Parental experiences of the Canadian justice system in cases of child sexual abuse
Alaggia, R., Lambert, E., & Regehr, C. (2009). Where is the justice? Parental experiences of the Canadian justice system in cases of child sexual abuse. Family Court Review, 47(4), 634-649.
Child sexual abuse (CSA) is a serious problem that brings with it many sources of distress for the victim. Becoming involved in the legal system is one possible source of distress. Using grounded theory methodology, this qualitative study focuses on the parental experiences of the justice system in dealing with CSA, an area which is understudied as most research in this area is centred on the victim. It is also important to note that this research was conducted after legislative reforms were made, with the intention of making it easier to prosecute CSA cases and of improving the victim’s experience of the process.
Nineteen semi-structured interviews were conducted with parents of child victims of sexual abuse encountering the justice system, as well as with professionals working within this system, in a large urban centre located in Ontario, Canada. Of the parent participants, the majority of the interviewees were mothers, two were fathers, and both parents participated in two of the interviews. The results from this study showed that the parents felt a loss of control throughout the process, claiming that once the abuse was reported to the authorities, the decision to proceed through the justice system was out of their hands. The parents were also frustrated by the lack of information they received about the legal process and by the length of the trial. Results also showed that parents encountered inconsistencies throughout the legal system; they felt that their children were treated as adults; they were dissatisfied with the perpetrator outcomes; and, they felt no therapeutic benefit to the child or family.
In addition, the authors also found no significant differences in the parental experiences of those processed through the child-friendly court and those processed through the regular courts. One reason may be that while there are evidentiary aids available to make it easier for children to testify, such as via video-taped testimony, these aids are often not used.
The authors used four key professional informants to identify potential study participants. The key informants, who were also interviewed, included two Crown Attorneys, one child victim advocate, and one police officer. The in-depth, semi-structured interviews were audio-taped, transcribed, coded by two research team members and analyzed using N’Vivo, all of which reduces researcher bias. Credibility of these data is increased by the authors’ prolonged engagement in this field reflected in over 45 years of combined experience in the areas of CSA and forensic social work as well as by persistent observation. Persistent observation was achieved through extensive contact with the participants, a detailed account gathered through the long interview method, and court observations. Reflexivity and peer debriefing were used to explore various interpretations of the findings.