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Sexually abused girls and the justice system

Media Release

08 December 1998

A new study released today by the Australian Institute of Criminology has revealed that many sexually abused children are twice victims: once by the perpetrators and then by the criminal justice system.

Child Sexual Abuse and the Criminal Justice System, a Trends and Issues paper written by Dr Christine Eastwood of Queensland University of Technology, examines the experiences of sexually abused female adolescents within the criminal justice system.

"This the first study of its kind in Australia. It provides in-depth, qualitative data on the impact of the criminal justice system from the perspective of twelve sexually abused girls aged 12 to 17 years" said Dr Adam Graycar, Director, Australian Institute of Criminology.

The study found that the criminal justice process itself reiterates many of the emotional and psychological characteristics of the sexual abuse experience, and fails to meet the needs of young sexually abused children.

Half of the young women expressed the view that they would not recommend to other victims that they should report sexual abuse, saying that "they went through hell" and "it was not worth it".

The report stressed the need for changes to police processes, including more appropriate use of female officers; better communication with complainants and families; and providing child development training to police officers.

The study also found the lengthy court process had a harmful impact on young women who were at a crucial stage in their development and already in a vulnerable position.

The worst ordeal of the process as described by the children, was the cross-examination. The young complainants were subject to harassment, intimidation, accusations of lying or "wanting it", irrelevant questioning and having repeatedly to recall details of the abuse.

The words of one young woman reflect the way in which the legal process abuses the child:

"After two days of cross-examination I had explained every incident twice.. He was going through it a third time. I began vomiting... I couldn't do it... I couldn't even have done another hour... that is when I withdrew. ...It still feels like I am in the courtroom letting people judge and humiliate me... I s'pose life's like that..."

"Evaluating the operation of the criminal justice system and ensuring that fairness prevails is an ongoing aspect of the AIC's research", said AIC Director, Dr Adam Graycar.