A version of this article was first published on the Children 1st website, 13 March 2020.
Four years ago, in Zagreb, Children 1st joined legal, police, social work, third sector and Government officials from across Europe to make a promise to children who are victims and witnesses to abuse and violence. That promise was to make sure they get the protection, justice and care they need to be safe and to recover.
The meeting in Zagreb, led to the establishment of the Promise Exchange, a European-wide initiative that has enabled Children 1st, the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service and the Scottish Government to collaborate and learn from international best practice around the Barnahus model, first developed in Iceland, which unites all the services child victims and witnesses need under one roof and achieves best evidence.
At the start of March 2020, thanks to connections made through the Promise Exchange Children 1st led a study visit for Scottish police, justice, health and social work professionals to learn from Iceland’s experiences.
Iceland’s Barnahus brings all the services child victims and witnesses need together under one roof. It ensures that children’s best evidence is collected in a way that serves the needs of the courts, as well as police, health and social work and ensures that the most appropriate support is put in place in the short and long term for children and their families, so that they can repair from the terrible things that have happened to them.
From the outside Iceland’s Barnahus, looks like a large family home on an ordinary suburban street in Reykjavik. In Iceland, the building children enter, the welcome they receive and the way they are looked after makes them feel safe and relaxed enough to share the story of what happened to them, to the best of their ability. Within less than two weeks, children have given their evidence, begun getting the support they need to recover and can begin to put their experiences behind them.
It’s a far cry from the unfriendly and intimidating police stations, court buildings and big hospitals, where Scottish children are repeatedly asked to relive the abuse and violence they have suffered to an increasing number of strangers. Fear and anxiety make it harder for Scottish children to tell their story and prevent them from giving their best evidence. A long wait between the initial investigative interview and cross-examination is common – often up to eighteen months, causing them further harm. And after it is over, there is little support to help a child or their family to recover.
Progress is being made in Scotland. Since 2016 a new and updated model for Joint Investigative Interview training has been developed in Scotland. This is currently being piloted and rolled out to improve the quality of the evidence that is gathered by police and social work, when it is suspected that a child has been abused. Recent legislation has also created a presumption that in High Court and domestic abuse cases cross-examination of children will be recorded in advance, by taking Evidence on Commission, so that children do not have to appear in court at the same time as the accused. Until now however, some professionals have felt that the vision of a Scottish Barnahus or Bairnshoose is out of immediate reach.
What was clear to those who visited is that while establishing a Barnahus in Scotland will involve some complex detail, none of it is insurmountable. In Iceland we saw more similarities than differences between their system and ours. In Iceland we saw that with a shared vision, strong collaboration and a willingness to work through complexity it is possible to protect every child, support them to recover and deliver the best justice for both victim and accused.
At Children 1st, we long have been working to build the vision, collaboration and willingness to develop Scotland’s first Barnahus. Earlier this month, we got the incredible news that we have everything in place to make that vision reality. Alongside our partners we have been awarded £1.5 million to establish Scotland first Child’s House, thanks to players of People’s Postcode Lottery. Through the People’s Postcode Lottery, Children 1st will lead a partnership alongside Victim Support Scotland, the University of Edinburgh and Children England, with the support of social work, children’s services, the police and others in the west of Scotland and backing from the Scottish Government and Parliament to develop, test and share the learning from Scotland’s first Child’s House across the whole of UK.
Today, as we work tirelessly to protect children and families from the abuse and harm that could come in coronavirus’ wake, the need to keep the promise made to Scotland’s children in Zagreb seems more urgent than ever. It is heartening that we have everything now in place to realise that promise, that children will get the care, justice and protection that is their right.
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