy to give priority to child abuse cases.

The charity is calling for more pre-trial support, lawyers and judges to ensure that children understand what they are being asked, an end to aggressive questioning, and monitoring of delays.

The NSPCC lawyer Barbara Esam said: "Suffering child abuse and then having to speak publicly about the experience is an ordeal for a young witness. The NSPCC believes all children must receive pre-trial support to reduce their trauma and help them give the best possible evidence."

The charity is fundraising to ensure its young witness services, which help children and their families with giving evidence, can continue.

Posted by Nancy at February 7, 2005 12:09 AM