Cassandracogno Russell byline: September 2015
Journalists have a responsibility not only to approach victims of child abuse sensitively, but also to establish and tell the truth. A guest article by Dr Liz Davies, social worker and Islington whistleblower, outlining interviewing guidelines police and social workers use which media can learn from.
I am writing this article because recent stories in the media, and the fall-out from them, demonstrate that some journalists are, sadly, not aware of how to interview abuse survivors. Journalists have a responsibility not just to approach victims of child abuse sensitively, but to establish and tell the truth. If journalists put words into the mouths of survivors, ask leading questions or write stories exaggerating what they are told, that leaves the survivor acutely vulnerable. We have recently seen many survivors attacked in the media as liars; yet some say that their experience has been mis-represented by journalists. Many now feel re-abused – by journalists who allegedly dramatised or otherwise behaved irresponsibly with the information entrusted to them and then they later feel further abused on social media as the articles are repeatedly networked.
Some survivors, as a result, are now counselling others to have nothing to do with any journalists. Genuine, skilled and sensitive investigative reporters do, however, have a vital role in exposing perpetrators and child abuse cover-ups. They helped expose the abuse rings and cover-ups in children’s homes in North Wales, in Islington, Lambeth and other local authorities. I have worked with many over the past 25 years, and some have impressed me with their dedication, integrity and effectiveness. The Guardian’s Nick Davies, for example, did an enormous amount to expose the size, power and horror of child abuse networks, and his work significantly contributed to current legislation. But the reporter with whom I have worked most closely over the past two decades is Eileen Fairweather, so I shall relay some of what I feel the media needs to learn through my experience of working alongside her.
I began working with Eileen in 1992. When I first met her, she was already an experienced, respected journalist, working to expose the extensive abuse of children in care in the London Borough of Islington where I had been a social work team leader. Eileen had her own clear thinking about how to go about this task with the uttermost professionalism. She was very, very careful and thorough in her approach. She interviewed many whistleblowers before actually approaching any young people. Long before she did so, we talked in great detail about the care and skill needed in interviewing young people who had been sexually abused, or adult survivors of organised and institutional abuse and their families.
She told me that she had learned the hard way how not to do such interviews. Earlier in her career she had interviewed someone whose testimony was subsequently challenged by others as flawed. She had thus learned the importance of using open questions and of not making assumptions or suggesting responses. She certainly understood the importance of not contaminating evidence or compromising civil or criminal proceedings. However, I remember saying to her that she still had a lot more to learn because she would need to understand the complex dynamics of child sexual abuse, the emotional context, the impact of the traumatic experiences and the absolute fear and terror she would encounter. She was more than willing to learn and we spent many hours collaborating through the months and months ahead as the story developed. At all times her priority, as was mine, was to protect the interests of the young people and survivors. It was never the case of a ‘story’ at their expense.
I have decided to provide a potted version, in relation to children and young people, of what is extensive statutory guidance and a knowledge base of all the specialist professionals involved in the process. I am doing this because recent debates in the media highlight that some journalists are not aware of the need for these skills and, unlike Eileen, have not learnt the correct approach to this work. Whether the result of arrogance or ignorance, some survivors are clearly paying a very high price for this lack of journalistic skill so evident in recent months. The same principles I am outlining for the interviewing of children also apply to adult survivors who are witnesses for criminal proceedings.
Social workers and police use a specific method of interviewing of children set out in the statutory guidance ‘Achieving Best Evidence’ (ABE). An up-to-date copy is online on the Ministry of Justice website. The interview is visually recorded in a child-friendly interview suite. Children are interviewed in a child-centred way by a trained police officer and social worker. The interview involves a phased interview approach beginning with an introduction, building a rapport and creating a safe environment to enable the child to feel comfortable and as relaxed as is possible in the circumstances. This stage may include play and drawing. The child learns that it is acceptable for them to indicate that they do not know the answer to a question and that they should not make guesses, that it is OK if they cannot remember every detail, that the interviewers want to hear everything that did or did not take place and that, ‘even the little things are important’. Children can also use whatever words they chose to describe what took place and they are asked to provide an example of their understanding of the importance of telling the truth. The interview then moves slowly to a free narrative phase where the child provides an account of what happened in their own words mainly uninterrupted by the interviewer other than for clarification. If the child mentions getting into a car, for instance, the interviewer might ask what colour was the car, or who was in the car. This account is not chronological but the child presents the events as they come into their mind. Details of dates and places may well be unclear at this stage of the interview especially if a child has been repeatedly abused over years, in many different situations by multiple perpetrators. The very last phase is questioning to ensure that the evidence is properly obtained and clearly on record. The interviewer, as they listened carefully to the child’s free narrative account will have realised that some areas needed further clarification. For instance, a child might use their own word to describe a part of the body and this word will need to be clarified to ensure that the exact part of the body being referred to is understood. Questions asked are mainly open which do not suggest a ‘yes’ or ‘ no’ answer or put any words into the child’s mouth that they have not themselves spoken. Finally in the closure phase the interviewers see if the child has any questions to ask them before making sure the child leaves the interview safely and well cared for.
Specialist police child abuse investigation officers and social workers train together to learn how to conduct these ABE interviews. The interview normally does not extend beyond one hour and is later presented in court as a statement of evidence. In Scandinavia, the investigative process is further refined and from the beginning of the process a child has a therapist assigned to them to ensure that their best interests are upheld from start to finish. With good reason such as if further evidence comes to light, further interviews may be conducted. If a child has been filmed as part of the abuse then an ABE interview might not be appropriate as it could re-traumatise the child and a written statement can be taken instead.
So how do professionals assess whether or not the child is telling the truth? There is a body of knowledge known as Statement Validity Analysis which provides a lengthy list of principles for the testing of a child’s account. These principles considerably assist the process. The child’s account is very important but is only one part of the picture – a piece of a large jigsaw. Ultimately the investigators, alongside others such as teachers, health visitors and GPs who know the child and family, debate the validity of the child’s account in the context of other evidence/information during a Strategy Meeting. The investigators then decide if all or part of the recorded statement has been or can be corroborated by other witnesses (child and/or adult), medical and forensic evidence, evidence from school records, photographic evidence and even sometimes from accounts of perpetrators.
Journalists have a very important role to play in the exposure of child abuse, and in bringing criminals to justice, but the task has to be done with absolute integrity and a deep understanding of the work. Survivors deserve far more than to be re-abused by journalists that they have put their trust in and all their hope for justice. To experience abuse of power, exploitation and a lack of therapeutic support, triggers for them the worst moments of the crimes that have been perpetrated against them as children. The impact of unscrupulous journalism on survivors has been of considerable concern to those of us watching from a distance in recent months. I strongly advise those involved to read some of Eileen Fairweather’s expert and sensitive coverage of child protection issues over the last 25 years and learn some important lessons.