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Survivors of sexual abuse deserve more support – it’s time for the government to deliver

4 min read

Survivors who report their abuse to police are too often let down. It’s essential we build a criminal justice system they can be confident in, writes Sarah Champion

This week the APPG on Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse, which I chair, published its findings on ‘Survivors’ experiences of police and the Crown Prosecution Service.’

The report found that survivors who disclose their abuse to police are frequently let down as they journey through the criminal justice system. This is of serious concern as many survivors wait decades before disclosing their abuse. It is essential the Government builds a criminal justice system that survivors can be confident in yet the APPG found survivors fear they will only find re-traumatisation and unsuccessful outcomes.

Two in five survivors told our inquiry they were not taken seriously when they told the police about their sexual abuse. Survivors told how they faced long delays in their case without being apprised of progress by officers. Many felt forced to chase police for updates or clarity about next steps. While there were some examples of supportive, attentive police the majority of survivors felt officers did not understand the impact of the trauma they had experienced.

The safety of survivors after arrests are made in their case is also of paramount concern. Unique research by the APPG found that, in the year after reforms to pre-charge bail in the Policing and Crime Act 2017, the use of pre-charge bail on child sexual abuse suspects was down by 56 per cent, while the number of suspects ‘released under investigation’ was up by 1,047 per cent. In the 20 constabularies who responded to the Freedom of Information request, 2,993 were not prevented by bail conditions from contacting survivors or attending their home or place of work.

Survivors also felt let down by the Crown Prosecution Service. 64 per cent of the 365 survivors who participated in our survey did not see a charge brought in their case. At this devastating moment, survivors described being crudely told by criminal justice agencies with opaque, insensitive letters informing them their case had been dropped. Nine in 10 told the inquiry that the support provided to them at this point was poor or very poor.

The net effect of negative experiences is that it could act as a disincentive to reporting abuse, even when the survivor might be considering it. The inquiry found just over half of respondents to our survey had reported the abuse to police. Explaining their decision not to report, 30 per cent said a belief that police would not successfully prosecute was a factor; 27 per cent said a belief that police would be unsupportive inhibited them. 

Effective solutions lie in credible, transparent steps towards a justice system that puts the victim at the centre of all that it does. The safety of individuals reporting a crime is essential to a functioning society. 2017 reforms have led to an alarming drop in the use of pre-charge bail which must be reversed. The Government should create a presumption that those under investigation for sexual offences against children and adults (or other significant safeguarding issues) only be released from policy custody on bail.

This must be followed by the urgent introduction of the long-promised Victim’s Law, which should enshrine an updated Victim’s Code on the statute books. The updated Code should have national standards for timelines and updates so that survivors have clarity about what they can expect at every stage of their journey.

To improve the Code’s efficacy the Home Office should develop an accessible, nationally standardised leaflet for police to hand all survivors of abuse providing them with essential information, including: next steps; maximum waiting times for updates; police contacts; sources of information and support. This would enhance transparency for survivors and facilitate supportive police work.

Progress has been made in improving the response of statutory services to survivors of sexual violence and abuse in recent years. Yet there is much work still to be done before survivors can be confident they will find justice, and support, when they report abuse to police. Survivors have spoken, its time for the Government to not only listen, but deliver.

Sarah Champion is Labour MP for Rotherham and chair of the APPG on Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse




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