A Child Friendly Court: Salvadoran Judges Prepare to Build a Justice System that is Quick, Dignified, and Accessible to Children
San Salvador, May 25th, 2010 - When dealing with sexual crimes committed against children, one thinks that the justice system ought to be efficient, timely and accessible to children and their families. Undoubtedly, this is a quality that all systems attending child victims of crimes should have, and in fact, the efforts made by UNICEF El Salvador in this area generally strive to achieve this result. However, one seldom thinks that the judges handling this kind of cases would need to go through a process to prepare them to treat the child in an effective and humane way, respecting their dignity and keeping the justice system itself from re-victimizing them.
In the training rooms of the Supreme Court of Justice of El Salvador, you can see a group of persons seated on the floor, and nobody would guess that they are judges. They are 120 judges from the peace, family and trial courts who are learning non-verbal communication techniques. This effort is part of the preparations for the use of the Gesell Chambers – technological instruments provided by UNICEF with support from the Italian cooperation agency, to avoid the revictimization of children during criminal proceedings
One of the first steps to be taken in preparing legal authorities, to exercise a child-friendly criminal trial is to attempt to get them in touch with their “inner child”, and from there to learn to communicate with the children who come to their courts in a reassuring language that includes looking them in the eyes and talking in a slow and affectionate tone.
A second step is to break down the preconceptions and overcome certain beliefs about child victims. Each girl or boy is different, and when his or her rights, dignity and intimacy are violated, each one is going to react according to the internal resources acquired up to that moment. One cannot judge by appearances only or, indeed, generalize by resorting to psychological mechanisms like the “double bind theory” and “resilience”.
A third step is for the judges to learn to protect themselves from the effects of emotional fatigue produced by permanent contact with pain. All of this is practiced in the simulation exercises carried out in the Gessell Chambers.
For many judiciary workers participating in the training sessions, this was the first time they had been in a space designed expressly for the protection of children. There were manifestations of happiness and pride, and also anticipation at the challenge of taking their new knowledge and the Gessell chamber technology to the farthest corners of the country. Overcoming the distance that is almost insurmountable for those who live in poverty is now one of the challenges facing El Salvador’s justice system. The hope that this model for attention and the use of new tools can reach every child victim was expressed by all the participants in the training processes.
The aforementioned sessions have provided these judges with opportunities for discovery, with a deep sense of the dignity and clear knowledge of the conditions of vulnerability of Salvadoran children. It would be difficult for those who do not know the idiosyncrasy of the Salvadoran population to imagine a woman judge taking the testimony of a three-year-old girl sitting in her lap; a judge who, lacking any other resource, uses his own coat to keep a girl from having to testify in plain view of her aggressor; a judge, almost 80 years old, ordering that handcuffs be removed from young suspects while explaining to them the reasons why they are being tried; or during simulation exercises, a woman judge sitting in the Gessell chamber’s seat, designed for a child, and acting the part of a child abuse victim in a psychodrama, and allowing this to be filmed and used for didactic purposes.
In this interesting process of knowledge transmission and behavioural and attitudinal change, institutional achievements also have been made, reflecting a political decision to make the children’s justice process a dignified and accessible space. One of these achievements is the designation, in the Supreme Court of Justice of El Salvador, of a special floor exclusively for working with children and adolescents.
For more information:
Karla Varela, firstname.lastname@example.org, UNICEF el Salvador
UNICEF is on the ground in over 155 countries and territories to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence. The world’s largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS. UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations and governments.