Evidence of help

In recent years, the criminal justice system has been ensuring that children and other vulnerable witnesses are supported so that they can give the best possible evidence with minimum distress.

However, there has been growing concern that witnesses, particularly children, are being denied therapy pending the outcome of a criminal trial, for fear that evidence may be tainted.

In response the government published guidance confirming that children should not be denied the emotional support and counselling they may need both before and after the trial.1

However, concerns remain about how effectively this guidance is carried out nationally. In Warwickshire, the Sexualised Inappropriate Behaviour Service (Sibs) has sought to take a positive lead and has drawn up an interagency protocol to ensure that all parties are aware of any therapy proposed or undertaken and the likely impact that may have on the criminal case.

Warwickshire’s child pre-trial therapy planning group meets under the auspices of the area child protection committee to provide advice on pre-trial therapeutic work with child witnesses, says Sibs consultant practitioner Dr Andrew Durham.

As well as Durham, the group has representatives from psychological services, the police child protection unit, children’s team social worker (who presents the plan for therapeutic work) and, importantly, the Crown Prosecution Service. In addition to advice and guidance, the group assesses the likely impact of a therapeutic plan on any evidence planned to be produced at the criminal trial, and makes recommendations accordingly.

Permitting and, indeed, encouraging therapeutic support proved essential for 14-year-old Helen Jones.*

“Helen reported that she was sexually abused by Philip, her 26-year-old uncle, who had been living temporarily with the family,” says Durham. “The abuse happened over a three-month period and it stopped when Helen reported the abuse to her mother. Before this Helen had been reluctant to say anything because she knew that Philip was her mother’s favourite brother and that before the abuse she herself was close to Philip. Helen was extremely upset and distraught after disclosing this abuse and was anxious about having to appear in court. Nonetheless she wished for the case to be tried as Philip was denying the abuse despite there being medical evidence against him.

“Helen was having many difficulties in her life both at home and school, and was having mood swings and sleepless nights. Twice she ran away from school after being called names and she has often been found crying in her bedroom, saying that she keeps thinking about what has happened to her,” says Durham.

Helen’s therapeutic support was provided by her social worker, Alison Smiles, with Durham providing consultation. “In the pre-court phase, workers acknowledged the need and potential benefit for specific discussion about the abuse but at this stage focused on the development of a therapeutic relationship and addressing immediate support needs,” says Durham.

The plan included:

  • Discussing confidentiality.
  • Being safe, feeling safe, keeping safe.
  • Mapping a recovery plan with Helen.
  • Providing opportunity for Helen to discuss how she feels about her situation.
  • Locating responsibility.
  • Building on personal strengths to raise self-esteem and identity.
  • Identifying supporting people and key strategies for coping and help in understanding legal processes.
  • Linking Helen with the witness support service.

Building on that work, the post-court work addressed more specific post-abuse issues, including:

  • Discussing the abuse in detail.
  • Expressing and managing feelings.
  • Dealing with confusion, fear, anger and mixed feelings.
  • Coping with memories and flashbacks.
  • How and why it happened.
  • Age-appropriate sex and relationships education.
  • Being OK – feeling OK – moving on.

Such therapeutic work provided Helen with the support she needed as she dealt with conflicting emotions, while being sure she wanted to see her uncle convicted.

1 Home Office, Crown Prosecution Service and Department of Health, Provision for Therapy for Child Witnesses Prior to a Criminal Trial, 2001; see www.cps.gov.uk

* Not her real name


Scheme: Child pre-trial therapy planning group.

Location: Warwickshire, Midlands.

Inspiration: To ensure that therapeutic support is not denied to child witnesses for fear of tainting evidence.

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