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What is a barnahus and why is it needed in Scotland?

Bairns' house - Image credit: Holyrood

What is a barnahus and why is it needed in Scotland?

“When we went to the police station that night, they should have sat us down and said, this is what the process is going to be.

“They did explain briefly, but they were so clinical. There wasn’t even a leaflet. No one we spoke to was rude or unhelpful, but they need to take into account they are still speaking to a 13-year-old child.”

This is one mum’s description of accompanying her teenage daughter to report a rape to the police.

It doesn’t take much imagination to realise that when a child becomes involved in the justice system either as a witness or a victim, it will be traumatic, but until recently this was given little attention. However, all that is beginning to change.

The passing of the Vulnerable Witnesses Act in 2019 allowed for child witnesses in the most serious cases to have evidence pre-recorded before the trial and in November 2019 a new evidence and hearings suite for children and vulnerable witnesses opened in Glasgow.

Now plans are afoot to go further and open a barnahus – or bairns’ house – in Scotland.

Based on a model pioneered in Iceland, this will bring together all the agencies involved in dealing with the case in one child-friendly setting.

Key to the idea is that the child only has to tell their story once and to lessen the time between a child disclosing the abuse and being interviewed so that they can move on to recovery as soon as possible, with all the specialist expertise for supporting children through the criminal process and therapies for recovery under one roof.

“We’ve definitely made progress around vulnerable witnesses over the past number of years,” says Mary Glasgow, chief executive of Children 1st, the charity which is setting up Scotland’s first barnahus.

“It’s still quite incremental and we want to move to, I suppose, where you’re making things a little bit better for children. So the witness suite’s a good step forward, but it’s still only one part of the process that’s attended to.

“What we want to go from is just the gentle steps and progress that we’ve made to some big transformational change in the whole system.

“And the transformational change would be that as soon as is practicable and possible, the child would go to a place, the bairns’ hoose or the barnahus, that place would look like a designed building for children, where they’re comfortable, where they can go with their support person, parent, carer, whoever that is, and they can seamlessly and quite quickly move through the process and get to the point of delivery of recovery.

“So right now, the problem that we’re trying to solve in effect is that bits have got a little bit better, but we still hear too many stories of children being bounced around the system having to repeat their stories.

“They might in the first instance tell their teacher that something’s happened.

“And then they might then have to go to a police station to repeat that, then they might have to go to some sort of discussion or meeting at a social work department about whether or not they’re safe at home, and then they might need to go to the hospital for a medical.

“And then in the current system, it’s unlikely that they get quick access to proper support to help them recover from that trauma.”

Sometimes that might mean a child having to hold on to what happened and have it constantly raised for years because of the time it takes for a case to get to court.

However, Glasgow says that there is now an acceptance within the system of the need for change.

“I would say before when we would talk about some dreadful experiences that children have had at the hands of the system, the very system that was meant to protect them, people would be uncomfortable, they would kind of turn away and say, oh, you know, nobody sets out to make a child’s life difficult or nobody sets out to further traumatise child victims and witnesses.

“But in effect, that’s what children have been telling us, that the system can often be worse than the very abuse or the crime that’s been committed against them in the first place.

“And a few years ago, when I would talk like that, or we would share information, people would be a wee bit resistant, a little bit in denial.

“Definitely what we’ve seen – this is the really exciting part – is a shift in agencies’ understanding.

“We all know much more about child development. We’re doing really well in the rollout of understanding the impact of trauma.

“We’re understanding much better about the impact of trauma on a victim or witness’s ability to recall in a certain way, so we’ve made loads of improvement.

“And I think everyone in the system recognises that this is a great vision for Scotland’s children.”

The creation of the first barnahus in Reykjavik in 1998 came out of a change in the Icelandic child protection system following the creation of the country’s first national child protection agency in 1995.

Headed by Bragi Guðbrandsson, who is now a member of the UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child, the first task the agency set itself was to identify gaps in the system, and it found many.

Guðbrandsson tells Holyrood: “One of the things that I noticed immediately was with regard to the sexual abuse of children.

“And there was no know-how, no access to professional help in terms of investigation, in terms of the response and in terms of support and treatment for victims of child sexual abuse.

“And overall, you could say that there was a complete denial of the very existence of child sexual abuse.

“When these cases were discovered, they were dealt with by multiple agencies – child protection, the local police, the health service – but there was no collaboration between the different structures and there were no procedural rules or guidelines on how to work these cases.”

He looked around for a model, eventually taking inspiration from some children’s centres in the US, which he adapted to fit Iceland and the issues he saw there.

“I looked into many directions, particularly I learned after a while that in the USA there were sort of competence centres called the children’s advocacy centres, and I learned a lot, and these were a great inspiration for me.

“But I tried to integrate into that concept the sort of welfare tradition of the Scandinavian welfare model, the emphasis on therapy and some family work and so on.

“And additionally, I was very interested in shortening the time from the moment of disclosure until the court would be dealing with the case, because that’s one of the things that is very traumatising for the child.

“It’s the waiting period from the time of disclosure until the case is really over.

“And we came up with an excellent, I think, arrangement, which was unique at the time, which was that the child would be able to give his or her statement through the forensic interview, if you like, by an arrangement whereby the forensic interview would be taken under the auspices of a court judge with the presence of the defence as well as the other agencies.

“This would be recorded and if an indictment would be made, this recording would be played in the courtroom during the proceedings.”

Initially, the Icelandic barnahus was only for child victims of sexual abuse, because in the majority of cases, there was no evidence apart from the testimony of the child.

However, Sweden began using it in cases of physical abuse, and now the Icelandic barnahus deals with sexual, physical and domestic abuse, child witnesses of serious crime and the interviewing of unaccompanied child refugees.

The plan is for the Scottish barnahus to deal with the full range of cases too.

Barnahus was first rolled out to the other Scandinavian countries, then the rest of Europe.

The first barnahus outside of Iceland opened in Sweden in 2005, Norway followed in 2007 and Denmark in 2013.

The model got the backing of Save the Children, the EU and the Council of Europe.

Since 2015 it has been taken up by other countries in Europe, including Finland, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Cyprus, England, Ireland and Spain.

“I often say barnahus is kind of a travelling concept,” says Guðbrandsson.

“It goes all over Europe, and now we have a very efficient mechanism for this implementation… And the beauty of it is that in terms of implementation, that you could say that the barnahus is rather less a model but rather a concept.

“I sometimes say it’s less a recipe for the cookshops of the future, rather it provides you with ingredients to do your own barnahus, because barnahus in its implementation needs to be adapted at the different legislative structures and cultural traditions and so on.”

There are variations in how it operates in different countries, such as which types of crimes are covered, which agency is in charge, who does the interviewing and whether a second interview takes place.

Finland is the only country, though, that has implemented the principle of agencies working together without a physical house as a base, which Guðbrandsson says is not ideal because the whole idea of having it under one roof is that the agencies adapt to the needs of the child instead of the child having to adapt to the needs of the different agencies.

The setting is important too, says Guðbrandsson: “One of the things that we know is that the environment in which the child gives his or her disclosure has a great bearing on the quality of the disclosure.

“We all know that … when we are anxious, we are likely to forget things, and this certainly applies to children.

“It has been demonstrated through research, the higher level of anxiety, the less information you can get from the child.

“And conversely, the more relaxed the child is, the more secure the child is, the more likely it is you will get the rich narrative, rich with detail.

“So, this is very much an important part of collecting evidence that the child is really feeling as good as possible in these circumstances.”

The barnahus model is now being transferred to Scotland, with the first ‘bairns’ hoose’ planned to open in East Renfrewshire in spring 2022 with funding from the People’s Postcode Lottery.

The development is still at an early stage, but Glasgow says the plan is for it to be a “test concept” that will see what works and what doesn’t and develop a best practice before rolling it out across Scotland.

Children and young people will be involved in the design and feel of the building and the work will be evaluated by the University of Edinburgh so that learning can be passed on.

Glasgow says they are “quite open-minded” about the form of management and delivery but “it will be beautifully designed, and all of the services that children need for care, protection, justice and recovery will be in that house.”

She adds: “What we need to do is work, create a vision and ambition that may be beyond us right now in Scotland but inspire people that it’s the right thing to do.

“And then as we capture the challenges that seem difficult on the ground or in practice, try and develop solutions for those and test them out.

“And that’s why it’s quite an exciting project because we’ve got a fixed thing in mind, we’ve got an ambition and a destination to get to, but we recognise we’ve got a lot of work to do to help us get there, to overcome some of the structural, procedural, maybe legal, and certainly cultural barriers that we’ve got.”

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