Gillian Urqhart, Director of the Moira Anderson Foundation blogs on helping to create a new model of care for children affected by abuse.
Barnahus is a Scandinavian term that most in Scotland will not be familiar with. But that’s all set to change.
The word translates as Children’s House (Barn meaning ‘children’ and Hus meaning ‘house’) and the first Barnahus was founded in Iceland in 1998. Since then many countries have developed their own Barnahus model, most in Scandinavia. Closer to home, an English version of Barnahus called The Lighthouse was launched in London in October 2018.
So what exactly is Barnahus? In simple terms, it is a concept for a child-friendly centre for victims of abuse. Barnahus provides a home-like setting (safe, calm, welcoming) for children to give evidence and receive therapeutic support after disclosure of abuse. Some models are led from a health perspective and incorporate medical/forensic examinations, while others are more aligned with criminal justice.
Since inception in 2000, the Moira Anderson Foundation (MAF) has supported people affected by Child Sexual Abuse. We were instrumental in forming the coalition group, Justice for Children in 2002. The clear message given by the group 17 years ago was that children should be nowhere near a court building.
As Director of the Moira Anderson Foundation (MAF) this subject is close to my heart. I have been in court with children/young people and their families and witnessed the accused do their best to intimidate the victim’s family; menacing stares and threatening gestures. I’ve seen supporters of the accused gather at entrances to the court and wait until the victim and their family leaves, making sure their presence is felt. It can be a horribly frightening and harrowing experience for a child/young person to be involved in a sexual abuse court case. Adults struggle to cope with the pressure. Imagine for a second how terrified a young child might feel! The requirement to tell the story of what happened to them multiple times to different people can leave children confused and can impact on their ability to tell a consistent story, it can also re-traumatise. Dealing with cross-examination during the trial is a horrendous experience for a child.
Childhood Sexual Abuse is a public health issue. The more awareness and understanding there is of the subject and the trauma that survivors deal with, the better. MAF has seen a huge increase in referrals in recent times, we see this as a positive: more people are finding the confidence to speak up.
In October 2016 MAF were involved in an event organised by Children 1st – Justice for Children Conference – Getting It Right For Child Witnesses. The conference examined what Scotland could do to improve the justice system for children and young people. Lord Carloway, who chaired the Evidence and Procedure Review 2015, was a Keynote speaker, as were colleagues from the Barnahus in Oslo. Hearing how the multi-disciplinary approach works in practice terms was very interesting.
Fast forward to 2019 and we’ve seen the Vulnerable Witnesses Bill receive Royal assent in June, there’s no going back! The steps being taken by the Scottish Government are hugely encouraging; there will be obstacles to overcome but nothing insurmountable, there’s proof it can be done.
Draft Standards will be produced by Healthcare Improvement Scotland over the coming months. MAF will continue to support the development of a Barnahus model that fits Scotland, as part of the wider plan to give children/young people the care and support they need to find justice and healing.
We are delighted that MAF will join YouthLink Scotland for our policy seminar on youth justice and youth work on September 18 so if you want to hear more about their projects, including outreach work with the Mungo Foundation and links with practitioners.