‘Every parent’s nightmare’

A little girl's claim that she was raped in her bedroom turned out to be a childish fabrication. Why did the police get it so wrong?

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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When is a rape not a rape? When it never happened.

This might seem obvious, but the potential reality gap between claims of rape and actual crimes of rape recently took Essex police and the national press by surprise. In March, a child aged ‘between five and 10’ claimed she had been raped in her own bedroom. The claim triggered a massive police investigation, to the tune of £120,000. Police released a description and sketch of the attacker, described in startling detail as black, aged 18 to 20, with dirty teeth and wearing a ring bearing the word ‘Boyz’ or ‘Boys’; skinny, wearing a grey top with dark writing and loose-fitting, ripped trousers, probably designer.

Police patrolled the area, issued public appeals for information, which brought in hundreds of calls, and wrote to headteachers of schools in the area. Forensic scientists combed the girl’s home, and Superintendent Glenn Caton, of Essex Police, went so far as to tell the BBC that he could not rule out that the black community could be asked to provide DNA samples (1). The UK media fell on the story, with headlines like ‘Child raped by intruder in her own bedroom’ (2), and Chief Inspector Graham Carey’s comment was widely circulated: ‘It is an horrendous incident for the family and for the victim and it is every parent’s nightmare.’ (3)

Then, two months later, came another shocking headline: ‘Girl made up rape claim, say police.’ (4) It was reported that the girl admitted that she had made the claim up, and Essex police had ended the inquiry, leaving the family at the mercy of social workers who believe that the girl made up the story after witnessing sexual activity in a domestic setting ‘on more than one occasion’. And given the lack of further comment from the police or anybody else, that seems to be the end of the story.

But should it be? Whatever really happened on the Craylands estate in Basildon that night, this story illuminates some disturbing trends in the treatment of rape claims by the police, by the criminal justice system, and by the media. The fact that an allegation of rape by a young child should be immediately accepted as fact, setting in motion a gruelling official investigation and a national child safety scare, seems to have been accepted as merely one of those things; a small price to pay to bring justice for those children who really have been subjected to appalling abuses.

In reality, such institutionalised credulity on the part of the law, alongside a cultural assumption that child sexual abuse is rife and that children should always be believed, makes pursuing genuine cases of child rape more confusing and complicated, and has unfortunate consequences for fanciful children and the adults around them.

From the start, there was clearly something odd about this story. There were five other children and the girl’s mother in the house at the time the alleged rape happened, and one of the other children was sleeping in the alleged victim’s bedroom – yet nobody else noticed the attack. There were no obvious signs of forced entry into the house. The girl claimed that she did not know her attacker, yet gave an extraordinarily detailed account of his appearance. All of these oddities were apparent in the first media accounts – yet none seemed to warrant even the use of the word ‘alleged’ in police comments or news articles. A spokesman for Essex police later admitted that they had taken the girl’s account at face value; and the press did accordingly.

Of course any allegations of this nature made by a child should be taken seriously. But the criminal justice system does not work according to ‘face value’, for the simple reason that people do sometimes make things up, or get things wrong. The principle that defendants are innocent until proven guilty, the requirement of hard evidence to prove the facts of a crime, and the legal penalties applied to those who fabricate allegations, are important safeguards against the inherent dangers of taking things at face value. Yet when it comes to allegations of sexual offences, these legal safeguards are being deliberately softened in the name of ‘putting victims first’, or ‘putting children first’.

The Daily Mail highlights one such change: ‘The abrupt and surprising ending of the inquiry highlights a little-known recent change in the law under which offences formerly listed as sexual or indecent assault are now classified as rape. That means it is no longer necessary to prove that penetration took place for an act to be classed, legally, as rape.’ (5) The Sexual Offences Act 2003 changed the definition of ‘rape’ from ‘anal or vaginal intercourse by a man without consent’ to ‘penile penetration of another person’s vagina, anus or mouth, without consent (including surgically reconstructed male and female genitalia)’. Indecent assault was redefined as ‘Assault by penetration: sexual penetration of the vagina or anus with any part of the body or with another object, without consent’. New offences, such as ‘Sexual assault of a child under 13: sexual touching’ have been created, carrying hefty penalties (6).

A police source has commented that an examination of the girl soon after the supposed assault did not rule out the possibility that she had been attacked (7). The legal expansion of the rape definition helps to make sense of this. The intention of the law is clearly to ensure that victims of deeply unpleasant assaults have their ordeal treated more seriously, and that their attackers do not ‘get away with it’ on a forensic technicality. In reality, however, rape is notoriously difficult to prove – a broader definition of rape must be even more so. In this case, the girl had apparently inflicted injuries upon herself, which no doubt confused things further.
In practice, because of the difficulties of proof, ‘putting victims first’ means according greater weight to their allegations about what actually happened and whether they consented, even if the evidence is less than conclusive.

This change in approach was summed up by the Essex police’s admission, in this case, that they had taken the young girl’s rape allegation at face value. As the Guardian reported: ‘The police denied that their reaction to the allegation, which left the community terrified that a sex attacker was in its midst, had been over the top. A spokesman said officers had had to take the girl’s account at face value, and would do the same again in a similar situation.’ (8) It is now official policy to treat every allegation of rape, especially from a child, as the unquestioned truth, regardless of the misgivings that those working on such cases must surely have. The consequences of this approach are troubling, on many fronts.

Commentators often remark that we live in a highly sexualised culture, in which children are exposed on a daily basis to sexually explicit language and images. Children are also exposed, through school and television, to an ongoing high-profile campaign against child abuse, which uses graphic images of abuse and encourages children to think about whether these apply to their lives, or the lives of anybody they know. It is strange, then, to presume that some children brought up in this culture are not going to make up stories of sexual assault, and be able to describe them in a believable way.

But what happens to those children who do this, as seems to have been the case in Basildon? In the past, a more sober approach, and one less committed to the dogma of ‘putting children first’ by believing any claim that they make, might have gently unravelled the reality of the situation before sending the child quietly home. In this case, a young girl, her friends and family have spent two months being put through a harrowing investigation, and become the focus of national concern and no doubt local notoriety – and the police do not even recognise that their reaction was over the top.

It has been reported that no charges will be laid against the girl’s mother, because the detectives believe she had reported the crime in good faith. Quite right too! A mother is to be expected to believe her child, and to take action if her child claims to have been hurt – it is for the police to make a sober, realistic assessment of the situation, rather than making a beeline for the TV cameras to talk about ‘every parent’s nightmare’ becoming a reality.

Essex police’s desperate attempts to show how in tune they are with the new approach to rape laws have clearly done little good for the family at the centre of this case. The broader ramifications of the story have provided another focus for parental anxieties, and amplified the cultural trend that sees child abuse everywhere, and strangers as sick dangers.

Perhaps the most damaging feature of cases like these, however, is what they mean for those rare cases where children do suffer from appalling abuse and assault. When society’s resources and energy are focused on bogus nightmare scenarios, this diminishes its capacity to deal with real crimes. And when false allegations are accepted uncritically as truth, it is only a matter of time before all allegations are tarnished with scepticism. How is this about putting children, or victims, first?

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Topics Politics


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