Jon Needham: the man who went to hell and back as a child – and now fights for all rape victims | UK criminal justice

Jon Needham looks like a copper. Tall, broad and imposing, he works in a lifetime offender management unit, where he deals with serious and organised criminals. So when he speaks, his gentleness comes as a surprise. “I joined the police because I was passionate about helping people,” he says. “It sounds like a cliche to say you want to make a real difference, but I genuinely mean it.”

Needham gets paid for working with “nominals” – people who are on the police database (“That’s what the police call them, I call them people,” he says). But he is also transforming how his colleagues deal with victims of rape and sexual assault.

It took him until he was 45 to tell the story of the abuse he suffered as a child in foster care. In 2019, he detailed to a group of 70 officers from his own force, the City of London, how he was treated by the criminal justice system after he went to court. “I wanted police officers to see what it’s like from the voice of the survivor. After what I’ve lived through, I thought, well, if I can use that to help people in a positive way, that’d be great.”

The number of people being convicted for rape is at a record low – just 1.6% of the 52,210 rapes recorded by police in England and Wales in 2020 resulted in a charge or a summons – and confidence in the criminal justice system is at rock bottom, so the work has never been more urgent.

Jon Needham aged around six, before he went into care.
Jon Needham aged around six, before he went into care. Photograph: Courtesy of Jon-Jay Needham

In June, a government report into the staggering decline in rape prosecutions, which have plummeted by 70% since 2016-17, prompted ministers to apologise unreservedly to rape survivors, saying they were “deeply ashamed” that thousands of survivors had been failed on the government’s watch. New plans promised to switch the focus of police investigations away from the credibility of victims, who have been subject to “digital strip searches”. These include having mobile phones taken away and text messages unrelated to a case being used against them in court – as well as notes from counselling and therapy being used to undermine cases. Instead, the focus will be on the perpetrator, the report claimed.

The report is progress, Needham says, but he is not going to wait for the system to transform itself. The stories of survivors, like him, have to be part of the solution.

Needham was seven when he was taken into care, after his father was imprisoned for a crime he is still not able to talk about.

“It was horrendous,” he says. “It just destroyed our family. My first memory is of a knock on the door and two coppers being there. They came in, the next minute my dad was in handcuffs, and then he was gone for years. The victims of crime are not just people who have been abused or robbed or hurt, it’s their families, and the families of the criminal – innocent family members who have to go through the torture of going to prison to visit them.”

His mother, with five children and no money, became seriously mentally ill, and so the children were removed and put into care.

His foster carers were quite elderly but seemed nice people. “Not my cup of tea, but you know, they are not your family so it’s not a pleasant experience,” he remembers. His bedroom was small, with a sash window.

But there was another bedroom at the front of the house, and it was here that Needham says a much older boy raped him, almost every week, for about a year.

Talking about the abuse as an adult, Needham is calm and matter-of-fact. Back then, he had no one to tell, he didn’t think he would be believed, and the older boy made terrifying threats about what would happen to him if he told anyone.

The abuse went on for a year, until his father came out of prison and Needham went to live with him. “We had mattresses, a toaster, a kettle and a washing machine and that’s all we had for about a year, but for me, it was great. I thought ‘this is better than foster care’ – it was like an adventure: we had a back garden.”

He taught himself to play the guitar and went to music school, but dropped out and played in bands. Through his 20s, he worked in a range of jobs, from property maintenance to retail, never sticking to one thing. “I was in the wilderness for many years,” he says. “I didn’t think I could do anything or was worth anything.”

When a friend suggested he would make a good police officer, he initially thought it was impossible – he was dyslexic and had no qualifications. But after applying, and failing several times, he made it into the force in 2009. “It felt amazing, almost like validation, even though I knew the training would be tough,” he says. “But I suffered a lot from impostor syndrome, and even now I look over my shoulder and wonder if it’s real.”

He recently got a commander of commendation award for dealing with serious prolific offenders, having been given a commissioner’s commendation award in 2018 for professionalism and bravery in dealing with a violent offender. “It does make me feel like I finally belong and deserve to be here. I’m getting there,” he says.

Needham didn’t disclose what had happened to him as a child when he joined the force – he had still told no one – but, after joining the police, the feeling that he had a responsibility to report his abuser grew. “I felt guilty about not reporting it for years,” he says. “I thought: ‘This guy must have gone on to do it again.’” So he picked up the phone.

Jon Needham says of joining the police: ‘I suffered a lot from imposter syndrome, and even now I look over my shoulder and wonder if it’s real.’
Jon Needham says of joining the police: ‘I suffered a lot from imposter syndrome, and even now I look over my shoulder and wonder if it’s real.’ Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

Two officers came to his house. “They did a video statement – it was the first time I’d ever fully recounted the story – and they forgot to press record. It’s not a criticism of the officers, but I mention it now in my talk to officers – make sure you know the equipment and make sure you know it’s working.” He adds that, for survivors, constantly having to relive their trauma just compounds the damage. “When you do decide to come forward, you sort of mentally prepare yourself, there is an adrenaline high. If you get off that rollercoaster and then have to get back on, it will bring back memories and you can suffer from PTSD.”

Needham was called several times by the investigating officer in the case, asking if he was sure he wanted to go to trial. “It felt like he was trying to talk me out of it,” he says. “I’m sure that wasn’t the case, but that’s what it felt like. So I said, ‘Yeah, I’m determined.’ Why would I report it if I’m not going to go through with it?”

When his day in court arrived, Needham saw his attacker again for the first time since he left foster care. He declined to use a screen or give evidence by video link. “I said to the officer: ‘I want to look the guy in the eye. Whatever happens, I’m going to sit there and I’m going to look at him and tell the jury what he’s done to me.’”

Needham had worked in the police for years by this time, and was accustomed to tough questioning, but found the defence barrister particularly confrontational. “I felt like I was on trial,” he says. “They’re just constantly trying to trip you up on every single thing. He asked me about care homes in the area and whether I’d visited any of them, trying to deliberately confuse me. The barrister was very snotty, very intimidating. I remember standing there, shaking; I was petrified.

“I think, emotionally, I was not ready for it, because you’re never ready for these things. By the end, I felt traumatised.”

After a week-long trial, the jury was released and took two days to come back: the result was hung. Six months later, he was back in court again. He started getting panic attacks. “I sort of pretended I didn’t have all that, you know, because I’m in the police service, I wanted to be tough.” But when giving evidence, he broke down. “I cried like a baby, I know it sounds … the judge paused it for a little while, and then went back in and finished my evidence. Afterwards, I thought, I’ve left everything I’ve got in that courtroom, and I’ve done everything I can, psychologically, emotionally, physically. And if I don’t get a result then the system’s not working.”

The case went to a hung jury a second time. The man he said had attacked him walked free.

“I’d been walking up and down my living room for days and they couldn’t come to a decision. It was a nightmare, even now it makes my skin crawl to think about it.”

Needham’s mental health collapsed. “I went home and stayed in my bedroom for three months. Pretty much just shaking, jumping at noises, you know […] I wouldn’t go out, I didn’t eat, I was sleeping all day and up all night. I was really angry for about six months, asking what had gone wrong, what I could have done to convince them. I felt disbelieved, like I was a criminal – like every part of my life had been under the microscope. I was mortified.”

He was diagnosed with PTSD, signed off work for three months, and started the long process of getting well. “Having counselling was the best thing I ever did: I just talked and talked to this poor lady. She was an amazing, amazing person.”

Since that final trial, Needham has rebuilt his life. He met his German wife, an engineer, in 2014, at a blues club where he was playing, and she helped to make him laugh again. “She’s incredibly supportive of the work I do and appreciates me being open about my past,” he says. “I said to her when we met that I’m looking forward, not back. You can’t drive a car if you’re looking in your rear-view mirror.” He also has a positive relationship with his daughter from a previous relationship.

In addition, he mentored 13 to 15 year olds with the Prince’s Trust. “They started by calling me ‘the Feds’,” he says. “By the end of the term, I had them dressing up in police forensic kits and uniforms, completing mock crime scene inquiries, asking me about how to join up, and calling me Officer Needham or Sir.”

At the end of July he spent 24 hours locked in a cell to raise money for the Survivors Trust. With the charity’s support, he is now developing a network of trained victim survivor ambassadors, available to visit all 43 police forces in England and Wales, to give survivors a voice and provide vital insight to officers working on sexual abuse cases.

“I didn’t get closure at the trial but I’m glad I did it,” he says. “I felt the justice system had no empathy. It’s not about people. To me, it felt more about just getting through the caseload they had. I was just another case number on their paper. And that’s what I’m trying to change – hopefully, the work I do now will have more impact than one conviction.

“I’ve been through the system, I’ve been through hell and back. I’ve hidden in my bedroom for three months, I’ve had to be dragged out. But I can tell my story – about how I’ve got from that to where I am today”. He says the recent government rape review means “we are getting support from the senior level. It’s been a battle against the wind, but we have momentum now.”

He pauses for breath, and lets out a short laugh. “I’m so passionate about it, I’m going to keep on going until we get the system we need,” he says. “Now I’ve started talking, no one is ever going to shut me up.”

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