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Cyprus Internet Directory [ Legal system failing child abuse victims ]

Legal system failing child abuse victims

THE Attorney-general’s office said yesterday it disagreed with the March 21 decision of the appeals court to halve the sentence of a 50-year-old man who had been convicted for 10 years for the rape of his underage stepdaughter.

Although the decision was described as “final and respected”, the Attorney-general’s office and the Advisory Committee for the Prevention and Combating of Family Violence yesterday expressed their grave concern at the message it sent out.

The abuse started when the girl was eight years old and by the time she was 13, her stepfather was having sexual intercourse with her.

“Rape is a crime punishable with a life sentence and we believe that the specific case did not warrant a decrease in the length of the punishment,” said Eleni Loizidou on behalf of the Attorney-general at a news conference hosted by the Advisory Committee.

The appeals court accepted the defence’s argument that the girl’s lack of consent had not been proved to establish rape.

“Since the sentencing of rape was not doubted by the appeals court, the issue of consent or willingness by the victim was not raised,” Loizidou argued.

Loizidou added that because this was a case of family violence, the victim often does not react. Discussing consent, therefore, is a non sequitur.

President of the Committee Annita Koni said that the aim was to enlighten people about the psychological factors involved child abuse by a parent or guardian.

She was worried about the messages the decision of the appeals court sent.

“The impression has been given that the justice system leaves family violence victims helpless, placing the burden of guilt on the child and possibly encouraging sexual abuse within the family,” said Koni.

“What provokes indignation is not only the reduction of the perpetrator’s punishment, but the logic behind the decision,” said Neophytos Papaneophytou, a child and adolescent psychiatrist.

“Cases of child abuse cannot be compared to those of adult victims,” he said before proceeding to point out what he thought was the crucial difference.

“In the family there’s an expectation of children to obey their parent’s wishes: the parent assumes a role of authority vis-?-vis the child.”

He went on to say that, “most cases of sexual abuse begin when the child is at pre-school age.

“This is known as ‘child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome’,” Papaneophytou attested and can be broken down into five, gradual stages: secrecy, helplessness, entrapment and accommodation, delayed unconvincing disclosure, and retraction.

“The continuing abuse which threatens the physical and psychological integrity of the child mobilises defence mechanisms which transform the harm which s/he is suffering into a ‘normal’ occurrence.”

According to the psychiatrist, some children react by disembodying themselves by viewing the abuse from an observer’s position, or by pretending that the lower half of their body does not exist during the abuse, or by pretending to be asleep.

“In this way, they create a situation of pseudo-normality which allows them to go on with their lives.”

Papaneophytou said he had treated adults who may me depressed and/or suicidal, only to soon discover that the root cause of their condition is sexual abuse at the hands of a relative when they were younger.

Worryingly, “approximately 30 per cent of victims of sexual abuse refuse to talk about and/or report rape and incest,” said Papaneophytou, adding that often it is the case that the other parent does not believe them if they speak out.

Following introductory speeches, yesterday’s news conference quickly left the theoretical and moved into the practical.

Does the law need revising? Shouldn’t we focus on sensitising the public? What do the numbers say?

These are not easy questions, as the variety of perspectives and responses indicated.

Papaneophytou suggested the decision be reported to international bodies such as Human Rights Watch, while Koni thought that the law needed to be revised.

DISY Deputy Stella Kyriakidou countered that the law was fine as it was: “It would be wrong to try to find gaps in the law,” she said.

“What happened was an issue of a mistaken interpretation,” rather than anything else, she added.

EDEK Deputy Roula Mavronikola agreed that the law was fine, focusing instead on how it was that we reached a situation where a judge reduced a sentence while the Attorney-general’s office openly disagrees with the judge’s verdict.

A spokeswoman of the Advisory Committee did well to show how numbers cannot be trusted in such cases, despite the figures shown in the first island wide survey about violence in the family which was conducted in 2006.

According to the survey, 100 out of 1,000 children said that they had been sexually abused but would not tell anybody because they thought nobody would believe them or because they thought that they would wreck the family home.

A spokeswoman from the Psychiatric Services added that, “sexual abuse within the family is a frequent occurrence, and our data set is but a small piece of the puzzle.”

Another issue raised was the trust the legal system had in victims who recant their testimonies and wish the case to be dropped.

“Perhaps it would be better if the legal system treated such desires as suspicious before accepting them at face value,” an attendee suggested.

Finally, Papaneophytou highlighted efforts being made by local psychiatrists to bring in experts from the United Kingdom to educate judges on child abuse.

(Source: Cyprus Mail)

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