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After Goddard: what the Child Abuse Inquiry must do next

Date:15 AUG 2016
While current and past child abuse inquiries around the world seem to take the challenges of such large investigations in their stride, the UK's Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse ('the Inquiry') continues to stumble on the starting block. The reasons for this have been in plain sight for some time - but will the Inquiry listen to reason before it's too late?

Having appointed its fourth Chair (former panel member Professor Alexis Jay), the Inquiry has taken on a very different hue. Professor Jay is the first Chair not to have had any legal or judicial background, but will be nestled in among a lawyer-heavy team who have shaped the Inquiry to look and feel like a court of law. This could pose some challenges, as Professor Jay may have a view to reshape the Inquiry in the coming weeks - and so she should.

There is no question that the Inquiry should either start afresh or shut down completely, as sources quoted by the media have suggested. A UK Inquiry into non-recent child sexual abuse was always going to be a considerable undertaking: after decades of ignoring one of the most ingrained and on-going abuses of human rights in the UK, how could it be anything but extensive?

The good news is that the Inquiry doesn't need to go back to the beginning to get back on track, but it does need to become much more familiar with the mindset of survivors.

The Inquiry has taken much of its inspiration from high-profile child abuse investigations occurring around the world, most obviously Australia's own Royal Commission looking into institutional abuse. However, in order to be truly ground-breaking, it needs to refocus and frame the Inquiry in a way which brings out the best in survivors and key stakeholders who have the ability to unearth vital pieces of evidence. Dr Liz Davies offers some of the best recommendations to date on how to do this.

Another hugely important aspect the Inquiry needs to fully take on board is the campaigning history which belongs to survivors: a narrative which is significant because so many victims come to the table with an already extensive knowledge not just of the scale of abuse in the UK, but also how the government has typically dealt with such abuse.

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The enormous scale of child sexual abuse in the UK has meant that an unusually high number of victims observing the Inquiry are seasoned and highly effective campaigners. Often with decades of lobbying under their belts and a deep mistrust of 'the Establishment' stemming from their own experiences of highlighting abuse, survivors make unusual Inquiry subjects and their expectations are integral to the Inquiry's success. As a result, the Inquiry can't function with an entry-level philosophy because these campaigners are not only familiar with a broad range of people and places being investigated, but are also very well informed and excellent at sharing information and emphasising discrepancies. Subsequently, they demand transparency.

Since its creation, the Inquiry has shied away from engaging with survivors and members of the public not working directly with the investigation, and this has been a mistake which has lost the Inquiry the trust and support it deserves. Far from being an exercise in gaining popularity, appropriate engagement fosters dialogue with a wider audience of victims and allows the public to understand the Inquiry's vision. While there is a Twitter site for the Inquiry, it does not currently reply to any queries it receives on that platform, leaving people feeling confused by the process and survivors ignored, compounding a sense that they are not relevant to the discussions surrounding their abuse.

As part of its transparency drive, the Inquiry should also seek to produce explanatory documents with every new development, and be prepared to answer questions via social media platforms such as Twitter so that any queries relating to the investigations are answered fully and, where necessary, probed by survivors, the public, and the press. Recent confusions include the Inquiry's power to investigate individuals, and whether or not an interim Chair can be appointed until a permanent replacement can be found. Being able to deal with these questions swiftly as they arise fosters confidence in a long-term process which requires the public's patience. Opening up a conversation with the wider public will also allow the Inquiry to source more of the information it needs as well, but it must also begin to create relationships with institutional managers if it hopes to gather as much evidence as possible.

Another flaw in the Inquiry under Goddard's leadership was the assumption that government organisations would be proactive in sourcing and sharing evidence which could help the Inquiry. Goddard did not insist that a working process be put into place to ensure the collection of information; instead, she 'invited' organisations to take the lead on this initiative and offer the Inquiry what they could. With such organisations often understaffed and without the relevant infrastructure to appoint people to search department archives, asking managers to rifle through files without giving them a working plan is not enough when evidence is at a premium and the heart of any investigation. The Inquiry urgently needs to start engaging with department heads, both present and those who have since retired but may be aware of the location of files and information from relevant periods. These relationships will be fundamental in building a powerful evidence base and learning about the ways in which evidence is stored, utilised and ultimately destroyed.

The nation's Inquiry into child sexual abuse is arguably one of the most important inquiries in UK history. If it allows itself to reach out and build relationships, it could make strides in identifying better ways to protect children from future abuse in ways other inquiries around the world have not.

You can follow Natasha Phillips on Twitter: @SobukiRa

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