Category Archives: Courts

Reporting child abuse is only the start

On one side a shabby council estate, on the other side a pitch-dark park. Not the kind of street I particularly enjoy walking along.

Not the kind of place either that small children should be unsupervised at 8.45 on a Saturday night.

But that’s where I came across them. Three boys involved in a vicious fight.

I heard them before I saw them, a string of F***s coming from the older one as he smashed the little one’s head against the park railings, adding the occasional furious punch to the guts.

At a rough guess I’d say they were aged about six and nine – at the most.

“It’s alright, they’re brothers” said the third one as I waded in.

“It’s not alright” I said, lowering my voice slightly from the initial “OI STOP THAT” yelled when I first saw them, and physically pulling them apart.

The older one stomped off. A little ball of fury chocking back tears. His younger brother sniffled along a few yards behind.

They seemed so vulnerable – and I don’t mean to each other. What were they doing out alone on a cold dark night?  It occurred to me to march them home, but to what? I didn’t fancy a confrontation with whoever was supposed to be in charge of these kids.

What about calling the police? I thought about that too but I was late for the event I was supposed to be at, the police probably had better things to do on a Saturday evening and besides, what could they actually do for these boys other than maybe, for that night at least, get them off the street?

Which brings me to Keir Starmer’s call for mandatory reporting of child abuse allegations.

It’s a perfectly laudable aim in many ways. But my question for him is: then what happens?

The failure of health, education and social care professionals to report suspicions of abuse is appalling – when it happens. But it’s not the only obstacle to protecting children. Far from it.

Manipulative parents are good at running rings around hard-pressed professionals. We’ve seen it time and again. Worse, as I’ve written here before, vulnerable young people are too often simply not believed.

It’s true that many of Jimmy Savile’s victims were dismissed or told to keep quiet when they reported abuse to hospital or school staff. But when allegations did get as far as the police, “Jimmy” (as the interviewing officer called the star throughout his interview) ran rings around them.  Just take a look at the transcript to see how it was Savile, not the police running the show, dismissing his victims as hangers-on hoping for some cash.

Similarly in the appalling case of four year old Daniel Pelka, starved and tortured to death by his mother and her partner. Of course teachers and doctors should have done more, but it’s not as if the police didn’t know there was a serious problem in the family.

They had visited the boy’s home 26 times in the years before his death. As the official case review said, Daniel was “invisible,” while his mother had a remarkable ability to “hoodwink” anyone who questioned his health.

And remember the young women raped repeatedly by the gang of Rochdale men who then trafficked them to countless others? Social services let them down badly for sure.

But one girl did go to the police. She told her horrific story, she even provided samples of her attackers DNA. The police believed her and arrested two men. But the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to prosecute. The teenager was too damaged to be a credible witness in court, they said. The men were released without charge and the abuse continued.

So, Keir Starmer, by all means change the law to compel professionals to report allegations. But only if we go further and rethink the way in which those allegations are investigated. To start with, police, social workers, schools and health services have to work more closely together. In the words of the Pelka case review, there must be a more “holistic” approach.

And yes, maybe neighbours and even strangers in the street have to get involved too.

But joining up the dots is only the start. Once the allegations are reported, investigators must listen to the victims. And everyone – police, CPS, judges and juries – needs to remember that authority figures, whether parents or TV stars, sometimes lie. Just because a young person is vulnerable or damaged doesn’t mean they can’t be believed.

Focus on abuse of women not welfare

Sometimes hell – or in this case, England – does freeze over and one finds oneself agreeing with Ann Widdecombe.

The former Conservative MP once spent a week with the Philpott family in Derbyshire, making a TV documentary about trying to get feckless father, Mick, off state benefits and into work.

The no-nonsense Ms Widdecombe quickly got the sum of the man. In interviews following his conviction for the manslaughter of six of his children, she’s described his “pent up aggression.”

She was shocked by his habit of addressing his wife and mistress as “bitch,” and his descriptions of “servicing” the two women on alternate nights. She concluded that Mick Philpott, father of 17 children by at least five women, was “a very controlling, very manipulative, entirely egocentric man.”

That fits exactly with what the judge said when sentencing him to life in jail. She detailed a history that included a conviction (and remarkably short prison sentence) for repeatedly stabbing a former girlfriend who had the temerity to leave him.  There had been violence in every relationship, the Judge said. He had groomed teenagers as sexual partners, taken money from his wife, even denied her and his mistress keys to the house where they all lived.

That’s the back-story but the debate over the case has been manipulated to fit the current political agenda. Mick Philpott didn’t work, he hadn’t had a job in years. He claimed all the state support he could and pocketed the child benefit attached to his kids.

“Vile Product of Welfare UK” screamed the Daily Mail. The Sun hoped that “this is the last time the state unwittingly subsidises the manslaughter of children”.

The predictable outrage and counter-outrage about welfare budgets is too appalling to even begin to address.

So let’s turn our gaze from money to people: The women whose lives Philpott made hell – his wife (also jailed today for her part in the manslaughter of her own children), former mistress, former wife, numerous former girlfriends. They were amongst the estimated 1.2 million women who suffer domestic abuse in the UK each year.

It may be a well-known statistic but it bears repeating: On average, two women a week are killed by a current or former male partner in the UK. One in four women will be a victim of abuse at some point in their life. In any one year, 750,000 children will witness abuse in their homes.

Domestic violence was recently described by a senior police officer as “the single greatest cause of harm in society”.

And yet all over the country, services that help these women are being cut. Refuges, rape crisis centres, domestic violence outreach programmes have all suffered as councils have had their budgets slashed.

Late last year, the charity Women’s Aid, reported an estimated 27,900 women turned away from the first place they approached for help because of funding cuts.

One of the refuges faced with closure in the coming months is in Derby. That’s the city where Mick Philpott lived and where his children died in a fire he master-minded in a fury at having lost control over one of the women in his life.

And those are just the cuts to existing services. Where are the desperately needed funds for training the police and specialist prosecutors in domestic violence cases? The money to provide more support for victims when they get up enough courage to testify against an abuser?

These aren’t luxuries, they can break the chain of violence. Can it be right that despite a history that included stabbing a former girlfriend almost to death and head-butting a colleague, Mick Philpott was given only a police caution when, two years ago, he slapped his wife and dragged her outside by her hair?

Mick Philpott certainly milked the benefits system, that is clear. But what he did and what he was doesn’t tell us anything at all about the Welfare State. He is not “typical” of anything other than a controlling, abusing, violent man. There are more out there. There will therefore be more victims and our outrage should be directed at the lack of help available for them

 

 

Lessons from the Savile saga

(First posted October 2012)

Stoke Mandeville hospital is being urged to open one. The BBC’s already started two. There’s another at the Department of Health.

The inquiries into Jimmy Savile’s abuse of children are mushrooming almost as fast as the sickening stories of what the TV showman did to dozens of teenaged girls (and, reportedly, some boys too.)

Still the Labour party wants more: one big, over-arching, independent inquiry into what Ed Miliband rightly called the “horrific allegations.” Putting aside the Labour leader’s knee-jerk inquiry-itis, he – like the BBC and all the others now investigating the past – is missing an important point.

Why was one man able to get away with abusing young people for so long? Because, as some of the victims have said, he told them if they raised the alarm and ratted on “King Jimmy” they would not be believed.

And he was right.

While 58% of rape cases that make it to court result in a conviction (not all for rape, sometimes for a lesser offence) only 13% of rapes recorded by the police end in any kind of conviction at all.

Convictions for sex offences against those under 18 are going up, but they still account for less than 10% of the total recorded by the police. (And I’m talking about the ones who report the allegations. Surveys suggest 34% of 11-17 year olds who’ve been abused by an adult do not tell anyone at all about it.)

Why? Well you could ask one of the 15 year olds raped repeatedly by the notorious Rochdale grooming gang. She told the police what had been going on and they believed her. But the Chief Prosecutor in the area decided “she would not be viewed as a credible witness by a jury” and shelved the case. The abuse continued.

“Not a credible witness.” As any reporter (myself included) who’s covered stories of alleged sexual abuse knows, that simple phrase can kill a journalistic investigation stone dead. It goes hand in hand with demands by victims for anonymity – completely understandable but tricky when building a bullet-proof case.

And what does “credible mean?” Well, for a case to get as far as a court room, prosecutors must be satisfied “there is evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction” In sex abuse cases that’s hard because usually the only witnesses are the victim and the perpetrator.

In incidents involving children or teenagers it’s even harder. They will be asked detailed questions in court and, usually traumatised, will fail to remember dates, times, places and other details that the defence will almost certainly demand. Telling the truth is one thing, doing it “credibly” is another.

Then there are those whose very vulnerability is what led to them being preyed on in the first place. Jimmy Savile is accused of exploiting several young people who turned up for his TV shows. That’s opportunism, but there’s a calculated cunning in the stories of his prowling the corridors of Stoke Mandeville and Broadmoor hospitals.

And let’s not forget the special “treats” he distributed when he rolled up to Duncroft Approved School for “disturbed girls.” As at least one of the pupils there has now said, they reported the abuse to school authorities but were told to hush their filthy mouths. How could they be believed – Jimmy was a star, while they were just “disturbed.”

How could a Rochdale teenager be believed when her violent and degrading sexual history meant (according to some social workers) she was clearly on the game? Several of the other teenagers came from chaotic families or were living in care. Meaning nobody much cared when police and social workers decided it was a “lifestyle choice” for a kid to hang out with older, abusive men.

The vulnerable are by no means the only people ever abused but they are often the easy targets. And the same factors that make them vulnerable, make them difficult to believe in the cut and thrust of our adversarial courts.

Of course, it’s right as a principle that the Crown Prosecution Service should need solid evidence to bring a case. That’s how our justice system works. In criminal trials the individual is assumed innocent and the far more powerful state has to prove beyond reasonable doubt that they’re not.

But as Jimmy Savile proved, sometimes it’s the individual who’s got the power. The state is weak and that weakness means the victims are failed.

So should we change the rules of evidence in sex abuse cases? Educate juries about credibility and vulnerability? Improve police, prosecution and social work training and skills so that the abused are listened to, supported and given a more powerful voice?

There are many questions (and I haven’t even touched on a celebrity culture that puts creeps like Savile on a pedestal nor on his aggressive use of charity as a weapon to keep him there.)

As for answers, they won’t be found in the endless inquiries of institutions guilt-ridden at being duped by an exploitative man.

What we need is a task force, a commission or a national debate to put right a system and a culture that repeatedly fails the powerless.