1 Mar 2022

Child sex abuse claimants need more support in court - experts

8:31 am on 1 March 2022

Warning: This story discusses sexual abuse

Children who give evidence in sexual violence trials are often traumatised by the experience and more support services are needed to help them through the process, experts say.

no caption

Photo: 123RF

Kathryn McPhillips, a clinical psychologist and the executive director of sexual abuse support organisation HELP Auckland, said adults giving evidence in sexual violence trials could access support through NGOs, which received government funding, but there was not adequate support available for children facing the court room.

"If adults need that support, children and young people need that even more," she said.

Her comments come after RNZ reported that a child who was indecently assaulted by his firefighter father vomited for a week after being cross-examined in court. His abuser's lawyer had repeatedly asked him if he was lying.

Research was released last year by the office of the Chief Victim's Advisor Dr Kim McGregor. That's A Lie! found children in New Zealand courts were frequently asked leading questions, accused of lying, and subjected to myths about sexual assault to challenge the plausibility of their evidence.

Dr McGregor said in 13 out of the 15 trial transcripts analysed, the children were accused of lying.

"It's very distressing for children to be accused by a professional adult, when they're on the stand, of lying. The power differential is quite stark," she said.

That's A Lie! showed one six-year-old was even asked if she liked it when her grandfather put his finger in her vagina.

The Chief Victim's Advisor, Dr Kim McGregor, told RNZ a children's support service was "very much needed", especially as most people under 16 who gave evidence in court were there as complainants in sexual violence cases.

Children were the victims of more than 65 percent of all the sexual violence charges filed in 2020/2021, Ministry of Justice statistics show.

"So, we've got a lot of children going through our courts, but what we don't have is a tailored, national support service for children," McGregor said.

A 2021 Oranga Tamariki report also said there was a shortage of specialised support for young victims of sexual crimes, and a particular shortage of Kaupapa Māori services.

Justice Minister Kris Faafoi acknowledged court could be a "foreign, intimidating, and re-traumatising environment".

But he said the Sexual Violence Legislation Act, passed in December, would improve children's experience in court.

The Act imposes a duty on judges to intervene if complainants are asked unacceptable questions, requires judges to talk to the jury to dispel sexual violence myths that are brought into a case and entitles children to be cross-examined and give evidence via pre-recording.

Faafoi also said there was already a number of services in place to help support children through the court process.

"For those who need assistance in relation to sexual violence cases, there are Sexual Violence Court Victim Advisors who can talk children through the process," he said.

McGregor said she hoped the Sexual Violence Legislation Act would improve children's experiences but it was too early to say for sure if it would.

She said court victim advisors were not well enough resourced to offer tailored support for children.

"Some court victim advisors have something like, you know, one to 300 cases that they're dealing with. So they can't sit in court. They can't be court support for victims going through the court system."

As well as supporting children, she said a specialist service would also be valuable in better preparing them for court.

A 2017 Auckland University study included an interview with one child who had been through the sexual violence court and had misunderstood what going to court meant. She had thought it would be like a netball or tennis court she could play on and that it would make her feel better.

McGregor said more substantive court preparation could focus on teaching children to say when they did not understand a question or did not know the answer, which would be helpful for them and would improve the evidence the court heard. Children could also be prepared for what cross-examination questioning would be like, she said.

"If children and their families were given very fulsome information - that witness familiarisation process might take one or two hours or a little bit longer - but that preparation is so important. And it's important that it's done from a child development perspective, so it has to be age-appropriate. We don't have that facility at the moment."

McPhillips said in the longer term she hoped New Zealand would stop sending children into a court system that was designed for adults and was "often damaging" for them.

"It's inappropriate, it's not child-centered. The court set-up is established, really, for adults making allegations against other adults. What I'd really like to see as a nation is that we put children at the centre of these processes and go, is court the way we run it? Is court appropriate at all? Or do we need to develop a whole other legal process that actually makes the victim - the child victim in particular, but all victims - just as important as the rights of the alleged offender.

"People talk about, 'Oh, but the consequence for the alleged offender are so great that really we must bend over backwards for them'. Really that's not seeing the consequences for the victim. The consequences for these victims are mostly life long and they can be horrendous."

Where to get help:

Family Violence

Women's Refuge:(0800 733 843

It's Not OK 0800 456 450

Shine: 0508 744 633

Victim Support: 0800 842 846

HELP Call 24/7 (Auckland): 09 623 1700, (Wellington): be 04 801 6655 - 0

The National Network of Family Violence Services NZ has information on specialist family violence agencies.

Sexual Violence

NZ Police

Victim Support 0800 842 846

Rape Crisis 0800 88 33 00

Rape Prevention Education

Empowerment Trust

HELP Call 24/7 (Auckland): 09 623 1700, (Wellington): be 04 801 6655 - 0

Safe to talk: a 24/7 confidential helpline for survivors, support people and those with harmful sexual behaviour: 0800044334.

Male Survivors Aotearoa

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs