Just over a year ago, at lunchtime on the 20th October 2022, UK news was dominated by the breaking story that Prime Minister Liz Truss had resigned with immediate effect. At the same time and only 2 miles away from Downing Street, in Portland Place in London, another story was coming to an end, that of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), where the Inquiry’s final report was being launched.
As IICSA staff and child sexual abuse survivor campaigners, we watched with deep sadness as the journalists who had gathered to report on the launch of the Inquiry’s final report packed up their cameras in front of our eyes and hurried off to the bigger story, the ongoing psychodrama of the political class. We shared weary glances and ironic asides as we reflected that it was a fitting, if ignominious end, for an inquiry that had been established in the first place to investigate the sorts of catastrophic failures of institutional governance that we were seeing replicated before our eyes. On this first anniversary, we wanted to reflect on IICSA’s work, its failures and achievements, and to ask the question on many survivors’ lips, what has really changed?
IICSA was commissioned in 2015 in the wake of several high-profile cases of institutional failure to protect children from child sexual abuse. It was the largest public inquiry in UK history, comprising 15 investigations, and publishing 19 investigation-related reports, and 42 other reports and publications as well as individual testimonies from survivors. There has been an increase in child abuse inquiries in high and medium-income countries in the past 30 years and it is an emerging area of scholarship. The developing interest in social science in child abuse inquiries stands in contrast to a complex legacy on the topic with some arguing child sexual abuse can be considered a moral panic. While the scope, structure and outcomes of child abuse inquiries have varied from country to country, one consistent development has been a ‘turn to testimony’ as a way of foregrounding child abuse survivors’ experiences and placing victim needs at the centre of how inquiries are operationalized. Questions of how successful these inquiries have been in prioritizing victim needs has come under critique, but survivor engagement through the use of testimony to inform inquiry findings are now a central feature of the process, and, when executed correctly, can provide invaluable scaffolding for all inquiries’ investigations
At IICSA, survivor participation primarily took the form of the Truth Project, a private space whereby any adults who self-identified as having suffered child sexual abuse were offered an opportunity to share their experiences, the impacts the abuse had upon them and to make recommendations for change. From 2017-2021 over 6,000 adults from England and Wales came to the Truth Project, making it the biggest public participation in an inquiry in the UK. It led to the creation of one of the largest data sets concerning child sexual abuse in the world. In spite of child sexual abuse being seen as a taboo topic, (to the point where even mental health professionals report fearfulness in asking about it), our research found that most survivors we surveyed found their participation in the Truth Project to be an empowering experience because they felt believed and taken seriously, two essential features needed for recovery yet so often absent from statutory services during the reporting process. What motivated people to participate in the Truth Project varied but two consistent themes emerged; firstly, people wanted to be listened to, often in contrast to what had happened when they were children, and secondly, that their contribution could help ensure that future generations of children would be protected from what they had endured. The experiences shared with the Truth Project fed into the inquiry’s work-streams and contributed towards the development of 20 key recommendations to government, which headline the final report with 63 additional recommendations.
Given this extraordinary act of civic generosity from adult survivors and a public investment of over £180 million pounds in to IICSA, it seems reasonable at the anniversary to ask, what action has been taken?
The government made an immediate ministerial statement via Grant Schapps (who was briefly Home Secretary). He said; “We will honour (survivor) courage by keeping their voices front and centre in everything we do and in overseeing a radical improvement in how (CSA) is dealt with and prevented.” It went on to offer an apology to victims and survivors who had been failed and read as a sincere attempt at contrition, atonement and an undertaking to act. Fast-forward to May 2023, and a new Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, offered similarly portentous rhetoric in the government’s formal response to IICSA’s recommendations. There was talk of action on 19 of the 20 recommendations; the one that government did not address was the recommendation on ceasing pain-inducing restraint techniques of children in secure settings. Some included recommendations were action on a redress scheme for adult survivors and a mandatory reporting duty. So far, so good. However, as the speech proceeded a familiar feeling of disquiet grew. There was talk of “launching a call for evidence” and a promise to “carefully consult victims and survivors.” What more evidence or consultation could possibly be needed following a seven-year public inquiry that cost almost a quarter of a billion pounds and produced 2.5 million pages of evidence? One could almost hear IICSA’s hefty 458-page final report, and with it the civic contribution of thousands of survivors, being kicked into the political long grass alongside all the other areas of public policy deemed too challenging, too complex, or not important enough. The one area of child sexual abuse intervention that Braverman was keen to act on was her determination to stamp out grooming gangs, falsely claiming that most of them were made up of men from British-Pakistani backgrounds.
Responses from survivors have been less than complementary. The Survivors Trust, a national umbrella organization for specialist sexual violence services, who had lobbied for IICSA and then provided crucial consultation through its lifespan, described the government’s response as lacking “the detail and immediate action required to generate a much-needed culture change around how we as a society respond to child sexual abuse.”
What is particularly dispiriting for survivor advocates is that the ‘whitewash’ narrative was attached to IICSA’s work early on, an understandable skepticism from people who had already been betrayed by institutions of the state. However, the inquiry did go on to investigate areas of public life previously off limits and to robustly challenge institutions. It was defended most powerfully by survivors, who could see the potential for it to deliver justice that had previously been out of reach. The lack of government action risks solidifying survivor beliefs that there is no point in hoping for meaningful change.
We feel a need to offer an alternative to despair, cynicism and disengagement, and we want to finish on an alternative reading of IICSA, one year on. While governmental response has been inadequate, survivor groups in collaboration with the third sector have developed their own responses to IICSA’s work and are working to improve child protection. Internationally, survivor lobbying has been able to spearhead inquiry recommendation implementation, with a group in Northern Ireland increasing the minimum amount of redress offered to child abuse survivors. However, potentially the most enduring achievement of survivor engagement with IICSA, may also be its most amorphous. The huge public participation in the Truth Project means that survivor testimony has been instrumental in raising societal awareness about child sexual abuse and challenging perceptions that it is a marginal issue. It also reimagines how justice processes operate in relation to institutional failures, with public bodies and expert opinion being of secondary importance to the value of lived and living experience.
This calls to mind the words of James Baldwin in No Name in the Street;
“if one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected- those, precisely, who need to the law’s protection most!- and listens to their testimony.”
While the government may wish to forget about child sexual abuse and to use IICSA as a screen to hide behind, many survivors are less willing to let go. Their testimonies will act as an enduring act of remembrance and a safeguard against future forgetting.
Author Biography: Lucy Duckworth, having started adult life as a teacher, she completed an MSc in psychotherapy, focusing on the effects of childhood trauma. Lucy sat on the Victims and Survivors Consultative Panel (VSCP) at IICSA and runs a training programme for NHS staff to develop a more trauma informed approach when working with patients who have experienced sexual violence. Lucy is passionate about reforming the way we view, respond and prevent all forms of sexual violence, especially for children of school age and for women throughout their maternity journey. As such she continues to work with various universities to as a researcher as well as contributing to wider awareness projects and writing and delivering bespoke trauma informed training packages for public, voluntary and private sector.