For a victim who has been through child sexual abuse or exploitation, or an adult survivor, receiving compensation for the injuries and trauma that took place when they were a child will never in itself act as closure or make up for the damage that has been done. It is though a recognition that the justice system and the state formally believes you – that the ordeal you have been through and its impact on your life is finally recognised, often after years of not being believed.
So it’s deeply shocking to discover that some victims of child sexual exploitation are being refused compensation from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA). We know that the impact of abuse on the life chances of victims is shattering. Children involved in child sexual exploitation are less likely to leave school with qualifications or go into training. They are more likely to be in low paid work, or not in work at all. Many spend years dealing with the fallout of abuse, with all the consequences for building a happy, healthy life and career.
We aren’t talking about huge sums of money here, but for many, a few thousand pounds will help to turn around a life. I’ve heard of victims who have used it to go to university or college for the first time, or to set up their own businesses. Some feel that finally something positive has come out of the horrors they have had to go through as children.
That is why having a claim for compensation rejected is soul-destroying. Victims have told me it feels like the system doesn’t believe you – and not for the first time either. Sadly, it seems that high profile cases like that of Sammy Woodhouse, who was told by CICA that she was not manipulated despite her evidence helping convict a ringleader of a gang last year, are just the tip of the iceberg. I have also heard from specialist child abuse lawyers from all parts of the country that CICA is turning down many claims and that children who were the victims of grooming are most likely to be refused compensation.
Why is this happening? Put simply, some victims are not receiving compensation because CICA is applying guidelines that assume they consented to sex, even if their abuser has been jailed. That is simply unacceptable. The law is clear – the age of consent is 16. It is also an offence for a person aged 18 or over to have any sexual activity with a person under the age of 18 if the older person holds a position of trust.
For some time now I have been pressing CICA, who are currently reviewing their guidelines, and Ministers at the MoJ, that the system should apply the legal definition of consent in all cases of compensation for children who are victims of sexual crimes –not the ‘in fact’ definition being applied. It is also vital that everyone upholds the legal position that children aged under 16 cannot consent to sexual activity. This is particularly important in cases where children have been the victims of coercion and ‘grooming’.
I believe that evidence from cases of abuse, including police reports and evidence pertaining to grooming, must be taken seriously in the assessment of injury, and that all institutions that have a role to play in both eradicating abuse and compensating victims should fully understand the culpability of abusers in grooming child victims and uphold this position publically and in decision making.
The current CICA guidance is at odds with the law and with public opinion, which widely recognises sexual activity between older men (and women), and teenagers under 16, as sexual abuse, whether or not it ‘appears’ consensual.
Remarkably, it is also at odds with the Government’s definition of child sexual abuse, published in February of this year by the Department for Education, which states that child sexual exploitation “can still be abuse even if the sexual activity appears consensual”. Moreover, the cross-government statutory guidance for agencies working on child sexual abuse, ‘Keeping Children Safe’, also states “the victim may have been sexually exploited even if the sexual activity appears consensual”.
It’s clear to me that the present guidelines are failing victims. I will continue to push CICA and the Ministry of Justice to look at them again and to change them so that those who have gone through the most appalling abuse receive recognition that they were not to blame, that their lives have been severely affected and that they deserve some compensation to try to rebuild their lives.
It’s time now for the Lord Chancellor, David Lidington, to insist that CICA’s new guidance does not fail victims and add insult to injury.