Thursday, 21 September 2017
Evidence from suspected abuse victims inadmissible due to SA Health ‘oversight’
Alina Eacott and Nick Harmsen | ABC News
Recorded interviews with young children suspected to be victims of sexual or physical abuse are not able to be used as evidence in criminal trials because of a major bungle by the South Australian Health Department.
The SA Government has apologised for the error and said it would rush retrospective laws into Parliament to ensure victims were not required to repeat difficult evidence in a courtroom.
The blunder was only discovered last month, when a court ruled that an interview with a young vulnerable witness was not admissible.
That was because training courses undertaken by specialised interviewers at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital had not been properly accredited by then health minister Jack Snelling.
Child Protection staff generally conduct interviews for children under the age of seven who have allegedly been sexually or physically abused.
In a statement to ABC News, SA Health apologised for the mistake.
“Interviews with vulnerable people are carried out by qualified psychologists and social workers who have also undergone appropriate training,” the statement said.
“However, due to an administration error in the certification process, the qualifications of staff that completed training between 1 July 2016 and 21 August 2017 have not been formally recognised.”
Attorney-General John Rau said the Government had since properly accredited the courses and would try to retrospectively amend the Vulnerable Witnesses Act when Parliament resumes next week.
“The people who needed to be trained were trained,” he said.
“They did perform their jobs properly, but because of an oversight by the Health Department – human error you might call it – their qualifications were not actually formally recognised.
“We’re intending to move very quickly when the Parliament resumes next week to fix this issue up, so we won’t have the problem in the future.”
Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Adam Kimber confirmed he had alerted Mr Rau to the error.
“There is one matter prosecuted by my office in which an interview has been held to be inadmissible as a consequence of an interviewer not being prescribed as required,” he said.
“However, that matter has been able to proceed, as there are two other interviews that are admissible. The matter is a trial by judge alone and judgment is reserved.”
The ABC understands police prosecutors have sought an adjournment in another case involving a vulnerable witness interview, in the hope the law can be amended before the trial proceeds.
It is not clear whether any cases currently under investigation – or awaiting trial – might have been hampered.
Opposition shadow attorney-general Vickie Chapman said she would seek an urgent meeting with the DPP and try and clarify how many cases were affected.
“The reality is that we’ve had a serious breach in the application of the law and we have had a concealment by the Government,” she said.
“We need to know now how many other cases are at risk.”
Dignity Party MLC Kelly Vincent said it was essential the error be rectified immediately – so that young children and those with disabilities were not forced to testify in a courtroom setting.
“To have to re-live that experience and give that evidence again due to this absolutely disgraceful oversight, could in fact impact that trauma and make it even worse,” she said.
Commissioner for Victims Rights Michael O’Connell said many of the vulnerable witnesses were alleged victims of sexual assault.
“It is embarrassing enough that they have to tell their story once in front of a stranger,” he said.
“But now, the possibility that they may have to tell that story at least one more time in front of a group of strangers, because some people either did not complete a prescribed course or the course was not properly prescribed, runs the risk of causing secondary victimisation to these young children.
“We should do no more harm and yet it appears we may have done some more harm.”