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Putting the Child at the Centre

Trigger warning:

This report explores themes some people may find upsetting including sexual abuse of children and young people. Please talk to a trusted person if you are affected (see below).

While most children and young people in Northern Ireland will not experience any kind of sexual abuse, some do. If you are affected or are worried about someone you know please ask for help from a trusted adult to help you get the help you need.

If you feel you can’t speak to an adult you trust like a parent, youth worker or teacher, then please contact ChildLine or Lifeline; they both offer free, confidential advice and support to young people, are open 24 hours a day.

Childline

You can contact ChildLine by calling, emailing, or chatting online:

Lifeline

  • You can also contact Lifeline on 0808 808 8000 for free, and get confidential advice here 
  • Deaf and hard of hearing Textphone users can use 18001 0808 808 8000

You can also report any concerns you have to Police and Social services:

What is this report about?

In Northern Ireland the Government has put in place systems to protect children and young people from all kinds of violence and abuse; this includes checks by social services to make sure children are safe and well and ways to report if things are going wrong. The Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY) thinks that there is a way to make things easier for children and young people who have experienced sexual abuse by making sure that the process, from initially telling someone until the person who hurt them is at court, is as simple as possible.

What is NICCY and why have they written this report?

The Children’s Commissioner is Koulla Yiasouma. Koulla’s job is to safeguard and promote the rights and best interests of children and young people. NICCY wanted to know what it is like for children and their families to use the criminal justice and health and social care system after a sexual crime has happened to a child or young person in Northern Ireland.

What does the UNCRC say about this?

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) outlines basic rights that all children should have, including:    

  • Children have the right to be protected from harm or violence.
  • Children have the right to participate in decision-making processes about things going on in their lives, depending on their interest and ability for being involved.
  • Children should be given services that can help to support them if they have experienced violence or abuse.

This is because children have a right to develop in a safe environment where their physical, emotional, schooling, and social needs are met, because these needs are important. 

What is the Barnahus Model?

The Barnahus or ‘Child House’ is a place for children who have been victims of abuse to receive all the services they need in one space where the care, well-being and rights of the child are the main concern. This means that any child who has experienced sexual abuse only has to tell what happened once. NICCY has advised government that this service should be set up for children and young people in Northern Ireland.

Barnahus works as a safe place for children and families who have been affected by forms of violence to speak with different people like police, social workers, doctors, and therapists who all work together in one place. Barnahus is often described as a child-friendly house with four rooms. Together these rooms provide all of the services a child and family need to support them through their journey from disclosure to recovery: criminal investigation, child protection, physical health (with medical examination), and recovery and support needs, including family support. The first Barnahus was introduced in Iceland in 1998. The Barnahus model meets children’s rights standards, like the UNCRC mentioned above. It is also approved by the Council of Europe as a child-friendly model for justice and recovery. The staff at Barnahus work together to make it easier for children to share their story and to heal.

Important features of Barnahus are a child-friendly environment, access to information and services that are part of the criminal justice and child welfare investigation, and access to therapeutic services to support children’s recovery. There is no one single model of Barnahus, countries have taken different approaches. Each country must follow important guidelines; a set of 10 standards when delivering Barnahus. These are summarised below:

1-     Guiding rules for Barnahus: Children and families’ best interests and needs come first. Children are able to participate, including being heard and having access to information in a way that they feel supported. Children and families have protection, assistance, and justice processes are not delayed.

2 - Interagency collaboration: Many different agencies, like the police, social workers, solicitors, and therapists work together at Barnahus. They need a contract on how they will work together so that they are in agreement. The Barnahus service needs to be recognised and supervised to national standards. 

3 - Inclusive eligibility: All children who have experienced or witnessed all forms of abuse or violence should be able to go to Barnahus. 

4 - Child-friendly environment: The Barnahus should feel like a home for a child or young person. Inside it should look child friendly. The Barnahus should be easy for children and young people and their families to travel to. 

5 - Interagency information management: The Barnahus staff take care of all the information that children and their families share with them as part of the child’s case. This process should be simple for children and families. 

6 - Forensic interview: The interview is conducted by a specialist trained interviewer, and it should be based on the best-practices for interviewing children and young people. The interview should also be adapted for the child or young person’s age and any specific needs that the child or young person has so that it is easy to understand the questions. 

7 - Medical examination: If a medical examination is needed, the medical examination should happen at the Barnahus on the same day the child or young person talks with an interviewer and a specialist medical professional should do the medical examination. 

8 - Therapeutic services: Specialist trained staff work at Barnahus and give mental health services for children and families.

9 - Capacity building: Staff at Barnahus have regular trainings, and they improve their work often. The Barnahus is also evaluated to see if it is working well and where it can improve. 

10 - Focus on prevention: The Barnahus is a centre where other professionals can be trained. The Barnahus helps to teach the public about violence prevention and awareness. 

Barnahus is starting to come to the United Kingdom and to Ireland. England opened the London Child House, “The Lighthouse,” in 2018 as a multiagency service for children and young people who have experienced any form of sexual abuse. It offers a child-centred approach, providing guidance and support to help children and young people recover. Ireland launched the Onehouse Galway Barnahus in 2019, while Scotland is in the process of opening its first Barnahus model estimated for 2022. Sir John Gillen, an advisor to parliament in the United Kingdom and a former Lord Justice of Appeal of Northern Ireland wrote in a 2019 report that the Barnahus model should be seriously considered for children and young people in Northern Ireland.

Views of Children and young people with experience of abuse in Northern Ireland 

We spoke to young people who had experienced abuse to hear their thoughts about getting help and justice and how they thought Barnahus might help other young people. They came up with four main themes:

This was one of the most important themes to come from the interviews with young people. Firstly, young people talked about the importance of the first person they disclosed the abuse to and the importance of being believed. This critical moment was in some way a ‘test of the waters’ and to see if they would be believed, and if they felt safe and validated. Those who do not feel believed may stop sharing their story and may not continue with justice and recovery services.

The stories of young people showed that experiencing abuse had a big impact on their lives. Many areas of their daily lives were affected, including mental and physical health, education, family life and close relationships. However, when support was provided this helped the young person to heal and take control back of their lives. It often felt like a long journey to recovery, but support helped. 

Young people mentioned that they did not feel they were given a lot of information about how long some of the processes would take, like the criminal justice process or how long they would have to wait to speak with a therapist. Even though the services were doing their best to help, young people felt like they were just a number in the system.  

Young people said they felt intimidated and questioned when they were sharing their testimonies for the justice process, for example with a police officer or solicitor. They wished that the questions were easy to understand for them, and they wanted to feel that their stories were important. 

How Support for Children and Young People should be improved

It is important to remember that every young person will be affected differently so not everyone affected by these issues will have the same experience.

There is a clear need to have a child centred, rights respecting service that will provide all the support and information children affected by sexual abuse need to report and recover from their experience.

We talked to lots of professionals as well as some young people and our discussions showed that young people would benefit from a Barnahus in Northern Ireland.

What should government do?

The Barnahus model is a child-friendly place where children and families can talk to different professionals, like police officers, solicitors, doctors, social workers, and therapists, after violence or abuse has occurred.

Government should now:

  • Involve children and families in discussions about Barnahus in Northern Ireland.
  • Set up a leadership team to work on the project.
  • Make sure all Barnahus services are child friendly.
  • Make an official agreement for all agencies and service providers on how Barnahus in Northern Ireland should be used.

What will NICCY do?

 While most children and young people in Northern Ireland will not experience any kind of sexual abuse or exploitation, some do. If you are affected or are worried about someone you know please ask for help from a trusted adult to help you get the help you need.

If you feel you can’t speak to an adult you trust like a parent, youth worker or teacher, then please contact ChildLine or Lifeline; they both offer free, confidential advice and support to young people, are open 24 hours a day. 

Childline 

You can contact ChildLine by calling, emailing, or chatting online:

Lifeline

  •  Deaf and hard of hearing Textphone users can use 18001 0808 808 8000

You can also report any concerns you have to Police and Social services:

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