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Finally, there's hope for abuse survivors

Head of the abuse team at Leigh Day, Alison Millar, explains why she's hopeful about the independent inquiry into child abuse in England and Wales  

Hon. Lowell Goddard DNZM
Alison Millar is a partner at Leigh Day and head of the firm’s abuse team. She represents survivors of child abuse and campaigns for reform in order to safeguard children and vulnerable adults. Follow Alison on twitter at @AllymMillar.
If we’d have predicted two years ago that England and Wales would have a child sex abuse inquiry, led by an eminent judge on a scale to rival the Australian Royal Commission, with a budget of over £17m for its first year, no one would have taken us seriously, but today Justice Goddard set out how the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) for England & Wales will go forwards.

In delivering her statement, Justice Goddard made it clear that the task ahead of the panel is daunting. The tortuous route to get to this position, with two chairs resigning following an ill thought through process of appointment, has led to doubt and even cynicism, but shouldn’t there now also be much hope?

If it does what it promises to deliver, uncovering systemic failings and making recommendations on how to prevent sexual abuse in the future, then the IICSA will be a revolution in the way children are protected in society. A society which still has to face up to the fact that paedophilia is far more prevalent than has ever been acknowledged.

As Justice Goddard pointed out, there is a suggestion that 1 child in 20 has been sexually abused in this country, however, with many children not disclosing, or reports not being recorded properly, the true picture is likely to be very much higher.

The IICSA cannot and will not please everyone, the fact that there are no survivors of abuse on the panel is widely criticised but it is also unreasonable to expect the weight of responsibility for all survivors to be put on the shoulders of a couple of survivors.

With each panel member also having a distinct area of responsibility, a ‘workstream’, it would have been an impossible task to decide which areas deserved a survivor representative, and which didn’t.

Promising a broader spread of experience is the victims and survivors consultative panel (VSCP), which will advise and assist the IICSA panel. Made up of eight members, chosen following interviews by Justice Goddard and other panel members, it will work four days a month to provide advice to the panel.

As long as the VSCP has a real voice, and is fully integrated into the IICSA, then it will serve a crucial purpose. If it is not taken seriously, then it represents the Achilles heel in the whole process.

There are vociferous protests against this panel and against the inquiry in general. However, there will be a far greater silent majority who continue to choose anonymity, but who secretly urge the IICSA to rid institutions of abuse, abuse which has destroyed their lives so completely.

This inquiry offers them hope and an opportunity to speak, to have a place to share their experiences, even when nothing can be done to bring them justice, it can shine a light on the missed opportunities, to help prevent abuse from slithering into those trusted places where children remain most vulnerable.

Mirroring the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse, survivors will be able to leave a short written message about their experiences. Anonymous statements will be published alongside reports and on websites.

Crucially the inquiry will appoint and fund support services for victims and survivors who come forward to assist the Inquiry, a major omission from previous versions.

The IICSA has secured protection for whistleblowers. Justice Goddard confirmed that no document or evidence provided to the inquiry will result in, or be used in, any prosecution under the Official Secrets Acts or any prosecution for unlawful possession of the evidence in question.

Institutions have been warned not to destroy documents and to be proactive in coming forwards to the inquiry, not to wait for the knock on the door, but to expose the wound and be a means of healing it.

There will be limitations to the IICSA.

It cannot prosecute or convict abusers, but all allegations of child abuse will be passed to the police for investigation. The inquiry will not pass on a person’s name or contact details without their consent, unless it is necessary to protect a child at risk of continuing abuse.

It will only look at abuse in England and Wales but will include instances when schools take children outside England and Wales, and it is also considering armed forces abroad, with a base in UK.

It will only examine sexual abuse as an institutional failure. The abuse by a family member will not be investigated by this inquiry unless the person suffering the abuse has been failed by the authorities.

Despite these limitations, England and Wales has for the first time an inquiry set up and capable of doing the job it has set out to do.

It has to succeed, failure is not an option and to those who question the cost, time and resources in place, you have to ask yourself what better use of money could there be than working toward protecting children from the scourge of sexual abuse.

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