Re-traumatising, re-triggering and disempowering – survivors of non-recent sexual abuse experiences of the criminal justice system

Re-traumatising, re-triggering and disempowering – survivors of non-recent sexual abuse experiences of the criminal justice system

Clare Jerrom speaks to Chris Tuck about her experiences as a survivor of non-recent child abuse in the criminal justice system.

Victims and survivors of non-recent child sexual abuse are experiencing delays in the investigation of their cases of three years plus, impacting their mental and physical health in what becomes an all-consuming battle for justice.

Chris Tuck

The average length of time it takes for a victim and survivor of child sexual abuse to disclose is seven years. Many are fearful of not being believed. They may be scared of the repercussions, feel shame, have misplaced loyalties to the abuser, or are terrified that telling someone could exacerbate the abuse.

However, on summoning the courage to speak out and disclose the abuse, victims and survivors may then face years of delays while their case is investigated if they choose to pursue the criminal justice route. Furthermore, on having their case investigated, the police or the CPS may say there is insufficient evidence and therefore no further action will be taken.

Chris Tuck, who is a member of the Victims and Survivors Consultative Panel for the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse says: “I’ve heard from many victims and survivors that delays in investigations of non-recent child sexual abuse are very common. My own family case started back in 2016. While delays of five years are less common, in my experience the standard duration for the investigation can be two to three years.”

Problems accessing records

Chris Tuck is an author, qualified health and fitness coach, Management Accountant, survivor and campaigner, working to raise awareness of the extent and impact of childhood abuse in the UK. She supports other victims and survivors in their own healing through a holistic programme encompassing mindset, health and nutrition, working both individually and in small groups, helping survivors to ‘break the cycle’ of low self­-esteem and limiting behaviours.

In this interview, Chris reflects on IICSA’s Victims and Survivors Forum report, which collates the views and experiences members of the Inquiry’s Forum have shared on the criminal justice system. As highlighted by Forum engagement report, delays can cause immeasurable distress and trauma for victims and survivors, on top of the abuse they have already endured. The prolonged cases may also act as a deterrent to other survivors reporting their abuse, in the knowledge that they could face an ongoing, lengthy battle which some do not feel they can face. What’s more, as Forum Members emphasised, the cases that do get to court often have a low conviction rate, which may be an additional barrier to reporting in the first place.

Forum members also told the Inquiry that:

-              When the system does not work, it can be extremely traumatic and in many cases, it can add to the trauma that victims and survivors have already faced.

-              Delays can have a huge impact on the health and wellbeing of victims and survivors.

-              Delays may be attributed to the officer's caseload, lack of resources, liaison with the CPS or other police forces and the complexity of the disclosure process.

-              It was not uncommon to hear examples of Forum Members waiting up to three years before going to trial.

-              There were also delays in victims and survivors accessing support services - one Forum member said that in their local area, the waiting list for a counselling service was five years.

Research from the Inquiry’s Truth Project indicates that victims and survivors of non-recent sexual abuse can have high rates of physical and mental health problems following the trauma that they have endured. Chris emphasises that she’s heard from many victims and survivors who live with the symptoms of an illness but just don’t realise it’s linked to the abuse they have experienced. Yet often their ill mental and physical health ends up worsening during prolonged and protracted cases where they feel they are battling for justice against the odds.

“We heard from Forum Members that accessing records such as those for health, school and social care can be a key cause of delays. Often it comes back that the records were lost in a basement flood or fire. Having access to these records is often imperative to proving their case. Police also have to speak to witnesses and, in cases of non-recent abuse, they need to track them down - some may no longer be alive. We also heard that communication between institutions such as the CPS and police can also cause immense delays. This can often be fuelled by heavy caseloads of both current and non recent cases simultaneously being worked on.”

“It’s generally backlogs and communication,” she adds. “I do understand that current crimes of abuse are often less difficult to investigate due to forensics being more easily available compared to cases of non-recent abuse. But in terms of priorities, I believe that every case should have the same importance.”

‘Just a case number, not a human’

Chris is very clear that when victims and survivors have taken the courageous step to disclose abuse to the Police, the case can be all consuming. “Once you’ve disclosed the abuse, you live and breathe the case; it is always in the back of your mind, 24/7. It was clear from the Inquiry’s Forum members that some victims and survivors are able to compartmentalise, whilst others are prevented from getting on with anything else in their life because they are so consumed by the investigation and the impact of the trauma on them. I can work and be productive in between appointments and updates in relation to the case. But when I have to produce evidence or find out the next steps to progress the case, it takes everything out of me. It is completely exhausting!”

“Forum Members also said that the criminal justice system can be very disempowering. At the beginning of the Police investigation you give your evidence via an (ABE) Achieving Best Evidence video and after that you just feel like a case number, sitting in a backlog rather than an actual person,” explains Chris. “Forum Members told us about last minute changes to appointments, meetings or telephone calls being common and can knock you for six. You have to prepare yourself mentally and emotionally. Some people arrange to take time off work to enable them to concentrate. Others make arrangements for their children to stay elsewhere so there are no distractions from the appointment or meeting. Then when it is cancelled or postponed, you are just floored.”

Chris continues “It can be exhausting, it can be distressing. When you are abused, you are disempowered. Silenced. You have no control and no say in anything. When you are promised that you will be kept updated on your case and your not, your trust is broken and it can trigger the emotional thinking you had when you were abused. You know you’re not being abused but the situation makes you feel disempowered and like you have no say in anything.”

“I believe that there is no malice there and I’m sure they don’t intend the victim to feel the way they do. But from a victim and survivor’s perspective it can be devastating, and there needs to be more understanding of that within the criminal justice system,” she says.

Re-triggering and re-traumatising

Another problem linked to the prolonged nature of the investigations can be staff turnover. So while a victim and survivor might have given their evidence to one police officer, if that officer leaves or moves to a different force, or evidence is lost, they may have to go through it again with someone new, all of which can be re-traumatising and triggering.

Chris reflects on the experiences of those who shared as part of the Inquiry’s Forum event, stating that disclosure can take all of someone’s emotional and physical energy and they will need time to process it. To have to go through it all again is soul-destroying for many, particularly if they are disclosing to someone who is not used to dealing with non-recent abuse cases. “If that was the case, I’d rather just speak to the specialist police officer from the outset rather than repeating myself if that person wasn’t going to be investigating the case.”

While the protracted and distressing nature of investigation can deter some victims and survivors from disclosing or reporting, Chris said that once she had decided she wanted justice, nothing could put her off. And while it has been distressing for her and her family, it was the right thing for them to do, she adds, even though she has experienced a lot of the things that she was warned about.

“When you hear the high levels of attrition rates and high number of cases where there is no further action, along with low conviction rates, you do think, why am I doing this?” said Chris.

Emotional support is overlooked

“The fear of not being believed is monumental,” Chris says. Forum Members emphasised that summoning up the courage to report, only to be told that they cannot find the records which once existed is again disempowering. Without the records, you have no evidence.

Chris says that when victims and survivors disclose and report abuse, as a victim of crime they should automatically be told about Victim Support. However the impact of trauma from child sexual abuse needs specialist support and this is often not acknowledged, spoken about or provided.

“Victims and survivors at the Inquiry’s Forum engagement event said it is preferable for them not to have pre-trial therapy because by talking about the abuse repeatedly, wording can change slightly which can cause problems. Therefore, the need for emotional support can be completely overlooked, something which is not helped by the fact that victims and survivors often don’t know their rights,” said Chris.

Continuing to reflect on the views of Forum Members, Chris adds that the role of the Independent Sexual Violence Adviser (ISVA) is crucial, but says that unfortunately, accessing them can be a postcode lottery. The nature of the support that an ISVA provides will vary from case to case and will depend on the needs of the individual and their particular circumstances. Chris adds that their role is to “hold the victim and or survivor emotionally in a safe space during the investigation and to help them deal with statutory agencies while the police get on with the investigation”.

For some, the impact is too much…

Chris says that victims and survivors are often offered six sessions through Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPTs), but six sessions alone may not be enough for the survivor to even build trust with the counsellor, given their experience. Chris has also heard that IAPT may refer individuals on to specialist services if they have suffered trauma from sexual abuse. Accessing third sector therapy can be more beneficial, she adds, as the therapy tends to be longer, person-centred and trauma-informed due to the complex needs of the victim or survivor.

“When the time comes that victims and survivors recognise they need help and support, they are usually in crisis. We don’t like asking for support as it makes us feel vulnerable. To then hear that there are huge delays in accessing an appropriate specialist support service can have a massive impact on victims and survivors,” said Chris. “For some, they will be happy to know that they are on a waiting list and will eventually get support. For others, the impact will be too much…and they are no longer here.”

In IICSA’s Forum engagement report, some victims and survivors described meeting with their barristers just moments before their trial, preventing any kind of relationship or trust being formed. Chris says: “We have trust issues and we need to know that whoever is working with us or representing us is doing their best – but how can they do that if they don’t even know us or our case?”

Furthermore, victims and survivors at the Forum event spoke of feeling ill-prepared for the court case, despite the huge wait for the trial. “Unless you have an ISVA you are relying on the police and courts to communicate effectively with you and you end up chasing everyone for answers. People promise to come back to you with an answer but may get held up on other cases and competing priorities and they don’t have the time to keep you informed. But to you, it’s everything. That is why you end up feeling like a case number rather than a human being.”

Walking away

The report also describes how Forum Members were supportive of increased regulation of the conduct of defence barristers. They referred to what they believed was the use of underhand tactics by defence teams at trial. “I have heard from other victims and survivors that their sexual histories were brought up, the way they were dressed, how much alcohol they had to drink. What have any of these things got to do with the abuse? Nothing!”

“I do know of many people who have dropped their cases due to the delays and the decline in their health as a result. They just want to walk away as they can’t deal with it any longer,” says Chris.

While frequent reports and consultations have highlighted what needs to happen for the criminal justice system to be better suited to the needs of victims and survivors of non-recent abuse, little has changed.

Chris says “I would like to see more proactive communication. This would really empower victims and survivors and make us feel listened to, rather than being just a case number. A single point of contact to reduce stress and anxiety would also be beneficial. Whilst accessing ISVAs isn’t always standard, they do make a positive difference. In the absence of an ISVA, someone to provide help and support would be of great benefit – especially when a case ends in ‘no further action’ which can be soul destroying.”

“Finally, a timeline helping victims and survivors to see from the outset of the investigation what to expect and when. These things would make a massive difference to the appalling experience that, sadly, so many victims and survivors have.”

Chris concludes by explaining that whilst many victims and survivors choose not to go down the criminal justice route, they may want to share how they were failed, and how the system can be improved. She adds that IICSA’s Truth Project is a safe and supportive opportunity for them to do so; it’s now heard from over 5,600 victims and survivors.

The Inquiry is encouraging victims and survivors to share their experiences with the Truth Project before it concludes in October 2021. Experiences can be shared in writing. Visit The Truth Project website for more information.

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