Safety is one of our most fundamental human needs. People who suffered abuse in childhood were failed in the most serious way possible, leaving many adult survivors feeling distrustful of the authorities and with a fear of speaking out.
In recent times there has again been much media coverage over the issue of belief, specifically around whether police should believe victims and survivors when they first come forward to disclose the abuse they suffered.
The narrow focus on one failed investigation – Operation Midland – and the imprisonment of Carl Beech for making false allegations is simplistic and misguided. It threatens to lose the valuable learning about conducting effective investigations and supporting police officers dealing with such sensitive information. Those stoking this inaccurate and biased perspective are inciting dangerous consequences.
What consequences? We know from what we hear on the NAPAC telephone support line how much damage this fear of not being believed will do to survivor confidence, with many never disclosing or not until very late in life, much less report their abuse to the police.
This negative media coverage reaffirms a sense that there is nobody survivors can trust and may embolden abusers. There is a wealth of evidence and statistics very clearly showing how important the concept of belief is to survivors coming forward to the police. This evidence is ignored in its entirety by those focusing solely on the Operation Midland investigation and Carl Beech trial and sentencing.
The wider context is also important to understand. The numbers of adult survivors of childhood abuse are enormous. In January 2020, the Office of National Statistics published its first ever report solely about child abuse across England and Wales, showing that 8.5 million adults suffered abuse in childhood.
Pause for a moment to reflect on that number. 8.5 million adults – 14.5% of the population of England and Wales. 8.5 million adults living every day with the sometimes devastating impacts of the trauma they experienced as children. Adult survivors of abuse are not some small group of ‘others’. They are you; they are people you work with; your neighbours, people you know; people you are related to; people you love.
That is why the updated Senior Investigating Officer (SIO) guidance for police examining allegations of non-recent institutional or high-profile cases of child sexual abuse is so important. This SIO guidance was written by the College of Policing and Operation Hydrant and was published on 6 August 2020 .
In a powerful endorsement of the importance that the police place on victim belief, this paragraph from page 11 of the SIO guidance is key:
- ‘The standard directs a victim focused approach to crime recording. The intention is that victims are believed and benefit from statutory entitlements under the Code of Practice for Victims of Crime. This seeks to ensure that those reporting crimes will be treated with empathy and their allegations will be taken seriously. Any investigation that follows is taken forward impartially to establish the truth. This is entirely consistent with the approach that should be taken at the outset of an investigation into non-recent child sexual abuse, and acknowledges the need to gather all evidence, both towards and away from the allegation’.
It is important to absorb this guidance as a whole. It is not about police ‘blindly believing’ victims and survivors when they come forward to disclose. Impartiality of investigation is clearly stated and reaffirmed in the guidance. Rather, it is about police adopting an informed and open approach.
In the moment of disclosing, it is about providing an atmosphere of trust and empathy. It is about respecting the confidence being shown by the victim during what can be a difficult and potentially re-traumatising experience. This is safer for the victims and more effective for the investigating officers, and essential for collecting evidence that can ultimately stop abusers.
Chief Executive, NAPAC
10 August 2020
- Smith, Dogaru and Ellis – A Survey of Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse and Their Experiences of Support Services (2015). This report identified that 70% of abuse was not reported to police and that only 67% of victims felt they had been believed when they reported to police. This study further emphasised that being believed is essential for survivors who as children would often be warned by their abusers that if they told anyone of the abuse they would not be believed.
- The Children’s Commissioner – Protecting Children from Harm: A Critical Assessment of Child Sexual Abuse in the Family Network in England and Priorities for Action (2015) This report identified that in a cohort of adult survivors of child sexual abuse only one third had tried to tell someone in childhood, and 49% feared or had experienced disbelief.
- Tjaden and Thoennes – Extent, Nature and Consequences of Rape Victimisation: Findings from National Violence Against Women Survey (2006) found that police related factors were mentioned by around a quarter of victims in relation to not reporting a sexual assault: ‘police could not do anything’ (12.6%) and ‘police would not believe me or would blame me’ (11.9%)
- Brown and Horvath – Rape: Challenging Contemporary Thinking (2013) reported on qualitative research with victims of rape across multiple jurisdictions, including the UK, US, Australia and New Zealand which suggests consistently that the expectation of not being believed is a barrier to reporting.
- Exton and Thandy – ‘Would They Have Actually Believed Me – A Focus Group Exploration of the Underreporting of Crimes by Jimmy Savile’ (2013) In this report commissioned by Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary (HMIC) the NSPCC carried out a series of focus groups with victims of Jimmy Savile. The aim of this was to identify common themes that prevented those victims from reporting to police at the time of the abuse. Across all groups, a key reason given for not reporting was a strong sense that they would not have been believed.
- Hohl and Stanko – Complaints of Rape and the Criminal Justice System: Fresh Evidence on the Attrition Problem in England and Wales (2015) In this study, published in the European Journal of Criminology the multiple barriers to reporting a rape and reasons to withdraw were identified. One frequently cited reason was a lack of trust in the police and criminal justice system, a fear of not being believed and taken seriously, and feeling ‘raped all over again’ by the way the police question both the victim and their account. The tentative trust required to report the rape is quickly eroded when police officers communicate disbelief and disrespect or when the victim loses faith in the police to effectively investigate the case, leading victims to withdraw from the process or retract the allegation altogether.
- The Crime Survey for England and Wales (Violent Crime and Sexual Offences) (2015) Identified that within a cohort of people who reported abuse to someone else and not the police 21% cited not being believed as the reason 26% thought the police couldn’t help and 15% didn’t think the police would do anything about it.
- The Office of National Statistics – Abuse during childhood: Findings from the Crime Survey for England and Wales, year ending March 2016 (2016): This was the first wave of data collection in which questions on child sexual abuse were included. 74% of victims had told no one at the time and 38% of these cited the fear of not being believed as the reason for this.
- The Office for National Statistics – Crime in England and Wales: year ending September 2017 (2018) This report showed an increase of 23% in reported sexual offences. The increase was partly attributed to greater confidence of adult victims of crime to come forward and report. Other official statistics reflect the same trend and point to the same likely cause.