Sexually abused children 'failed' by justice system

BEN HEATHER
Last updated 05:00 02/12/2013

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Abused children are being failed by the justice system, with offenders often never making it to court, a Wellington counsellor says.

Bronwyn Kerr, who works for the Sexual Abuse Help Foundation, said it was extremely difficult to get children to admit to abuse, which was often suffered at the hands of family.

Those who did testify often froze in the courtroom or were aggressively discredited by defence lawyers, sometimes with their need for counselling used against them.

This left known child-abusers unpunished and free to abuse again, she said. "The current system has failed them."

In one family Ms Kerr had dealt with, two teenage girls told police their mother's partner was sexually abusing them and their 8-year-old sister. But when the time came for a formal recorded police statement they froze, unable to speak.

The man was booted out of the family home but moved in with another family with young children. It took three years to bring the case to court, with the man eventually convicted.

"I believe where there is clear abuse something is needed in the interim to protect these children," Ms Kerr said.

She was speaking before the social services select committee, which is considering a bill aimed at better protecting children from abuse.

She was supporting proposed child-harm protection orders, which could restrict contact with children for people deemed a "high risk" of abusing them. Such people would not need to have been convicted of any offence.

The bill also includes compulsory vetting of 376,000 government employees working with children, tougher restrictions on abusive parents, and better information-sharing among agencies.

However, many submitters were concerned the bill was too narrow and ignored roots of abuse, such as poverty and family violence.

Post Primary Teachers' Association president Angela Roberts said without improving the wellbeing of children the changes were only a Band-Aid. "The issue of poverty and inequality can't be ignored."

Professor Dawn Elder, of the Paediatric Society, said more money was needed before more plans.

Identifying abuse was not difficult but many district health boards did not have the resources or the training.

"Sometimes I want to resign. Not because I'm traumatised by the abuse, but I'm traumatised by trying to get things improved so I can do my job properly."

Others submitters, including many unions, raised concerns about the cost of vetting hundreds of thousands of government workers.

Last week, Justice Minister Judith Collins confirmed changes would be introduced early next year to make it less traumatic for sex attack victims to give evidence in court, including a requirement for a rape case defendant to give notice of intention to use evidence about a victim's sexual history.

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- The Dominion Post

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