Monday, March 19, 2018

Helping child witnesses: 'One girl gave evidence with a hamster on her lap'

 https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/feb/17/child-witnesses-one-girl-evidence-hamster

They might be victims of rape, or witnesses to murder. But can they really be relied upon to tell the truth at trial?
Knitted doll figures of a policeman and judge used by intermediaries who help children give evidence


Toys in a playroom run by Triangle, an organisation that helps children give evidence. Photograph: Lydia Goldblatt for the Guardian In the playroom, perched high above suburban rooftops, it feels as if you’re sailing in a sturdy little boat. Outside, beyond the fields, the sea is a strip of hazy grey-blue that glows silver where it meets the sky. Here on the floor is the scattered residue of a child at play: plastic tractors and fire engines spilling from a big red box, half-done puzzles, doll’s house furniture left awry. On a shelf sit the smiling knitted figures of a policeman and circuit judge, the details meticulously rendered, right down to the judge’s red sash and purple-trimmed robes.Through a pair of open doors in the adjoining interview room – the green room, they call it, on account of the carpet and the cushions – Ruth Marchant and a police detective sit in a pair of battered mock leather armchairs, reflecting on their afternoon’s work. The boy they have been talking to hasn’t made any allegations, but his reaction when the man it’s feared has abused him is mentioned – his erratic breathing, the way he starts to rock – makes the detective feel sure he has something to tell. She wraps one skinny-jeaned leg over the other. “It’s there, isn’t it?” Beside them is a child’s version of their chairs, startlingly minuscule by comparison.Marchant is a registered intermediary, one of a small band of communications experts who help children and vulnerable adults give evidence at police interview and trial. Here at Triangle, the organisation she co-directs, she specialises in assisting police from around the country interview children as young as two who have either suffered, or seen, some of the most horrible crimes imaginable. Many are victims of rape or sexual assault; others are the only witness to the murder of a parent or sibling.A careful, watchful woman who dresses neutrally, speaks softly and often appears to be hiding behind a heavy fringe, Marchant is driven by a fierce conviction that children, far from being passive, silent victims, can be “competent communicators”, capable of giving accurate and coherent evidence – if the grownups around them can only make it possible. For her and her colleagues on a small business park outside Brighton, the idea that children don’t tell is “the great myth of our times”.‘What did it feel like?’ The boy is six. He starts to write: dis-gu-stingThe statistics bear them out. Child sexual abuse offences recorded by police in England and Wales more than doubled over three years to hit a record 49,330 in 2015/16 – some 2,800 of them against children under five – and not just because of the tide of historical offences reported in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal. The number of under fives working with registered intermediaries has soared, too, from 124 in England and Wales in 2012 toIt is six months later, and I’m sitting in a windowless courtroom. It is unremittingly 1970s in design, all orangey-brown wood and sickly yellow light. From their padded seats, the jury gaze up at a TV screen, where a video shows Marchant and a police officer waiting in Triangle’s green room. A small boy in shorts, his fourth birthday only a month behind him, bounces in and sits down, his arms tucked by his sides. In the dock are his mother and stepfather.“Can you tell me what you’re here to talk about?” the officer asks. A mumble, then silence. She tries again, rewording the question. The boy puts his his head on one side and shrugs. He has soft hair and fat little hands.Marchant asks him to draw the defendants, and he sets to work, leaning forward in his chair. He mentions the bath, and now there are some answers, but they are short and at times confusing. All the time the boy keeps moving, finishing pictures, handing them over. You can hear his breathing, deep and deliberate. He has a break, but gets more and more restless, wriggling in his chair and shaking his head wildly, his hair a blur. By the end of the interview, he is sitting on the floor with his back to the wall.There are two more videos – the boy was interviewed three times over the course of a long investigation – and as the jury watch, chins in hands, he gradually outlines a picture of sustained abuse. He is six in the third recording, and shrinks into his chair, grimacing as he answers the officer’s questions. “What did it feel like?” she asks. The boy reaches for a pen and slowly starts to write. He leans back. “Dis-gu-sting,” he reads, without looking up.A child’s involvement with Triangle starts with a letter, telling them their help is needed, and with pictures of the building. At their initial meeting, they are assessed to determine their communication abilities and what will help them at interview. A filmed interview, to be played at trial as their evidence in chief, can follow the same day, or come later.Some are so frightened they struggle to get through the door, so their first encounter with staff is an important moment. “I might make myself very small, so I’ll be crouching right down and trying to get myself on a lower level than a child,” says Lucy Turner. Tall and gainly with large, expressive eyes, she finds out what toy or activity a child really loves and puts it in the doorway.There’s a much-loved slide on the stairs. 'Some children, when they’ve been talking, just need to go up and down'There is plenty of extreme behaviour in the green room: children masturbate, undress, get into sexual positions. Marchant points at the carpet, which was chosen specially. “It’s incredibly expensive pure wool,” she says, a trace of her east London roots in her voice. “You can’t get a friction burn, whatever you do.”But there are less obvious signs of anguish, too: the children whose hearts she can see beating under their T-shirts; the ones who flush, then go white; the ones who sweat or freeze.A big part of the intermediary’s job is regulating the child’s emotional state. For some that means stopping them from getting too hyper, but for others – those whose hearts beat slower, who go blue around the mouth – it’s about preventing them “dipping off the bottom”. “Those are children who, I think, while remembering are going back to what worked at the time,” Marchant says. “Children who’ve learned to stay alive by keeping very, very quiet and very, very still.” A playroom and interview room. Photograph: Lydia Goldblatt for the GuardianSimply telling a child to breathe rarely works, so they’re given bubbles to blow, recorders to play, or drinks that you have to work hard to suck, like Fruit Shoots. Breaks in the playroom, with another staff member, play an essential role. “Sometimes they come out and they need an ‘up’ break, so they need to be running about and jumping on the trampoline, or kicking a ball,” says Laetitia De Klerck, who often supports young children at interview. “Sometimes they need to be more calm and settled, so you do things like puzzles or colouring.” There’s a much-loved slide on the stairs outside the playroom. “Some children, when they’ve been talking, just need to go up and down, up and down,” explains Maxime Cole, another co-director and support specialist. She has a nose piercing and wears patterned Dr Martens boots. They’ve never had injuries, she’s quick to add – not among the children anyway. “There was a judge, and a policeman,” she says, her voice trailing off. “They basically just went too fast.”Triangle’s intermediaries employ an arsenal of toys that children can fiddle with to keep calm and focused – squeezy things, fluffy things, magnetic things. Once they know what works, they’ll bring them to trial, where children give evidence via live video link, either from a room elsewhere in the court building or a remote site.There are bigger things that get transferred, too – “special measures” that have to be agreed at a ground rules hearing before trial. One child gave her evidence from a rocking horse, another with a pet hamster on her lap. Marchant has persuaded two judges that a makeshift den should be constructed from chairs and a blanket, for a child to retreat into. At assessment, she discovered that one boy seemed to be calmed by tidying up, so he took both a full-sized and hand-held vacuum cleaner to trial. Before he was interviewed, staff would tear paper into hundreds of bits and scatter them on the floor.The younger they tell, and the younger they’re kept safe, the better their possible future Some children talk straight away; others need a lot longer. Sometimes Marchant finds giving them a pen unlocks information, or she’ll talk to the interviewing officer about the ways children can tell: whispering, writing, showing, drawing. If a child shows rather than speaks, she highlights it for the tape.It’s not the children who react violently that Marchant finds disturbing; it’s the ones who are “worryingly keen to assist”, who’ve learned that placating the adults around them is the safest way to operate.“I like stroppy kids; I’d much rather have a kid who’s kicking and spitting and biting than the children who are silently compliant. I actually find that more traumatising,” she says with an awkward little laugh.
She loves her work: building a relationship under pressure that is short but intense, an attachment “that will see us through the storm ahead”. And it can be funny, even though people think that’s an awful thing to say – just the sheer hilarity of watching an enormous, established system forced to adapt in the weirdest ways. She tells a story about a little girl who insisted that a male usher put a cushion over his face every time she said the word fanny.
But often it’s Marchant who cries when it’s time to say goodbye. She struggles, too, seeing children attempt to understand abuse by a parent. “They’re trying so hard to make sense of it, that the person who fed them and changed them and took them to nursery is also the person who did these things that hurt them so badly. I want to say: ‘It makes no sense – don’t try.’”
***
The youngest children Triangle have supported at trial have been aged three – two when they were interviewed. Is it right for such young children to be cross-examined? Francis Wilkinson, a family lawyer, says the criminal courts are failing to weigh up whether their interest in justice being done outweighs the potential for a child to be harmed by the process (in lawyer’s terms, the defendant’s right to a fair trial under article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights and the child’s right to “private and family life” under article 8 of the Human Rights Act).
“The balance has to be struck,” Wilkinson says. “That balancing exercise is undertaken routinely in the family courts. But I know it is ignored in criminal proceedings, and children are called without the court having a preliminary hearing as to whether or not the child’s evidence should be heard orally.

I speak to the mother of a young girl who gave evidence after being raped repeatedly. She has nothing but praise for Triangle’s role (it wouldn’t have been possible without them, she says), but describes a harrowing trial process which saw her daughter taken off to be searched in a side room with her grandmother, on her way into the court, and then terrified when she was later separated from her grandmother before meeting the judge and barristers.
Nevertheless, she thinks the benefit of having been to court outweighs the impact of that awful experience. “I think it’s essential that children are given a voice,” she says. “It is so important it happened. It’s going to affect my daughter for the rest of her life. But she has to know that people believed her, that they did all the right things, and she got justice.”
We meet the day after former USA gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar is jailed for sexual abuse, and she mentions the impact statement read by one of his victims, saying that little girls grow into strong women. “I need my daughter to grow up and be a strong woman despite what’s happened to her, knowing that she had a voice, even then.”

I ask Marchant whether two is just too young to be interviewed by police. “If there was a cut-off age for child abuse, or rape, or physical assault, or being a witness to murder, you might be able to convince me,” she says. “But there isn’t. And very, very small children are experiencing or seeing these things every day. We have a duty to enable the youngest children to give evidence if they can. We have an adversarial system; it’s no good pretending we don’t.”
It doesn’t have to be traumatising if it’s done well, she insists – though she knows that’s a controversial view – and it can be positive for children even if there aren’t convictions. “The younger they tell, and the younger they’re kept safe, the better their possible future. I don’t think kids forget. But they’ve got more years to make a childhood in.”
***
Back in the court, cross-examination brings a new flurry of activity. The defence had argued it wasn’t necessary, but it is going ahead via video link, and it has been agreed that the barristers’ questions must be checked by Marchant, who will suggest changes to over-complicated language or phrasing. After that, everything has to be approved by the judge.
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In the courtroom, the defendants have been moved from the dock to a row of flip-down seats from which, so long as one of the two screens is turned away, they will not be able to see the child. The clerk presses some buttons, a telephone rings, and Marchant appears, then the boy. The three years since the first interview have eradicated any hint of babyishness; his cheeks have thinned out and he has a shorter, tougher haircut. He pulls his hoodie around him, clasps his hands together and looks straight at the camera.
The stepfather’s barrister begins, asking if he remembers details of life around the time of the alleged abuse. She attempts a friendly tone, but there’s a lawyerly incredulousness to her voice that can make the questions sound hectoring. Marchant silently hands the boy a set of wooden blocks strung tightly on elastic; he twists and manipulates them with increasing speed.
The questions continue. Marchant slips the boy another toy. The barrister begins to challenge his account: did that happen for real, she asks. He slides his chair back. “Shall we try something different?” says Marchant, passing him a squeezy ball. He grips it tightly. The stepfather tips his head back, his eyes half closed; the mother left the court a few minutes in.
The barrister turns to what happened in the bath, and the boy starts to move back and forth in his chair. Marchant moves it closer to the table. “Put your feet right there,” she says. “See if you can not rock.”
The boy’s specific allegations are put to him. Some, he’s not sure about. It is a tense moment. The barrister asks about one of the most unpleasant charges; the defendant says he didn’t do it. Did he really? There is a second’s pause before the boy answers firmly: yes.
In January a report by the Victims’ Commissioner, Baroness Newlove, revealed that despite a fourfold increase in the demand for registered intermediaries, there had been no matching rise in the numbers recruited. Instead, she found, there’s an average wait of four weeks to get one – a dilemma for police wanting to get children’s evidence before their memories fade – and nearly 250 requests a year that go unmet. Most intermediaries are self-employed and work independently; Triangle, which also supports children’s communication in other settings and offers services including training for police in forensic interviewing of children, is unusual in employing
 them directly.
Contents of one of the boxes staff use to assess children’s communication. Photograph: Lydia Goldblatt for the Guardian This year will see a national rollout of pre-trial cross-examination, in which vulnerable witnesses are filmed being questioned by prosecution and defence barristers in front of a judge at an earlier stage, and the recording shown to the jury as part of the trial. The scheme has had pilots in Leeds, Liverpool and Kingston upon Thames over the past four years. Andrew Penhale, the chief crown prosecutor in the north-east and the Crown Prosecution Service’s national lead on the scheme, is full of positivity about the way this new approach will improve children’s experiences in the system. “It generates far greater successful outcomes for victims and witnesses, not only in relation to case outcomes but how they find the process,” he tells me.

In the pilot phase, planned defence questions were assessed by the judge, often with the help of an intermediary. They also saw an increase in guilty pleas before trial. Intermediaries, then, will be key, and the shortage revealed by Newlove, Penhale admits, is undoubtedly an issue. There’s a recruitment effort under way, he says, as well as training for advocates in questioning vulnerable witnesses.
The NSPCC head of policy, Almudena Lara, has been impressed by the pilot, but says that it needs to be part of a wholesale shift in courtroom culture. “Pre-recorded cross examination will not necessarily improve the experiences of young people,” she says. “Some judges and advocates apply the same adversarial approach that they follow with adults when dealing with children. That’s clearly not in the best interests of justice.”
***
The trial has moved to a larger courtroom, with a high ceiling and natural light, and it is time for the closing speeches. The defence, barred from trying to pick apart the boy’s testimony at cross-examination, take the opportunity now, and to attack the process, too.
The man’s barrister appeals to the jury on behalf of her client, who sits with his mouth hanging open a little, his head cocked to one side: “If he has committed these criminal acts then he deserves all that flows from that. But if he has not, then an unthinkable injustice needs to be prevented by you.”
Her tone is scornful, and effective. The interviews, even with breaks, were too long, she says. The boy was taught the rule of saying when he didn’t know (“Forty-three times, members of the jury!”), but was ignored when he did just that.
Can you cherrypick credibility, she asks, given the uncertainties in his evidence? Does he really have a memory of abuse, or was he convinced of it by the investigation, by the hugs and reassurance doled out when he made disclosures?
After deliberating for three days, the jury finds the defendants guilty of most charges, including, in the stepfather’s case, rape. Marchant is in court when they are sentenced the following week, steadily making notes on an A4 pad as the roar of the air conditioning fills the room.

The defendants, a weekend in prison already behind them, appear almost to stagger as they are brought into the dock. Their faces are slumped, and the man’s unshaven skin so drained of colour it matches his pale grey sweatshirt.
The prosecutor reads a statement written by the boy’s foster mother. She tells of the night terrors he used to have five or six times a night, screaming “no, no, get off” as he thrashed about in his sleep. And she reports how, on hearing that his mother would go to prison, he asked: “Mummy won’t be hungry, will she?”
“The bad things that adults do to children can echo across the decades,” the judge says. The mother shakes her head and sobs as he lists her offences – not the technical charges, which can conceal so much reality, but the acts themselves.
He turns to the man, who blinks, faster and faster, as he paces grimly through another list. “All of that for your own entertainment,” he says. “It is truly shocking.” The man blinks again as he is sentenced: 28 years.
The woman stands staring out of the dock, scratching at her left wrist. Twenty years. She seems to wobble. “You may go down.” She looks back once as she leaves the dock.
When it is all over, Marchant puffs out her cheeks and lets her breath escape slowly.
***
I see Marchant again two days later, a thick mist obliterating the view from the playroom. She sends children a letter after sentencing; she shows me an old one on her laptop. “When I was with you, you had some very BIG feelings,” it says. “Sometimes you felt sad, and sometimes you felt WORRIED. Sometimes you felt excited and sometimes you felt happy. Sometimes big feelings come all at once. Sometimes they come and go.”
There are pictures of the slide at Triangle and the playroom – the little table and chairs, the tent, the sunshine spilling in – and of the Old Bailey and its statue of Lady Justice.
“You are a brave and clever girl,” it ends. “You did such a good job of being a witness. I will remember you for a long time.”

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