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Why Belief Matters - A Blog

In January this year, I released the most comprehensive National Analysis of Police-Recorded Child Sexual Abuse Crimes (source VKPP). This was so we can all develop a greater understand of the true scale and nature of CSA in the UK, and crucially enhance our response to prevent the lifelong impact of this appalling abuse. The same afternoon, I attended an event at Parliament hosted by the Survivors Trust and Jess Phillips MP, hearing too from Professor Jay and the Home Secretary. The most important voices as ever were those of the adult survivors I had the privilege to speak to. Their courage and determination to see change rightly demanded and expected is quite humbling.

Of course, our report is based on those people who came forward. And whilst we have seen a 400% increase in recorded crimes between 2013 and 2022, it doesn’t take into account so many victims who haven’t felt able to come forward for a whole host of reasons. These include lack of confidence and trust in the system that should be there to support them, including policing.

For me, the first thing a victim needs to feel before they report a crime is belief. Belief that people will take them seriously, and belief that they will get a service that is caring, compassionate, professional, victim centred, and joined up.

I published a piece on the subject of belief a few months ago, and it feels like a good time to re-share my thoughts:

Belief is such a short word, but when applied to policing and survivors of child abuse? It becomes a concept that is weaponised, politicised, criticised, and misunderstood.

Belief matters. Not just in a theoretical sense but in a way that changes people’s lives. I will never forget sitting with the Deputy Children’s Commissioner in 2013 listening to a female survivor who described the most appalling acts of abuse she had suffered over many years. In the next sentence she then described how the work of the specialist team made up of police, children’s social care, NHS safeguarding nurses and others saved her life. ‘If it wasn’t for the team, I would be dead’ she said. ‘Now I have my self-worth, my family, a degree and a job’. This team had believed her, and this act gave her hope.

Belief matters to policing and it matters to me and is why I am writing this now as policing’s National Lead on Child Protection and Abuse. If what I say here means that even one more person feels able to come forward and talk to us, knowing they will be believed, then it will be a success.

The way policing approaches and investigates child sexual exploitation has come a long way in the past decade. It has been a journey, one I’ve been part of and reflected on to ensure we do the very best we can for victims and survivors, those people who’ve taken the huge step of coming forward to tell us their stories with the hope of protecting others.

Following revelations about Jimmy Savile, the horror of which we are reminded of in the latest BBC drama series, we saw a surge in the number of adults coming forward to report having been the victim of child sexual abuse. It highlighted survivors had the confidence to speak to the police, knowing that they would be listened to and believed. This was a good thing.

In the past, this has not always been the case and quite rightly we in policing have been held to account for this.

Belief is often going to be an issue that we see reflected negatively, however, we in policing needed to make an even bigger change in light of NSPCC research that victims had previously feared not being believed and that is why they did not report abuse at the hands of Savile and others. This underreporting is supported by estimates which indicate that one in six girls and one in 20 boys experience child sexual abuse before the age of 16. In March 2020, the Office for National Statistics estimated that 3.1 million adults in England and Wales had experienced sexual abuse before the age of 16.

I read an incredibly powerful paragraph in the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) final report, ‘Often victims and survivors were accused of lying when they told someone that they were being sexually abused’. This was emphasised by the Truth Project too, which ran alongside IICSA.

Only five percent of those participants who disclosed child sexual abuse to an institution at the time of the abuse said that they were believed. One participant, ‘J’, mentioned in front of the police that he was being raped regularly in his children’s home and the police officer responded by saying “we don’t need to hear your f’king lies”.

I don’t write with any halo around my head. As a young response officer in Accrington in the 1990s I would regularly come across young children reported missing from children’s homes and be quick to label them, rather than listen carefully to what they were saying to me about the abuse and harm they were suffering.

But historically this is what we were taught in society and in policing. When being trained as an investigator we were all taught that the golden rule of investigation was the ABC of serious investigation: Assume nothing, Believe nothing, and Check everything. It was the culture in which I worked and grew up in and the culture that many people reading this will have experienced.

It’s absolutely right to not assume and check everything within an investigation, but  while some have commented recently that nothing has changed and I respect and listen to their views , I am confident that policing has moved forward in the right direction from one of ‘believe nothing ‘ when applying it to  our current approach to victims of child sexual abuse.

But there is still much more to do. We want to increase victim confidence, so policing starts from the position that victims are believed. This ensures that those reporting crimes are treated with empathy and their allegations are taken seriously. Any investigation which follows is then taken forward with an open mind to establish the truth.

Academic evidence relating to victim confidence has noted that a fear of disbelief or being blamed for what has happened is a barrier to people coming forward and reporting their crimes, especially for sexual offences.

Dr Elly Hanson is a Clinical Psychologist and researcher whose work focuses on preventing abuse, harm, and injustice. She published a paper in 2016, stating ’belief’ is usually not an ‘all-or-nothing’ entity though, for shorthand’s sake, we usually treat it as if it is. It typically has many nuances. In this paper Dr Hanson made a distinction between two approaches to belief.

  • Ideological: ‘I believe 100% no matter what other information may come to light” often referred to as ‘blind belief’.
  • Informed and Open: ‘This is what I believe based upon my current knowledge and will reassess my view based on new and emerging information’.

Blind Belief is often the one policing is portrayed as using by the media and if applied is a failing of our Public Service. So, it is the second approach that policing has adopted, belief of victims that is informed and open. One that begins from taking the account seriously whilst being open to what a professional investigation may reveal following all ‘reasonable lines of enquiry.

Gabrielle Shaw CEO of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC) nailed it for me when writing about Gary Neville’s interview with the footballer Dele Alli; ‘A great model for how to receive a disclosure of childhood abuse. Supportive, believing, non-judgemental and sensitive.’

Justice is important to victims, and I have led many successful investigations of child abuse. But research with victims and survivors shows that for them, the right support is even more important. One case as a Senior Investigating Officer I took to court for sexual abuse of seven complainants. The defendant was acquitted. I felt like I had failed until I listened carefully to three of the complainants, all of whom I spoke to in person after the case to apologise. They said to me: “you believed us, your team treated us with care and compassion, and we thank you for all you have done for us”. They had tremendous courage in making their complaints.

In recent times we have seen appalling acts from police officers who swore an oath to protect and serve but instead became offenders. What is less reported is the considerate acts of policing call centre staff, initial response officers or specialist child protection officers whose caring, compassionate, and dedicated actions every day across the country ensure children or adult survivors feel believed, trusted, and cared for. This response allows these survivors to start to move forward with their lives. We know they will never be able to undo the appalling abuse that they suffered, but it allows for hope as to their future ahead.

Many people talk about policing across the decades and the old-fashioned approaches that were taken. Quite frankly this is not a place we want to go back to when we deal with child abuse and rape. I prefer the phrase ‘excellence in the basics’, which includes treating children and adult survivors with care, compassion, and empathy so that yes, they feel believed and trusted and have hope.

There are still too many times where we get it wrong and there is much for us to do, but I am proud of the hundreds of police colleagues that get it right, dedicating their lives to helping and protecting children and bringing offenders to justice. That must be our commitment to past, current and sadly the future children who will be sexually abused until we can eradicate these appalling acts from our society.

The publishing of the recent National Analysis of Police-Recorded Child Sexual Abuse Crimes Report (Totality) raised further important national debate about the scale and nature of abuse in our society. We are determined to continue to make the improvements needed to ensure we have a policing service that we are proud of, and one in which victims and adult survivors can have the utmost confidence in its response and join up with other services and, yes, feel believed.

Did you know that this week (11 – 15 Feb) is Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week (#itsnotpok)? This initiative highlights the importance of amplifying the voices of survivors. It’s something I feel passionately about, and I urge you to find out more here.

Of course, there is no end game. Just a continuous ambition and desire to continue to turn words into actions that make a positive difference to those who need us most, and for the dedicated police colleagues who carry out this crucial work.