Daily Telegraph, Monday 18 March 2019
Most people would see these women as survivors of horrendous crimes. One of them, Sammy Woodhouse, has become well-known not just for giving evidence against a notorious grooming gang but as a courageous campaigner for other victims. But now these same women have accused government ministers of further punishing survivors of child abuse.
Their pleas for a pardon for girls, mostly underage, who were forced to commit crimes by adult abusers have been ignored, forcing them to reveal decades-old criminal convictions to prospective employers.
It’s a bitter blow for Ms Woodhouse, 33, who launched her campaign for what’s become known as ‘Sammy’s law’ in 2017. At present, women like her have to reveal juvenile offences when they apply for jobs or voluntary activities involving contact with children or vulnerable adults.
While the requirement is intended to protect vulnerable individuals, it doesn’t distinguish between people convicted as adults and those who committed offences under duress when they were children. Ms Woodhouse was only 14 when she was first targeted by Arshid Hussain, who is now serving 35 years for multiple sex offences against children.
A year later, police found her hiding half-naked under a bed in a house where Hussain was also present. While he wasn’t detained, she was arrested and cautioned for possession of an offensive weapon, a truncheon she had been given by Hussain. A few months later, she was convicted of assault after he encouraged her to get into a fight with another girl.
It couldn’t be clearer that Ms Woodhouse is a victim of what enlightened police officers now call ‘complex victimisation’. The phrase describes a situation where vulnerable children are targeted by criminals, brutalised and forced into committing crimes themselves. A similar phenomenon happens in teenage gangs, where female members are used to hide drugs and weapons. As adults, they will have criminal records even though they were primarily victims of rapes and sexual assaults, for which their attackers were never convicted.
One of the perverse effects of the current law is that it forces survivors of sex attacks to give up their right to lifelong anonymity. Women like Ms Woodhouse feel the only way they can explain their criminal record to prospective employers is to reveal the context, effectively outing themselves as rape victims.
The same thing is happening to women who were forced into prostitution as teenagers by violent pimps. Last year, three women went to court to challenge the legal obligation to disclose decades-old prostitution offences. One of them, Fiona Broadfoot, 50, was trafficked from Bradford to London 35 years ago at the age of 15.
She received her first conviction for soliciting two years later, acquiring a further 98 convictions before she managed to escape the sex trade almost a quarter of a century ago. But she is still forced in certain situations – such as her application to join a parent-teacher group at her son’s school – to reveal a criminal record that describes her in archaic and offensive language as ‘a common prostitute’.
The High Court agreed that the rules are unfair in cases where ‘any link between the past offending and the assessment of present risk…is either non-existent or at best extremely tenuous’. But the government has signalled its intention to appeal, apparently intent on opposing any change in the law to help victims. The unfairness is obvious: ‘The men who bought me never got arrested for raping a vulnerable child,’ Ms Broadfoot points out, ‘but I still have to declare my convictions?’
What it exposes is the government’s longstanding reluctance to recognise glaring inequalities in the criminal justice system. Grooming gangs operated with impunity in English towns and cities – Rochdale, Oxford, Newcastle, Huddersfield and Bolton, as well as Rotherham – while their victims were treated as runaways, delinquents or girls who had ‘chosen’ a dangerous lifestyle.
It took years, decades even, before the perpetrators were convicted of a litany of offences, yet their victims often had criminal records long before they left their teens. Now the criminal justice system that failed to protect them as children is failing them again as adults, refusing to lift the stigma of a criminal record forced on them by their abusers.