New program for child sexual abuse evidence in NSW Courts

A pilot program for child sexual abuse victim evidence has been rolled out in Newcastle and Sydney Downing Centre courts.  The trial reached its halfway point this month with the delivery of a UNSW report Evaluation of the Child Sexual Offence Evidence Pilot (the Evaluative Report). The program is the first of its kind in Australia and focuses on shielding victims of child sexual abuse from their attackers while they are giving evidence, lessening the usually traumatic process of a court case.


The pilot program

The program (established in November 2015 by the Criminal Procedure Amendment (Child Sexual Offence Evidence Pilot) Act 2015 (NSW)) is based on the following components:

  • introducing measures to expand the use of pre-recorded evidence given by child victims
  • pre-recording of cross examination closer to the initial interview by Police to combat memory loss, a key recommendation of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse
  • appointment of “Children’s Champions” (Witness Intermediaries), based on the UK Witness Intermediary Scheme, specially trained to help children through the court process
  • providing for the appointment of specialist District Court judges trained in the management of child sexual assault matters
  • dispensing with the usual formality of the court where possible.

The Evaluative Report assessed the implementation and outcomes of the pilot program which will run for a total of three years (from 31 March 2016 until 31 March 2019) under the administration of Victims Services and the Department of Justice. Significant applications for its initiatives can be seen for other areas, including expanding the program to adults with a disability. Due to risks identified in the Report to future expansion, the Evaluative Report has recommended that the final outcomes reporting date be brought forward to mid-2018.


Court process and child sexual abuse

The pilot program was introduced in response to the high attrition rate in child sexual assault cases – the ABC News reports that in 2015, “about 6,500 child sexual offences [were] reported… but only 800 people prosecuted.”

According to the independent program review, the high attrition rate is due to:

  • stress on child victims from the court process
  • long duration of child victims’ interaction with the court
  • lack of child-friendly language and processes used in court communication, interview and evidence presentation.

The new pilot program combats these issues by enabling minimal pre-recorded evidence for child victims under the age of 16 and communicating at all stages in language which is appropriate to the child’s developmental stage and communication needs.


Teachers can be Children’s Champions

The pilot program introduces Children’s Champions (Witness Intermediaries) to the justice process. Under Regulation 109 of the Criminal Procedure Regulation 2017 (NSW), Children’s Champions are accredited professionals from Speech Pathology, Social Work, Psychology, Teaching or Occupational Therapy. Their role is to assess child victims and witness’ communication needs and inform Police and the court of the best ways to communicate with the child giving evidence.

The Children’s Champion conducts a thorough assessment of the child’s communication needs at two stages in the process – prior to the Police interview and again prior to the pre-recording of evidence at court. The Children’s Champion also attends court during the pre-recorded hearing. The Evaluative Report noted that one of the key concerns raised about Children’s Champions is that the their title is problematic and it suggests they have an advocacy or support role, rather than being an independent and impartial participant in the process.

Schools in NSW need to be aware that any of their casual or part time teaching staff could also be currently contracted in contractor roles as Children’s Champions for the purposes of the pilot scheme. These roles may turn into full time roles in the future if the pilot program is deemed successful.


Impact of court cases on children and lessons for schools

Schools should be aware that any continuing court case has the potential to impact on the safety and wellbeing of the children in their care. The children may be giving evidence or otherwise involved, either under the program currently being trialled in NSW, or in more traditional courtrooms, like the new special victims presumption just passed in the Victims of Crime Assistance and Other Legislation Amendment Act 2017 (QLD).

Some symptoms of distress, according to Department of Education Guidelines for children, could include:

  • re-experiencing memories of trauma
  • avoidance
  • emotional distress
  • behaviour changes
  • academic difficulties or decline in school performance
  • increase in physical complaints e.g. Headaches, stomach aches which cause the student to be absent from school more frequently
  • relationship difficulties with friends or other family members

Teachers should be able to identify any early signs of distress, remembering that children may react to trauma differently. Teachers can help children in their care by:

  • monitoring symptoms over time
  • maintaining routines
  • setting firm expectations of behaviour
  • using a buddy or support system
  • providing choices including a choice to talk about any traumatic event so the child can regain some control
  • providing safe relaxation spaces

Schools and teachers should also review their school’s Pastoral Care Policy and counselling services and know when it is appropriate to refer children to other professionals for further treatment.

Lauren Osbich is a Legal Research Consultant and School Governance reporter. She can be contacted here.

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