Iceland’s model for child abuse victims helps refugees be heard

Iceland's Barnahus model has spread to Sweden and the UK — here's how it helps the most vulnerable victims of child sexual abuse


Walking into the North London offices of The Lighthouse, you’re struck by how light it is. Lamps hang from the ceiling, installed to look like a tree from a children’s book, giving off a warm glow. Cubby hole chairs face away from one another, for maximum privacy for those waiting to be seen.

The Lighthouse is the UK’s first joined-up medical, investigative and emotional support service for children who have experienced sexual abuse. Newly opened in 2018, it’s free at the point of use to all children in need of its services. The integrated unit is a partnership funded by the Home Office, London Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime, NHS England and the Department for Education.

These UK agencies were brought together after it was decided to pilot a UK version of the Barnahus model, which originated in Iceland. The Lighthouse shows that adapting the international Barnahus structure is not just possible, but effective. But can the service really help the most vulnerable children who need specialised support, like refugees?

How Barnahus works

The Barnahus model is often talked about as a “one-stop-shop” for victims or witnesses of violence. Adoptees of the model create a child-friendly hub. Under the same roof, practitioners can interview victims of sexual violence, and host representatives from different state services — social services, medical professionals, psychiatrists, the police and prosecutors — can step in, ideally on the same day.

The idea pivots around a simple hypothesis: that children are at risk of reliving their trauma by retelling their story multiple times to different professionals, in particular if the interviewer lacks the correct training when speaking to children.

“The barrier to talk is in every child”

Children are given, in most circumstances, only one interview, facilitated by a specifically trained interviewer following an evidence-based protocol. The other professionals watch via a video link and offer suggestions to the interviewer, either via earpiece or during a break.

The process changes depending on the country in question; in Sweden, the police run the interview. In Iceland, it is led by a psychologist.

In some states, Sweden among them, a child who has testified in the Barnahus does not then have to go to court to explain their abuse. But UK law means that in The Lighthouse Centre, interviews will be seen as equivalent to one performed by the police, but the child in question still has to be available for examination in court.

How Barnahus helps refugees

While the Barnahus model helps all vulnerable children, it also assists child refugees who have experienced sexual abuse during their journey to their host country. The project was repeatedly highlighted by the Council of Europe’s Lanzarote Committee in its special report promoting measures to protect children affected by the refugee crisis from sexual abuse.

Under the model, all children are treated equally, regardless of their immigration status. “We don’t make a distinction between a refugee child and a national. There’s an obligation to help,” said Olivia Lind Haldorsson, senior adviser and head of the Risk Unit at the Council of the Baltic Sea States, an organisation spearheading the expansion of Barnahus. “All children who are referred to Barnahus will be heard.”

It’s designed to minimise the stress involved for all children, but works especially well for refugees, who are overcoming even more barriers to open up about the abuse they’ve experienced.

“The barrier to talk is in every child,” Lind Haldersson said. In one case, a perpetrator held images of 43 individual children. None of the 37 identifiable victims had disclosed the abuse before they were identified and offered support.

Adapting the model

As different countries interpret the Barnahus model, the approach shifts. Some are taking the approach and shifting it to fit their national policy on child refugees.

Barnahus Iceland, for example, provides specific services for unaccompanied children and children who are asylum-seekers.

“Stories can come out very slowly, as experiences can be so extreme”

The aim is to ensure child-friendly processing of asylum applications to identify any possible trauma and facilitate the assessment of children’s needs. The number of unaccompanied and asylum-seeking children has been low in Iceland but is expected to grow in the future.

If a refugee child is a suspected victim of abuse in their host country, they then undergo the same process as nationals in terms of the interview and the subsequent support received.

Other countries, like Sweden, take a different approach, having put in place national guidelines which include support for children who have been victims of trafficking. The Barnahus response depends on the crime, target group and national guidelines in place.

In the UK, The Lighthouse has so far only had small numbers of refugee children referred to its services. “We don’t have a different approach for refugee children,” said Rob Senior, clinical lead for emotional health and well-being at The Lighthouse. “But it’s important to be very patient. Their stories can come out very slowly, as their experiences can be so extreme.”

For refugee children, it’s also important to consider the role of interpreters in the service to protect the child’s privacy. “Face to face interpreters can be problematic if they’re part of the child’s local community,” said Senior. The service instead started using remote telephone interpreters to translate, to keep an appropriate distance between the translator and child.

Senior’s child-centred and considered approach is part of what makes the Barnahus model special. At its heart, the Barnahus model hears out all children, regardless of status or country of origin, and waits for them to open up. — Emma Sisk

[Photo credit: Rostyslav Savchyn/Unsplash]


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