Children in court - Part 1

Chapter five

Witness Service training

The evaluation of a new training programme for the Witness Service at Courts A and B consisted of:

This chapter draws on an evaluation report of the two-day training course which was provided to Victim Support in July 1995.

Aims and objectives of the Child Witness Support Training Programme

Volunteers and the coordinator at Court A attended a two day multi-agency child protection course in May 1995.35 The course objectives included the definitions of child abuse, the processes of 'working together' and the importance of prevention in child protection work. Contributors to the programme included psychiatrists, social services' staff, police officers, a paediatrician, probation officer, health visitor and a local authority solicitor. In addition to the Witness Service, attendees included representatives from education, health, the police, social services, probation and other voluntary organisations. One presentation, 'the fishbowl', allowed the audience to see real life participants roleplay what happens at a child protection case conference.

The following month, coordinators and volunteers from Courts A and B participated in a two day training programme focused specifically on child witness support. This programme, which was itself a pilot, was delivered by two local authority child protection trainers from an ACPC Training Group and a police officer from a local child protection team. One session was led by a lawyer from the CPS. The programme's aims and objectives for participants were stated as follows:

The principal trainers acknowledged that in designing the course, they had moved away from the NSPCC programme37 to develop a 'more child centred' approach. This was intended to give opportunities for more detailed roleplays, experiential exercises and an exploration of attitudes towards children and child protection issues. The approach incorporated elements used successfully in professional child protection training. The trainers drew on their own experience in preparing child witnesses and that of other professionals. The Witness Service co-ordinators from Courts A and B gave an overview of how the support of child witnesses was dealt with in each court. However, there was no presentation with court personnel. One of the trainers expressed concern before the course started that, based on the experience of social workers at court in child witness preparation, a two day programme 'was not nearly enough'.

Evaluation of the Child Witness Support Training programme

Immediately after the end of the programme, 16 participants completed feedback sheets. Overall, participants found the course very stimulating and comments were generally positive. A few felt that too much information was covered or that some of the aims of the course were not fully addressed.

What did you like most about the course?
roleplay with actors as children 10
open and flexible approach, enthusiasm of trainers, feeling safe to 'mess things up' 8
interaction with others, teamwork 7
What did you like least about the course?
the lack of clear explanations about how to carry out exercises 5
confusion about which volunteers would conduct pre-trial home visits 4
amount of material covered 3

One participant disliked the therapeutic approach of the course:

'I'm concerned we are getting too much into counselling/ therapy which could be dangerous'.

Seven participants thought that more information of a practical nature should have been included in the training programme, for example:

Comments from volunteers who felt that instructions for certain exercises lacked clarity (see table above) included:

'What did the trainers actually want from us?'
'We wasted too much time trying to understand'.

The roleplay by two presenters to demonstrate the effect of cross-examination by defence barristers was well received but asking participants to do the same appeared less successful because it involved practising skills the volunteers did not need.

The roleplay using professional actors as children was rated as the most popular component of the course. Several participants found it challenging, for example:

'Hard but good'
'I found this quite difficult'
'I didn't particularly like it but found it very useful'.

The actors gave the volunteers feedback from the child's perspective about the effectiveness of their input. However, it would have been helpful if someone assigned to each group (eg. a trainer or Witness Service coordinator) had been tasked to note specific problems. For example, one group failed to give the child practical information from the Child Witness Pack about court procedures and techniques for answering questions (some volunteers seemed unfamiliar with the content of the Pack). At one point the actor playing the 'child' asked the volunteer 'Will my grandpa go to prison?' The volunteer instantly answered 'No he won't darling'. The volunteer's need to reassure the 'child' apparently overwhelmed the need to give accurate information.

During a session on the legal and court framework, the police officer from the child protection team apparently departed from the agreed agenda and gave out a sheet with instructions from the Memorandum of Good Practice on video recorded interviews with child witnesses for criminal proceedings.38 The officer explained that this information was relevant to Witness Service volunteers in cases where the child presented new evidence. While it was appropriate to consider what to do when children wanted to discuss their evidence, volunteers were not in a position to judge when such information was 'new' because of the need for them to be unfamiliar with any aspect of the child's evidence. The volunteers found this aspect of the presentation confusing.

This police presentation also had the effect of heightening the anxieties of some volunteers in respect of home visits. The fact that volunteers at Court A were expected to carry out pre-trial home visits while this was not the practice for volunteers at Court B caused confusion. Neither group seemed clear that it was a decision of the pilot study to conduct home visits at Court A. Volunteers from Court A expressed the erroneous belief that Court B volunteers had been given the choice and had chosen not to visit. After the training they were concerned about the skills required for home visiting and some Court A volunteers expressed the view that they wished they had been given the opportunity to opt out of doing home visits.

The volunteers appreciated the practical information provided by the CPS representative. She had observed a previous exercise and as a result was able to correct a misconception that 'once the decision has been made to bring the case to court the CPS is no longer involved'. Some members of the group seemed surprised that the CPS retains responsibility throughout the trial and were pleased to have this explained.

Meeting the course objectives

The trainers asked participants to complete forms entitled 'Building bricks in child witness support work' before and after training. The 'bricks' were based on the course objectives. These forms allowed a comparison of participants' self-assessed skills. The individual's score for each building brick was entered on a 'before' and 'after' chart. These scores were then compared for the group as a whole to identify the subjects/ building bricks about which participants considered they had learned most, least, and where their knowledge or skill level had stayed the same.

Sessions where participants scored a 'high' rate of increased knowledge
(11 or more participants noted an increase)
children's experience of court process
understanding the legal and judicial framework
impact of the work on the volunteer
assessing the practical needs of the child/ family re court hearing
knowledge of how to prepare a child witness
Sessions where participants scored a 'low' rate of increased knowledge
(six or fewer participants noted an increase)
ability to communicate with children and young people
multi-agency work in child protection
ability to use a variety of methods in working with young people
providing support to child and family post court
Sessions where participants rated their knowledge or skill level as being the same before and after training
(nine or more participants gave the same score before and after training)
ability to communicate with children and young people
ability to work with key agencies involved
multi-agency work in child protection
providing support to child and family post court.

The contents of the last two tables are, on the face of it, disappointing. However, the Witness Service has pointed out that the criteria for the selection of volunteers to work with child witnesses included personal skills and relevant prior experience. The possibility that volunteers already had a reasonable level of skill prior to training should be borne in mind in interpreting these tables.

Volunteers' perspectives on training one year on

At the end of the field work, group meetings were held with the volunteers of Courts A and B and their coordinators. It was felt that the two day course had provided a good foundation but that some of the exercises (such as dealing with hypothetical questions from children) had not related to situations encountered in practice.39 It was noted that, at the time of the training course, some volunteers had not observed a child witness trial although all had done so before being allocated to a case.

Volunteer training had stressed the importance of responding to the needs of the child witness and they had encountered sensitive practice on the part of judges, court staff, police and prosecutors in certain cases. However, many volunteers felt unprepared for what they saw as the insensitivity to children's needs shown by some participants in the process. They commented that it was impossible to prepare children for what was going to happen because there were so many unpredictable factors. A major problem was the frustration caused by delays on the day of trial:

'The system focuses on lawyers and the court's convenience, not the child. Training didn't prepare me to see children not being considered - to see the child grow tired, worn down and ebb away rapidly'
'The 'commitment to children' is all words and show, not actual 'do.' Children don't have the stamina. They are waiting in eager anticipation and by lunchtime they're 'gone.' All the hard work that's gone into bringing the child to court well prepared is gone'
'Tactics on the day leave the child in limbo'
'Young children should only appear in the morning. If they are held over until the afternoon it would be better for them to be brought back the next day and start again fresh. Even at school, certain lessons are best done in the morning'.

Several volunteers thought that a training session on the role of court ushers, the child liaison officer and practice on the CCTV link equipment should have been incorporated into formal training. At Court A, this session should also have addressed the court's list of instructions for the person accompanying the child in the CCTV link room.

Towards the end of the study, in response to requests from families, volunteers at Court A began to conduct post-trial home visits. In some cases, this exposed them to a wide range of welfare concerns for parents and children which had not been previously addressed.

The volunteers' experiences suggest that the two-day Witness Service 'foundation' course in the support of child witnesses needs to be supplemented by an ongoing training programme. Their feedback underlined the importance of de-briefing by the Witness Service coordinator in each case.


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