Some social care experts say the UK is failing children interviewed as part of criminal investigations. Dr Liz Davies, Reader in Child Protection at London Metropolitan University, thinks we have a lot to learn from the Swedish system
Frightened and confused after being the victim of a crime or witnessing one, the prospect of being questioned by a panel of strangers is enough to exacerbate the sense of terror felt by a child as they come to terms with their trauma.
Practitioners in Sweden believe they have the right formula for making the process more comfortable for the child. The system is called barnahus (children’s house). The barnahus is a child-friendly, interdisciplinary centre within children’s services where professionals work in partnership with police, state prosecutors and health practitioners in rigorous investigations of child abuse.
The house is designed to maximise comfort for the children who can also access treatment services for themselves and their families there. The barnahus has offices and meeting rooms for all the professionals and separate waiting rooms for children and young people are furnished and designed for their needs. Here, we explore the main differences between Britain and Sweden.
ENGLAND AND WALES
Social work practice in this area in England and Wales has been severely undermined by government policy, which has minimised statutory, proactive child protection work, replacing it with single agency assessments of children’s needs. In 1992, the investigative interviewing of child victims and witnesses in a criminal proceedings context was established as a joint process between social workers and police, conducted according to the Achieving Best Evidence guidance.
Social workers and police were trained together to judge whether there was reasonable cause to suspect actual or likely significant harm. The interviews were visually recorded in child-friendly interview suites and conducted according to the child-centred phased interview approach (see box).
In theory, this system is still in place. Since the mid-1990s, however, restructuring of children’s services has resulted in the closure of many specialist child protection investigation teams and a reduction in joint training opportunities. Generally, police now investigate abuse and conduct child interviews on their own and the specialist social work investigation and interviewing skills risk being lost.
An important aspect of children’s healing after abuse is the dispensing of justice through the conviction of the perpetrator, and social workers must work closely with the police in these processes. However, the work of child abuse investigation teams was scaled down in 2003 after Lord Laming’s inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié recommended that police focus on the investigation of crime rather than significant harm. This shift in protocols seriously affected the effectiveness of joint work, with tragic consequences clearly apparent in the Peter Connolly case in Haringey.
“I think your system is barbaric,” a barnahus worker told me. She was referring to practice in England and Wales, where child witnesses and victims have to be available in court for cross-examination. In contrast, the core concept in barnahus is the joint investigative interview conducted under the formal authority of a court judge with children’s rights central to the processes.
This visually recorded interview suffices in a system that ensures professional criminal investigation and a fair trial without compromising the best interests of the child.
This barnahus worker was also highly critical of the UK’s age of criminality (10, compared with 15 in Sweden), saying the system still fails to provide children with equal protection under the law in relation to physical harm – a change that Sweden pioneered in the 1970s.
Two children arrived at the barnahus while I was visiting. They were both 12 and had been raped by a man who had groomed them online. That morning, a strategy meeting was held with a social worker, police officer, prosecutor, the children’s legal advocate, therapist and other professionals with knowledge of the children. At this meeting, the group decided to proceed with visually recorded interviews.
On arrival, the children entered a comfortable waiting area with games consoles, magazines and refreshments. A police officer trained in the child-centred phased interview approach engaged with them in a room designed to remove all distractions from the content. Interviews rarely last longer than 40 minutes and, although drawing and play may be used, the emphasis is on the verbal account. In the control room, where the police controller sits to manage the equipment and record the discussion, the therapist and child’s legal advocate monitor the child’s well-being throughout the process. With them is the prosecutor, who may suggest questions to the interviewer.
The social worker’s role is that of co-investigator, but they remain in the control room and do not conduct the interviews in case the child feels overpowered being questioned by two adults. If the defence lawyers, on viewing the recording, wish to ask more questions the young person will return to the barnahus within a few days. After this, the young person does not need to testify in court, so therapeutic support with the child and family can continue.
The barnahus also houses a medical room where, depending on the detail of the case, physical examinations can be made away from a hospital environment.
The first barnahus in Europe was established in Iceland in 1998. While Finland and Greenland are just developing this system, there are now 22 barnahus in Sweden, one in Denmark and seven in Norway. The main cases involve child sexual abuse. Children as young as three provide evidence and about three-quarters of those interviewed disclose evidence of crime.
Child-centred phased interviews
● Rapport: The interview opens with discussion of a neutral topic to relax the child and settle them in. The interviewer bridges this phase to the free narrative by stating the purpose of the interview. This should be done in a way that is age-appropriate.
● Free narrative: In this second phase, the child is encouraged to provide a free account of the events, with as little input from the interviewer as possible.
● Questioning: The aim of the questioning phase is to clarify what the child has said in his or her free narrative account. This is the time for questions addressing any evidential matters, the detail of any alleged offence and clarification (such as body parts, for example).
● Close: This phase consists of a summing up of the key points made by the child, along with a return to more neutral topics to allow the child some recovery time before leaving the interview.
Published in 8 September issue of Community Care under the heading ‘Home comforts from Sweden’
Pic credit: Alamy/Science photo library
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