Victim blaming risks legitimizing predators and makes sex crimes against children much more difficult to investigate, senior detectives and child safety advocates have warned.
During several recent high-profile sexual abuse cases, police have been concerned about the level and tenor of commentary on social media.
It’s not just that such comments risk influencing a trial, says Kevin Ashworth, the RCIPS supervisor in the new Multi-Agency Child Safeguarding Hub, which houses detectives leading child abuse investigations, as well as social workers and Health Services Authority counselors. Police are particularly concerned about the potential impact on victims who have yet to come forward.
“This is a small society and it can be like a goldfish bowl at times,” Mr. Ashworth said. “If there are two trials running parallel to each other – one in the courts that is very restricted and one that is on social media, completely unrestricted and fueled by anonymous posts – we have to hope it doesn’t damage cases.
“We know there are many more victims out there. There are more witnesses out there that see this behavior and know it is wrong but don’t report it because of this victim blaming and witness blaming that takes place.”
When Errington Webster, 55, a prominent Bodden Town resident who had planned to run for political office, was on trial this year for indecently assaulting a girl in her early teens, a small, but vocal section of the community came out in his defense.
Comments during the trial that the child victim had manipulated him and was partially to blame were particularly concerning for Mr. Ashworth. In that case, the court heard that Webster gave the child presents and sometimes money.
“I think I saw a comparison made between an experienced male versus a vulnerable, impressionable child who was essentially groomed,” said Mr. Ashworth. “From a psychological point of view, these are classic cases of empowering a perpetrator to carry on doing what they are doing. Even if it is a minority view, once it is raised on social media, it becomes a talking point and it can certainly have an influence on other victims.”
The impact of victim blaming in child abuse cases is particularly pernicious, says Carolina Ferreira, deputy director of the Cayman Islands Red Cross, because it reinforces what the child may already be hearing from the perpetrator.
“It keeps young people silent and it adds to that fear that they won’t be believed. This is what the perpetrator is already telling them: no one will believe you; you were part of it too. Sometimes this is what children are hearing in their own home, for example, if it is a partner of the parent or one of the parents who is accused.”
Statistics suggest sexual abuse is one of the most under-reported crimes in many jurisdictions.
One in five girls between the ages of 15 and 19 reported that they had been sexually abused in childhood, during a comprehensive World Health Organization-funded survey of Cayman Islands teenagers published in 2015. Ms. Ferreira said earlier studies suggest the number was even higher, yet many victims are still not believed when they first report the abuse to an adult.
According to Mr. Ashworth, the MASH unit is bringing a new approach to investigating reports of abuse against children, as the unit involves police, social workers and child psychologists from the outset. He said the unit does not simply treat victims as witnesses in potential criminal cases, but provides a full support structure to help address the issue from a child safety perspective.
He believes, despite some high-profile mistakes in previous investigations before MASH was launched in March, that this new approach has already resulted in an increase in reporting.
By August of this year, the number of cases involving juvenile victims referred to the unit had already eclipsed the total of 286 reports in 2016. The figure for 2015 was 219.
“We are seeing an exponential growth in reporting since the opening of the MASH unit,” Mr. Ashworth said. “We don’t think that means there has been an increase in this type of behavior, [but] witnesses and victims know where to come and have that confidence in the system to come forward. It is a positive thing in that the issue is being highlighted and dealt with.”
Ms. Ferreira believes sexual abuse is a multigenerational problem that has gone under-reported in Cayman for decades.
She believes victim blaming on Facebook is the tip of an iceberg that hints at a wider lack of understanding of the dynamics of sexual abuse, the impact of grooming and the steps parents can take to protect their children.
“The reality is that when we are talking about abuse and it is an adult perpetrator and a child victim, the child is never to blame,” she said.
“Yet with girls, the question people always seem to ask is was she really that innocent? With boys, we don’t talk about it at all. It is treated as a high-five situation.”
The Red Cross helped form the Protection Starts Here organization in 2012, bringing together teachers, education officials, health professionals, police and others to raise awareness of child sexual abuse in the Cayman Islands and improve training for adults dealing with children.
The project has developed a documentary that highlights the scale and impact of the problem in the Cayman Islands and is used as a learning tool for organizations that deal with children. It also facilitates “darkness to light” training to help adults identify the signs of abuse and protect children against it. The group also offers “Seal of Protection” status to youth organizations, such as summer camps and sports clubs that follow proper protection procedures, including criminal background checks for workers and volunteers.
Ms. Ferreira said it is important for parents to educate themselves and, as consumers, hold such organizations accountable.
Though people fear stereotypical “stranger danger,” in most child abuse cases, she says, the threat is often a lot closer to home.
“In 90 percent of cases, the perpetrator is someone you know and maybe someone you love, which is what makes it so difficult. It is who you give access to your children.”