It’s hard enough for women to report sexual abuse without the system letting them down

Shadow cast over Chetham’s School of Music. Dell's , CC BY-NC-SA

The recent publication of a serious case review into the suicide of Frances Andrade reveals how difficult it is for a sexual assault victim to stand and testify against an accuser in court. Keir Starmer, the former director of public prosecutions, has described the system as “barely fit for purpose for victims” and is currently in the process of drawing up a “victims’ charter” alongside justice campaigner Doreen Lawrence.

Andrade’s story is a tragic one. She took her own life in January 2013 having given evidence against Michael Brewer, who was subsequently found guilty of a series of sexual offences against Andrade when she was 14 and 15. His ex-wife Kay was also found guilty of indecently assaulting Andrade when she was 18. Andrade was a gifted violinist and Michael Brewer a music teacher at the prestigious – but clearly troubled – Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester. Andrade disclosed the abuse to a friend only much later in 2011. The jury was not informed of her death until its members had returned their verdicts. On sentencing, the judge at the trial called Brewer a “predatory sex offender”.

Brewer was able to use his high status, reputation and regular access to one-on-one tuition to isolate and exploit his victim. An abuse of position that can also happen in sports coaching.

Andrade’s case wasn’t just about the sexual abuse she suffered but about how the system let her down, as the serious case review makes clear:

The panel considered this was a suicide that could and should have been prevented. Mrs A had reasons to live and she continued to ask for help throughout this period … When historic cases of sexual abuse come to court, we ask former victims to stand up and lay bare details about their lives that are painful and intimate.

Criminal justice and mental health services should be able to provide a comprehensive and seamless support service to them throughout this process because, as this case demonstrates, historic abuse is always a present source of difficulty and distress to those who have been victimised.

Witness credibility

Andrade was sexually abused by a family member before she went to Chetham’s. The impact of sexual abuse is complex and clearly varies, but it can include self-harm, suicide attempts, long-term mental health problems such as depression, and sexualised behaviour in children. The trauma of abuse is such that survivors can often find it difficult to maintain appropriate boundaries. All of these were apparent in Andrade’s case, which made her more vulnerable to predators such as Brewer.

The aim of a serious case review, launched when a child or vulnerable adult dies or sustains serious injuries, and abuse or neglect is known or suspected, is to highlight the lessons that agencies like the police and social services need to learn to prevent them happening again. The review into Andrade’s death outlined the fact that she was a “vulnerable and intimidated witness”. This means that special arrangements could have been put in place, like allowing the witness to give evidence from behind a screen.

These types of measures are now commonly used in cases where children give evidence against adult abusers. But Andrade felt that if she accepted these measures her creditability as witness would be undermined and would make it more likely that Brewer would be acquitted. It is difficult to prove or disprove this, but the fact that Andrade felt it was a possibility highlights the pressures that victims in such cases face and clearly the support offered to witnesses is not adequate to overcome these barriers. She also believed that she could not begin psychotherapy until the trial was complete because she couldn’t discuss the issues involved – this was not the case.

The investigation of rape and sexual assault cases has definitely been improved since the infamous Thames Valley case in 1982 – the subject of Roger Graef’s fly-on-the-wall documentary Police, which showed officers verbally abusing a woman who was giving a statement. But there is a need for a wider recognition of the impact of sexual violence and the continuing focus, particularly in historic allegations, on the behaviour of the victims. Drug and alcohol abuse, for example, can be used as a way of undermining testimony, when in fact they may be linked to the experience of physical abuse.

The conclusions of the serious case review were unusually trenchant in Andrade’s case: her suicide was preventable and agencies should have done more to help a woman under such pressure (she had taken seven overdoses in the ten months prior to her death). The review also raised very important questions for the criminal justice system about how support for victims of sexual abuse could be improved. One suggestion is that expert witnesses appear in such cases to explain to the court the possible long-term impact of abuse and on victim behaviour.

The impact of feeling like you are a fantasist (as Andrade was accused of being in court), rather than a legitimate party with a claim, is an added blow.

Earlier this year Tracy Shelvey stepped off the roof of a shopping centre three days after a man was found not guilty of raping her. gave evidence in two trials in Manchester but stepped off the roof of a shopping centre three days after a man was found not guilty of raping her. Shelvey told a friend that she’d found the experience of court alarming and traumatic, and hadn’t been supported by the police.

Corporal Anne-Marie Ellement, a military policewoman, committed suicide in 2011 following a decision by the authorities not to prosecute two soldiers who she said alleged had raped her. The coroner concluded that bullying and the “lingering” effect of the alleged rape both played a role in her death and called for the Ministry of Defence to review its care for vulnerable soldiers.

These cases emphasise that the system is failing to support individuals when they approach authorities with allegations of sexual abuse, and that this lack of support can continue as cases go through the courts.

The bravery of Andrade in disclosing the abuse and sexual exploitation that occurred at Chetham’s and then confronting Brewer face-to-face in court can and should never be underestimated. If similar tragedies are to be avoided in future the recommendations of the review must be acted upon. And when it comes to the public blame game around rape and sexual abuse, perhaps we all need to think the recommendations, too.