University of Bedfordshire’s ‘Making Justice Work’

A group of young people from Safe and Sound were recently involved in a study by University of Bedfordshire’s International Centre - Researching CSE, Violence & Trafficking.

The study looks into the experiences in the criminal justice system, of children and young people affected by sexual exploitation. In the research pilot, Making Justice Work, young people repeatedly highlighted the traumatic nature of their experiences with CSE criminal proceedings.

Although often critical in their commentary, participants (young people and professionals) recognised that there were examples of good practice in their experiences which they wanted to see implemented on a wider scale.

We have put together our three key findings and recommendations from the research:

1)      Professional accountability and consistency of good practice during the criminal justice process

web-1744Many young people taking part found that levels of compassion and empathy from criminal justice professionals varied, with their presenting behaviours still being interpreted as unreliable or culpable rather than a response to the trauma they had experienced. The research also found that good practice with regards to Achieving Best Evidence interviews was inconsistent, especially with rapport building, questioning styles and allowing young people to have someone supporting them present.

Though the current policy and guidance already includes measures to help improve young people’s experiences of the court process, it was found that this was inconsistently applied. There was agreement from participants that finding a way to consistently support all young victims, regardless of the local authority they fall under or which professionals they engage with, was paramount.

The recommendation from the report was to enable complaints processes to be more accessible and meaningful for young people and with informed independent advocacy to help support them and seek redress when standards of engagement fall short of what should be expected.

For Safe and Sound, building and maintaining relationships with external partners and effective multi-agency working enables us to question and challenge poor practice when we see it and to support other professionals involved, which leads to better consistency of service and consolidated support for the young person we are working with.

There was also the recommendation in the report for all relevant staff within the police, Crown Prosecution Service, Court Service, judiciary and relevant voluntary sector services to receive the training, supervision and support required to enable them to understand and respond appropriately to young people affected by CSE.

Both Safe & Sound’s training arm, JustWhistle, and our Hub & Spoke Team are exploring ways to target practitioners in these agencies through the training and advice & support services we already provide; the aim is to improve understanding of the issues specific to this group of victims in order to give individuals the ability to provide statements and give evidence without facing further trauma.

2)      Communication of the criminal justice process

The report found that there was effective communication in terms of criminal justice professionals explaining the rationale behind court processes in CSE cases and that this was valued highly by the young people, but these were an example of good practice and not the norm. More commonly, the young participants experienced an absence of proactive and timely information; a lack of clarity; failure to explain why decisions were made and changing and inconsistent points of contact.web-1525

There was also disparity in young people’s experiences of court preparation and pre-trial court visits, where participants highlighted the need for these to be undertaken specifically by those trained to support young people and to set realistic expectations.

The ‘experts by experience’ participating in the study, along with professional contributors felt that all communication with young people should be underpinned by principles of accessibility, participation, transparency, respect, timeliness and with opportunities to have meaningful dialogue.

At Safe and Sound, we provide an Independent Sexual Violence Adviser (ISVA) service to all victims of CSE to address these issues. This single consistent point of contact for young people has proved very successful in supporting individuals through the criminal justice system; listening to their concerns, explaining why decisions might have been made and keeping young people informed about their involvement and case progression, in a way that is appropriate in each individual’s case.

3)      Provision for addressing young people’s emotional wellbeing and therapeutic care

The results found that in many cases, there was a lack of understanding by professionals of how the criminal justice process could affect young people’s family lives, relationships, education and emotional wellbeing; provision for therapeutic care, pre, during and post-trial was also inconsistent or young people felt they had difficulty accessing it. There was a clear consensus amongst all participants that there was a need for victims to have access to advocacy and coordinated support throughout the case by a single and trusted individual and ongoing therapeutic support where desired.

web-2102The post-court period was noted to be one of the most difficult for young people; a fact that many of the young participants felt many professionals failed to recognise as their responsibilities drew to an end and prepared the case to be closed. The ‘experts by experience’ noted the need to provide support around the continued impact of both the abuse and engagement in criminal justice processes, beyond the closure of legal proceedings.

An important piece in the report was the recommendation that wherever possible, decisions should be made with – rather than for – young people. Professionals need to take into account the evolving capacities of adolescents when considering the ways in which they can involve young people in decision-making processes which directly impact upon them, before, during and after court proceedings.

Both the ISVA role and Case Worker role at Safe and Sound involve signposting young people to other relevant services that may be able to support them to ensure a joined-up approach to our response for each individual child. Both roles actively seek access to appropriate therapeutic support for these victims, and it is clear that these services need to be developed and enhanced if the good practices afforded some victims are to be consistently available.

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