British consultant laments delay in passing of Evidence Act

British consultant laments delay in passing of Evidence Act

Says present system subjects victims to further harm

BY ALICIA DUNKLEY Senior staff reporter

Thursday, April 14, 2011

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BRITISH forensic psychologist and child protection consultant Dr Tony Butler, who audited Jamaica's child protection system in 2008, has expressed disappointment that Parliament has still not passed the Evidence Act to allow video evidence in court cases further minimising secondary victimisation of the injured party, particularly children.

Butler was first invited to Jamaica by the Office of the Children's Advocate in 2008 to conduct an audit of the child protection system — the findings of which were made public. One recommendation from that audit was an amendment to the Evidence Act to accommodate video evidence from child victims in court.

Last month, Dr Butler — who had returned to the island to assess the progress of a pilot project for a multi-agency response to allegations of child abuse which beganin January of this year — said that particular amendment cannot come too soon.

"This is one big area of disappointment. The agencies, the police services, the Child Development Agency have recognised these issues and are doing what they can to minimise secondary victimisation but unfortunately we are still waiting on Parliament to pass the Evidence Act," he told the Observer in an interview.

In the interim, he said the relevant agencies are chafing at the relative inaction.

Dr Butler said that until the Act is amended to allow video-recorded testimonies in court, children will continue to be traumatised repeatedly by the present system.

"We will continue to require children to repeat on several occasions and sometimes they are going to the Resident Magistrate's Court on days when they don't have to give evidence, and they are sometimes sitting in close proximity to the perpetrators and this is very concerning.

But unfortunately, the resolution of this is in the hands of Parliament and it doesn't appear to be very high on the agenda," the Dr Butler said, noting that he had been in dialogue with officials at the Ministry of Justice on the issue for "almost three years".

"My information is that... it might get passed early next year. But I also have a concern that even when the legislation is passed no preparatory work has been done on implementation," he pointed out.

"We were preparing for 18 months in the UK the protocol, the procedures to deal with this before the Act was implemented so my real concern is even when the legislation has been passed in Parliament, there will be a period of delay because of waiting for these procedures," he added.

Prime Minister Bruce Golding in 2008 gave instructions for the law to be reviewed. That review was completed last year.

In the meantime, Dr Butler also had concerns about the delay between when a report was made to the relevant authorities and the court trial.

"Again the video recorded evidence would make substantial inroads into that because the child would be interviewed the same day or within two to three days of the allegation being made. That interview would then be evidence and the child could start to relax and not have to keep recalling this event over and over.

So there would be no reason these cases couldn't be fast-tracked to the Supreme Court within weeks if not a few months and there is no reason at all these cases couldn't be fast-tracked and be out of the courts within three or four months rather than sometimes two or three years," he reasoned.

Meanwhile, he said other recommendations from the audit were being put into motion with positive results.

The audit had recommended closer collaboration and integration of a range of services for child protection, particularly the work of the police and the Centre for the Investigation of Sexual Offences and Child Abuse (CISOCA), the Child Development Agency (CDA), the Children's Registry, and the Victims Support Unit.

"We spent a lot of time with staff in those organisations looking at ways we can change working practices to try and improve the experiences of child victims but also to make the system more efficient. In December of last year we started that process, we produced a guidance manual and we trained staff. I have to say the progress made is quite remarkable. It's not just practically what they have achieved, but I have been very impressed by the way the police, the social workers (and) the staff at the Children's Registry (responded)," he said.

The benefits of that integration has led to "much closer working, reduction of duplication of paperwork, shortening the length of time in which information is processed," he told the Observer.

"We have been able to bring forward social work assistance to child victims on the first day when they report these incidents... as a result of that, there has been a dramatic decline in the number of children going into children's homes," he said, noting that in the past the social workers came in at least 24 hours after or later.

"What we are trying to do is have the least disruptive approach to child victims, these are children who have been abused and they deserve every bit of attention and support. We now have a system which delivers that right on the first day," he explained.

Dr Butler said data collected for the first 65 days of this year has shown that of the 263 cases presented to CISOCA involving child victims, only 11 of those children have had to go to a place of safety or children's home since January 14.

"When I did the audit in 2008, we could anticipate 40 per cent of children going into children's homes. Since the model has been operating it is four per cent. In numbers, we could be looking at more than 500 (fewer) children going into children's homes this year and that's remarkable and it's a credit to the stage at which these children are getting social work intervention now," he added.

He had high commendations for the "commitment of the CDA staff" whom he said "are working long hours and delivering a super service now" as well as the CISOCA and Children's Registry staff.

The results of the pilot is to be formally reviewed come June this year.

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