Child advocates have raised concerns over how sexual abuse allegations are handled in the Cayman Islands in the wake of a judge’s warning that “inexcusable delays” had impacted the chances of justice in a recent case.
Judge Timothy Owens said last week he was “astonished” that serious allegations of sustained sexual abuse made by an 11-year-old girl against older male relatives had not been investigated more promptly. He questioned why the case had apparently been dropped for 18 months by police and then took another two years to come to trial.
He said no one in the trial had been able to explain why that had happened.
The Royal Cayman Islands Police Service has declined to comment on the delays in the investigation and what action it is taking, until Justice Owens delivers his verdict and final judgment in the case, likely some time in September.
The sensitive case, in which neither of the defendants can be named to protect the identity of the child, was heard by the judge, with no jury, last week.
Whatever the verdict, which remains to be decided, counselors and youth workers say better communication between the various agencies responsible for child protection is needed, as well as more accountability when things go wrong.
Dr. Taylor Burrowes, a counselor who runs a sexual trauma recovery program at the Wellness Center, said, “When we hear our court judges say, ‘I don’t know why this happened,’ we have a problem on our hands. I would like to see a review of the legal processes, procedures, and policies for child abuse investigations by a collective of professionals working with the police and the legal department.”
Though she believes there have been improvements in the reporting of abuse, and more cases coming to court, she said that only a fraction of allegations sexual abuse ever made it as far as the trial stage.
“I want to understand how we can improve and expedite their investigations and court proceedings so that the child victims and their families can experience less retraumatization by the court process, more frequent justice through sentencing, and we see the guilty offenders given suitable sentences and rehabilitative treatment to actually help our community reduce and maybe even eradicate child sexual abuse,” she said.
Michael Myles, a member of the Youth Anti-Crime Trust, said greater accountability and penalties were needed for agencies that failed to act appropriately once abuse was alleged.
“Until agencies and persons working for them are held accountable, it will not matter how many laws we implement,” he said.
The Children Law makes it mandatory for people working with children to report suspicions of abuse, while the Red Cross has embarked on an awareness campaign and also offers “darkness to light” training – a program that helps adults identify and intervene in child abuse cases.
In the case last week, it emerged that the girl had first reported allegations that she was being abused to a volunteer in an after-school club. It was only after a report was made to police that the investigation stalled, the court heard.
Speaking generally and in his capacity as a Youth ACT member, Mr. Myles said there were still gaps in training, as well as inefficiencies and lack of communication among government and community agencies with respect to child abuse and child protection. He said more stringent background checks were needed for anyone working with children.
“There are too many persons who are working with children who are not trained in child protection,” he said. “Unfortunately, these challenges will continue to hinder investigations and the safety of our children.”
A Pan American Health Organization report released in May 2015 based on a series of surveys with 955 young people, aged 15-19, revealed that one in five girls reported that they had been sexually abused, while one in six children had been physically assaulted by an adult.
At the time, the police’s Family Support Unit, the main investigative body for child abuse, had had just 41 cases referred since January 2014 – a 17 month period. Updated statistics were not available from the RCIPS this week.
Dr. Burrowes, who has operated a sexual trauma recovery program for victims of abuse for more seven years, believes there is still a large gap between the instances of abuse and the number of offenders brought to justice.
She said, “The program has seen 70 referrals of sexually abused youth and few of them have had positive outcomes from criminal proceedings.
“I would like to find out how many child sex offenders have been put in prison and what is the percentage of cases brought to court that end with a conviction?”
The Department for Public Prosecutions does not keep statistics on conviction rates for sexual abuse or any other offense.
Dr. Burrowes echoed the judge’s concerns about delays in the recent case. Though that incident was an extreme example, she said, it frequently took too long for cases involving abuse of children to come to court.
She said lack of physical evidence, the reluctance of children to give evidence and the potential impact on the child’s mental health were often cited as reasons for delays in such cases.
Speaking generally, she said, “I think we need to have a more sensitive threshold for justifying legal action for child sexual abuse, and rest the decision making power with the court. A traumatized child often does not want to have to tell their story out of fear or shame.
“In other jurisdictions, child disclosure is not mandatory.
“Overall, I believe the legal system places too much responsibility on the child victim. If the parent or school counsellor or teacher has been told about the abuse directly from the child, I believe their statement or one from a reliable witness should be used to validate a robust investigation immediately.”
On the other side of the coin, Dr. Burrowes believes there should be more access to rehabilitative treatment for offenders.
Dr. Sophia Chandler, a psychologist who works with victims of sexual abuse at the Cayman Islands Hospital, previously told the Cayman Compass that many instances of child abuse go completely unreported to adults and only emerge in anonymous surveys like the PAHO report.
“The vast majority of sexual abuse is within families or the close friendship circle. For the child, reporting it means totally disrupting what has been the norm in the family,” she said.
“A lot of children do a cost/benefit analysis and decide they may not be believed. There really is a disconnect between the amount of abuse happening and what breaks through to the courts.”