By Bragi Guðbrandsson
LAST week I shared an old Icelandic saying: “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and create a trail” with Scottish leaders from the health, justice, police, social work and third sectors.
We had been brought together by charity Children 1st and its partners Victim Support Scotland, the University of Edinburgh and Children England to blaze a new trail for children who are victims and witnesses of physical and emotional violence in Scotland. The Delivering the Vision Group, which I am part of. will support Children 1st and its partners to develop the Child’s House for Healing thanks to £1.5m funding from the players of People’s Postcode Lottery through the Postcode Dream Trust.
The Child’s House will be based on the Barnahus approach, which I began pioneering more than 20 years ago in Iceland. As Director-General of the Icelandic Government Agency for Child Protection, I sought to address the increasingly high prevalence of child sexual abuse in the country. We had to ensure children who had been abused got the justice, health care and support that was their right. But we had no path to get us there.
By listening to the child victims and witnesses we were there to support we identified five failures in the Icelandic system: that repeated questioning of child witnesses caused them more harm; that children found cross-examination confusing, degrading and traumatic; that children couldn’t move on with their lives when they had to keep going back over the details of their abuse; that the places child victims and witnessed had to go to were at best unfriendly and at worst frightening; and that there was a real lack of support to help the child and their family recover from what had happened to them.
To collectively address these challenges, I developed the idea of Barnahus. Feeling like a family home, it’s one place where child victims, witnesses and their family get all the justice, care and support that they need, and which is their right.
Summarised in a single paragraph, it sounds simple. But, in blazing a trail to put children’s needs at the centre of our systems we faced many opponents. For many in Iceland it seemed too difficult, impossible even, to deliver such transformation. Through every challenge we held fast to the importance of doing what was right for children, not what was easy. I am sure the Scottish leaders on the Child’s House Delivering the Vision Group will do the same.
I am delighted to offer Scotland my support and my reassurance as you blaze your own similar, yet distinct trail to support child victims and witnesses.
Today Barnahus has been successfully adapted to meet the requirements of justice, child protection and health systems in more than 60 European cities. It is internationally recognised as the best way to uphold children’s rights to justice and care. Iceland’s greatest opponents are now its biggest advocates. And most importantly children no longer tell us they are harmed by the systems that should be offering them comfort.
Bragi Guðbrandsson is a member of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child