Dutch Rapporteur: less thresholds for victims of sexual violence
More victims and perpetrators of sexual violence against children should be identified. The existing thresholds for victims to disclose the sexual violence they experienced, to report it to the agencies and to file a complaint to the police, should be lowered. That is the main conclusion in the report on sexual violence against children of the Dutch Rapporteur in Trafficking in Human Beings and Sexual Violence against Children. Apart from figures on the victims and perpetrators of sexual violence in the Netherlands, the report provides recommendations aimed at improving the policy and practice in tackling this societal problem. Cases of sexual violence should be registered in a detailed, consistent and uniform manner, in order to make the scale and nature of the problem visible. The Dutch Rapporteur, Corinne Dettmeijer-Vermeulen, has presented her report “On solid ground” to the Children’s Commissioner for England, who investigates the policy and practice in tackling child sexual abuse and exploitation in England.
The Dutch Rapporteur has mapped how often and in which forms sexual violence against children occurs in the Netherlands. In doing so, she included both the physical forms (hands-on, e.g. assault and rape) and non-physical forms (hands-off, e.g. indecency, webcam abuse and the possession of child pornography) of sexual violence against children. In the Netherlands, an estimated 62,000 children become victim of some form of sexual violence for the first time in their lives each year. That means that one in three children (32%) experience some form of sexual violence. Girls are relatively more often victimized than boys: 41% versus 23%. One in ten girls involuntarily experience manual sex, one in twenty involuntarily experience oral sex or intercourse.
Not all victims see themselves as victims, boys less often so than girls. Older children (16-17 years old) are more at risk than young children. Other groups at risk are disabled children, children in troubled families due to addictions and/or criminality, or children in compound families and single-parent families. The effects that victims of sexual violence experience, differ: although some do not experience any particular problems, others suffer from feelings of guilt, nightmares, or long term psychological, medical and/or sexual problems. Anyone could become a victim.
It is unknown how many people commit sexual violence against children. The suspects who are known, are almost always men (98%). Not every suspect has a sexual preference for children: at most 20% of the examined suspects is a paedophile. A quarter of the suspects is a child. Half of the suspects have not been in the picture of the police and the Public Prosection Service. In three quarters of the cases that have been reported to the police, the suspect is known by the respective child. In one in five of the cases the suspect is a family member.
Deciding on solid grounds
The policy and practice to tackle sexual violence against children can be considered as a sequence of decisions about (presumed) victims and (presumed) perpetrators. What makes for a good decision? Decisions have to be based on the best possible information, should be well balanced and should not be considered to exist in isolation; rather, they must be understood to be mutually connected with other decisions. A decision at an early stage (for instance the decision of a parent to report the abuse) in effect can determine future decisions (for instance the decision to start a police investigation).
Identification is difficult
It is not easy for a child that has suffered sexual violence to talk about it. Many victims disclose their experiences only after years – if ever. And they are not recognized by others. At the same time, identifying a situation of sexual violence may be the first step in stopping the abuse, in helping the victim, in trying the perpetrators and thus in preventing new victims. However, identifying signs of sexual violence is difficult. Signs can be (seemingly) absent, they can disappear soon or they can be symptoms of other problems. Another important factor is the incapability and/or the unwillingness of people to recognize a situation sexual violence. Perpetrators want to avoid being identified, and they are often successful in doing so. They can manipulate victims and others, preventing them from disclosing or testifying.
From reporting to investigating
People have increasingly found their way to the Child Abuse Counselling and Reporting Centers ("Advies- en Meldpunten Kindermishandeling", AMKs). However, it seems to be difficult for people to report suspicions of sexual violence. Moreover, AMKs investigate reports of sexual violence to a lesser extent than reports of other forms of child abuse. But once victims are identified, it seems that if help is necessary, it is organized. Still, according to the Dutch Rapporteur, too small a proportion of the victims receive help.
The majority (59%) of victims who report sexual violence to the police, do so within 24 hours after the violence took place. 17% report after more than one year. If victims of hands-on offences do not know the suspect, they wait for reporting to the police for ten days on average. However, if the suspect is known to the victim, victims seem to hesitate much longer to report it: eight months on average.
When a situation is reported to the police, only three out of ten preliminary interviews lead to a formal complaint. One reason for this seems to be that the police place too much emphasis on the disadvantages of filing a complaint. The Dutch Rapporteur wants more reports to be investigated.
Prosecution and trial
Almost 60% of the suspects are prosecuted by the Public Prosecution Service, in 23% of the cases regarding hands-off offences, most of all child pornography. Of the suspects who are prosecuted, 77% are convicted. A (partially) unconditional prison sentence is imposed on four out of ten convicted perpetrators, on average the prison sentence is less than one year (350 days). The assessments of the risk of recidivism under convicted perpetrators still do not occur in the most effective way. Consequently, offenders do not always receive the right treatment, leading to over-treatment as well as under-treatment. For low-risk offenders treatment has little effect and may even increase the risk of reoffending.
Unfortunately, not all sexual violence can be prevented. This does not mean that sexual violence can never be prevented. In the existing Dutch prevention campaigns, the diversity of the phenomenon of sexual violence against children is insufficiently covered. Especially preventing children and adults from committing sexual violence does not obtain enough attention: too much emphasis is put on improving the resilience of potential victims by teaching them to protect their boundaries, too little emphasis is put on the responsibility of potential offenders not to violate other people’s boundaries.