Recorded interviews of child sex abuse victims have revealed inappropriate questioning by police and poor compliance with guidelines on gathering evidence, according to a highly critical inspectorate report.
Rooms for interviewing vulnerable toddlers are rarely child-friendly, DVD recordings are at risk of being lost because they are inadequately labelled, and the needs of the child were considered in only a small proportion of cases reviewed, a combined criminal justice inquiry has warned.
The study by Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate (HMCPSI) and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) has recommended improved training and additional guidance for sensitive interviews with children, many of whom are often as young as four- or five-years-old.
The inspection came in the wake of the scandal over Jimmy Savile, and amid a sharp increase in the number of child sexual abuse and rape cases being investigated.
The criminal justice system is currently piloting the pre-recorded cross-examination of child witnesses in an effort to prevent them from going through a lengthy courtroom ordeal.
“Inappropriate praise or congratulations were communicated to the witness in several cases,” the report found. In one case an “interviewer encouraged the witness to touch the officer on the bottom to demonstrate the alleged offence”; in others the child was occasionally left alone.
“Too often interviewers focused on concepts which present difficulties for children, such as dates and times, length and frequency of events, and weight, height and age estimates. This was evident even in cases involving very young children,” the report, Achieving Best Evidence in Child Sexual Abuse Cases, noted.
Around 70 interviews were examined by the inspectorates, which found there was often insufficient preparation before children were questioned. The audio and visual quality of the recordings was not always satisfactory, the report found.
Interview rooms in which young victims give evidence appeared “sterile with little thought for putting children at ease, and not child-friendly”, the study added.
“Child sexual abuse witnesses and victims are being short-changed by the criminal justice system,” said Michael Fuller, the chief inspector of the CPS. “Police and [prosecutors] need to offer children more support for these delicate and often difficult interviews.
“We owe it to them to ensure that these pre-recorded interviews are carried out in a rigorous manner, to ensure fairness and to achieve the best evidence possible.”
Dru Sharpling, one of HM’s Inspectors of Constabulary, said: “We were very concerned to find that children in cases of sexual exploitation and rape are being let down. They aren’t being provided with the support they need to give their ‘best’ evidence to the court.
“Inspectors found poor compliance with best practice guidance, poor planning and quality assurance, and insufficient consideration of the needs of vulnerable children. The gap between best practice and actual practice is widening.”