A recent initiative for the so called ‘Truth’ Project to ask prisoners to share their experiences of child sexual abuse with facilitators from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) raises many questions and concerns for me. I say ‘so called’ because the project includes no published criteria or methods for testing the accounts so ‘Listening to Survivors Project’ would be a far more accurate title.
This doesn’t mean I disbelieve survivor accounts. It isn’t my role to believe or disbelieve but to listen carefully and take what is said very seriously indeed. There are well proven methods of testing statements for validity as part of the skills of investigative interviewing. Survivors, just like anyone else, can get muddled and clarification is needed, they may have been drugged or hypnotised, dates, times and places can become confused with repeated abuse – why on earth wouldn’t this be the case – we are talking about abuse in childhood often to very young, already traumatised, children.
The anonymised prisoner statements will contribute information to an IICSA research project. If the ‘Truth’ Project interviewers were trained in forensic interviewing this would be a far better basis for their research but they are trained in counselling techniques such as ‘active listening’. In the ‘Truth’ project there is no means of corroborating survivor accounts through photographic or file evidence, medical or forensic findings, witness corroboration or other means. There is no parallel system of investigation where a view can be formed about abuse having taken place and any ongoing risk to children or adults assessed.
I need no convincing that many prisoners will be survivors of abuse. If I’d been brutally tortured and raped as a small child, by those supposed to care for me, heaven only knows what I might have ended up doing to myself or others. As children, they may have retaliated against their abusers or taken the deep anger out on someone else. Their actions may have led to them being sent to secure units where many were subjected to further abuse, drug regimes and solitary confinement. Most survivors describe being told that if they spoke out about the abuse they would end up in secure. For those whose children’s home brothers and sisters had already been sent there it was indeed a real and terrifying threat because of what they would have heard about the power of the abuse networks.
Islington Survivors Network has heard about boys from children’s homes now serving life sentences. They surely must have stories to tell about abuse so terrible it drove them to commit crimes such as the murder of a residential social worker or rape of other children in the children’s home. Although a history of abuse does not justify their actions it might have led to some mitigation and impacted on sentencing. A typical characteristic of institutional abuse networks is that adults involve older children in abuse of the younger ones. Guilt at what they were forced to do makes it very difficult for some to disclose. If abuse was filmed then children were forced further into secrecy as they were threatened with exposure. One Islington survivor told the BBC News that the abuser built a vertical grave and said he would be put there if he spoke of the abuse. Some survivors tell me they believe that one Islington child is now unjustly in prison for life.
It was my strong instinct to reach out to these named individuals in prison and to let them know I would listen to their accounts. It could be that we already have some knowledge of the home they were in and which abusers were in control. We might even know detail of the holidays they were taken on, in the UK and abroad, and night-time hikes in the forest where terrifying things happened. We might in fact know quite a lot about what they experienced as children and I thought that surely they would find it helpful in some way to know that. They might even want to hear about what happened to other children in the Islington children’s homes and learn that they haven’t been forgotten – because they certainly haven’t. One survivor speaks of how she cared for a little boy within one home and used to cuddle him in a heartless, cruel environment. 40 years later, she becomes tearful speaking about him and how he ended up in prison.
However, a survivor who spent a long time in prison but who now has a wealth of knowledge as an advocate and consultant, advised me that it would not be right to contact prisoners or to offer them the opportunity to speak about their abuse or witnessing of abuse in the children’s homes. It would not even be right to send them an Islington Survivor Network leaflet. His clarification was more than obvious. I would not have any understanding of a particular survivor’s situation within prison. The abuse networks have not vanished and could present a risk to a prisoner, if they were to become exposed in this way, leading them to be a target of violence and assaults. A prisoner’s disclosure could provide a source of power to a perpetrator within an enclosed community based on hierarchies of power. An abuser might be very concerned that one of the prisoners might spill the beans about networks of abuse and some form of retribution might follow.
The survivor would have nowhere to hide. Who would provide protection and, even with protection, what kind of life would the survivor have in custody? How vulnerable is the prisoner? How have they survived so far? How many abusers remain within the prison, and other connected powerful systems, who are capable of exerting an influence? Following disclosure, how can a prisoner possibly process and piece together all the complex emotional issues that have come to the surface. They are not in any position to do so. Thoughts and feelings will fly around their minds causing extreme physical and mental distress.
There is no place for a counsellor to offer a one-off interview for a ‘Truth’ project because, basically, a counsellor with all the listening skills in the world will have little idea of the ‘truth’ of the situation. The stakes are very high for abusers to be quite certain that the abuse remains secret. Stakes probably higher than I can imagine even applying my wildest imagination based on years of professional experience in this field. I do know abusers will stop at nothing and that the risks are very high. I’ve been seriously threatened myself many times over far less – just for getting involved in this subject, speaking out and raising my head above the parapet.
IICSA are providing a support worker who contacts the survivor via telephone ahead of the ‘Truth’ session to help them prepare. The support worker attends the session, where a counsellor will be available if necessary, and will make a telephone follow up two days afterwards, with a final follow up call being made 2 weeks later. The support will come to an end after this.
So what happens then? Imagine a survivor who has been imprisoned for years finally speaking about childhood abuse and after the support ends, given their isolation in prison, they have no means of accessing further help – this approach could place a survivor at risk through increased traumatisation. To place this in context, some Islington Survivors have accessed years of counselling and even deep trauma therapy and it is barely a start. They still rarely get a night’s sleep, have flashbacks and quite frankly every day is a struggle to put on a face to the world that helps them get through with their families and work. Any support must be survivor led. They know exactly what their needs are and they are far more than IICSA has comprehended.
One of the most important aspects of healing is to achieve justice. There can never be justice of course because nothing can replace a lost childhood. However, if the abuser/s have been convicted, and those who colluded with them removed from work with children, then the survivor might get to sleep a little more peacefully knowing that other children have been made safe by their brave actions in taking a case forward. Prisoners who tell all to the ‘Truth’ project will be told that if anything they say poses a current risk to children the police will be informed but otherwise their account remains confidential. I’m not sure who is qualified in this process to make a judgement about risk to children as investigators are not involved and any suspicion or concern should be reported to the statutory authorities.
IICSA are financing Operation Hydrant to coordinate survivor responses where there is a need for police involvement. In 2015-16 it cost £448,000. Hydrant as a co-ordination team passes the cases on to the relevant local police because Hydrant police do not proactively investigate allegations. In my experience to gain a survivor’s trust to meet a known tried, tested and trusted police officer may take months. As they were not protected by professionals as children, it is a major leap to place trust in one as an adult and trust it certainly needs to pursue a complex criminal or civil case. The survivor may have already reported to the police as an adult and got nowhere. There are many hurdles to be overcome. I have taken Islington cases to different police over the years with little result and have felt the despair that comes with not being heard again and again. However, my despair is not comparable to that of a survivor who was unheard as a child and continues to be unheard as an adult.
What if a child was abused by the head of a children’s home and that abuser knew the person in charge of the secure unit and that person involved advocates to represent the child who were also involved? What if the request for secure was approved by professionals and lawyers who were also involved? Is this just another conspiracy theory? I advise you watch Care 2000 – a film based on real accounts of sexual and physical crimes against children in institutions. It’s a big ask to expect that child, now an adult, to believe that anyone anywhere might actually have their real interests at heart especially if they are in prison for crimes they didn’t commit or which they committed as a result of the abuse. Personally, I don’t expect any survivor to trust me. At ISN we just do our best. Trust has to be earned.
I can understand why , at a superficial level, IICSA want to reach out to survivors within the prison system but in reality the matter is so much more complex. I am a core participant to the Inquiry with excellent legal representation and some of my concerns can be raised formally. I am not a survivor so I cannot provide evidence to the ‘Truth’ Project and there is no route for whistleblowers such as myself or, as I prefer to be known, a professional protecting children doing the job I was paid to do. Islington Survivors Network is not part of the Inquiry hearings and to be fair we haven’t applied to be. We want a full and proper police led multi-agency investigation into what took place. We are conducting this as best we can ourselves and are beginning to make good progress with Islington council and police. We think this is the best way of moving forward in the interests of the Islington survivors who contact us. If one of the survivors in prison contacts us then of course we will respond to them as we would to any other Islington survivor but not before we take advice from those survivors who know best how we would keep that survivor safe.
If IICSA is sincerely keen to learn from survivors in prison then their work has to be more than a matter of gaining accounts to add to research projects. The Inquiry aim should surely be to help survivors gain justice and healing and this would take far more than one brief interview slightly cushioned by minimal support provision. The current IICSA approach demonstrates the Inquiry’s emphasis on churning out academic papers reflecting on current child protection ‘arrangements’ – rather than proactively investigating organised sexual crime against children and holding perpetrators and those who facilitate them to account.