Safeguarding the rights and protection of child victims and witnesses of violence through Children’s Houses

Norway, 14 June 2017 - SRSG Santos Pais joined representatives from the European Union, the Council of the Baltic Sea States, governments, ombuds, civil society and Children’s Houses in the launch of PROMISE- the European Barnahus Movement. 

The impact of violence against children in Europe is worrying – every year across the European region, at least 18 million suffer from sexual abuse; 44 million from physical abuse; and 55 million from mental abuse. In her statement, SRSG Santos Pais stressed that “shocking as these figures may be, they are an underestimation and it is believed that 90% of child maltreatment may go unnoticed.”

Violence is amongst children’s top concerns. This is why for countless children life is defined by two words; fear and pain. Yet, children rarely share their trauma and they suffer in loneliness, feeling frightened to share their trauma, fearing not being believed and in fact being judged, rather than being listened to.

The Children’s Houses represent an auspicious turning point. “They can ensure that children’s right to safety and protection gain a real meaning across Europe: a place where child victims and witnesses can find well-equipped , well-resourced and well-coordinated services ready to listen to their stories; committed to understand their trauma and pain; determined to support a genuine process of healing, recovery and reintegration”, said Santos Pais.

The first Barnahus (Children’s House) in Europe was established in 1998 in Iceland and remains an important point of reference for multi-disciplinary and interagency services for child victims and witnesses in Europe. Child victims or witnesses of violence are received in a child-friendly environment in the Barnahus, where relevant disciplines and agencies cooperate under one roof to safeguard the needs of the child and avoid re-victimization. Testimonies by children are recorded so that the children do not have to tell their story repeatedly, or meet face-to-face with the perpetrator in court. Children have direct access to care and support services at the Barnahus. 

Evidence show that a child who is supported in a Barnahus is more likely to disclose, which is fundamental to securing a judicial process and ending impunity. 

Coordinator of the PROMISE project Turid Heiberg highlighted the substantial progress in Europe; since the launch of the PROMISE project in 2015, 13 pilot countries have joined PROMISE. In just 18 short months, three PROMISE pilot countries have launched a Barnahus or comparable model, five have preliminary launch dates, and five are making quick progress in gathering national and/or local support and resources.

Věra Jourová, European Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality reminded of the importance of listening to the real stories of children. Their shocking testimonies force politicians to not only talk about statistics, but about real children:

“Teacher said that the police were waiting and then my classmates saw. Strange, because everyone was watching, like where I was going with the policemen and it was weird...When someone comes to school, then it would be better without the uniform.” (14-year-old victim of sexual abuse, reported in 2017 by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights on children’s perspectives and experience of judicial proceedings as victims or witnesses). 

“Such an experience, on top of the trauma and abuse suffered, underlines the importance of Barnahus, or in other words, multidisciplinary and interagency responses to child victims and witnesses”, said Ms Jourová .
Bragi Guðbrandsson, Lead Expert in the PROMISE project shared examples of abusive and relentless interviews of alleged child victims of sexual abuse; one child victim said, “what happened to me in court was worse than the abuse”.

According to Mr Guðbrandsson, the traditional institutional response of removing the child from his or her home has often been based on an assumption that the child’s disclosure is false. However, the Convention on the Right of the Child introduced a paradigm shift –with the child as a holder of rights; including protective and participatory rights. The Convention generated new knowledge from research, sharing of experiences and information.

Building on a multi-disciplinary approach, the launch featured presentations from experts within law reform and policy, the judiciary, psychology, psychotherapy, social work, paediatrics, health and education sectors.

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